Chrysler hand paints its Viper sports cars – USA TODAY
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Ask Jennifer Trathen about why she inspects the freshly painted body panel of a SRT Viper supercar so meticulously, and she doesn’t miss a beat.
“I’m OCD,” she says.
While it appears unlikely that she actually has obsessive-compulsive disorder, Trathen makes her point. She is among the last to scrutinize every square inch of glistening paint on the carbon-fiber hoods, roofs, fender or other body panels destined to become one of the the hottest cars on the planet.
That’s how it goes here at an auto-industry supplier called Prefix Coatings, operating from a former Kmart store about five miles from headquarters of Chrysler Group, maker of the SRT Viper.
Unlike the robotic painting that characterizes mass-market auto production nowadays, Prefix workers painstakingly mask, sand, paint and polish each part by hand.While it might take about eight hours for the painting process at a regular auto plant, it takes up to 120 hours to paint a Viper at Prefix.
Racing stripes alone, if the buyer orders them, require multiple coats and 18 hours. But the result is a perfectly smooth finish, unlike the surface variation of the typical vinyl stripes pasted on after a car is painted.
The plant paints the panels for only six Vipers a day, showing how a company can succeed with small-volume, high-end products. Chrysler sold just 591 of the about $100,000-to-start Vipers last year, according to Autodata.
The two-seater from Chrysler’s SRT (for Street and Racing Technology) brand is built largely of light carbon fiber and aluminum and has an 8.4-liter, 10-cylinder engine that develops 640 horsepower. Now in its fifth generation, it’s a small-volume “halo car” that showcases the automaker’s best. No detail is overlooked, especially paint.
Two of the special paint options, both done at Prefix, are on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. One, a deep and highly polished limited-edition color announced last week, is called Stryker Green. The other is a matte metallic gray.
The challenge with Viper is to find colors and paint techniques that bring out the car’s sensuous, complex curves. “It’s really hard to do color on the Viper because it’s such a great design,” says Jim Parker, senior design manager in Chrysler’s Color Studio. “I’m not sure you could put Viper colors on normal cars.”
The original Viper appeared in 1992, but it was just a year ago when the first version designed under Chrysler’s new Fiat management appeared. The original only came in red; by 2010, it had in 10 colors.
For the newest design, Chrysler aimed to keep it thoroughly American but add some European refinement. One way was to raise the level of the finish.
It also was decided to offer a special launch color option, and Parker came up with a ruby red with silver undertones called Stryker Red. Red was iconic for Viper, and Parker says he also had been fascinated by the look of liquid mercury. His Stryker Red limited-edition combined the two — and tacked $14,600 on to the price. Only 57 were made.
Chrysler and Prefix officials say the cost reflects the difficulty and time in applying the special red. The new Stryker Green, which takes six hours longer than other finishes, is $5,700 extra.
Vipers are bought mostly for weekend and track fun — a typical owner racks up only about 2,000 miles a year — and buyers want it to be special. “They want style, they want performance, and they want exclusivity,” says SRT spokeswoman Dianna Gutierrez. “They don’t want to see the next car on the road like them.”
To help achieve that exclusivity, Chrysler turned to a custom builder with experience in making concept cars or other prototypes. Prefix had been around since 1979, owned by Kim Zeile, and had worked with Chrysler.
“We knew they were going to bring the next Viper out. We said we’d like to be involved,” says Alan Eggly, the plant’s general manager. After all, “we’re Viper guys.”
With the deal closed, Prefix acquired the vacant Kmart to be a painting center. It now has 120 employees.
Every Viper body comes to Prefix as a set of primed carbon-fiber parts. The finish process begins with sanding, using grits as fine as 600. Workers mask off areas that aren’t to be painted, including an elaborate process for the cars with racing stripes; workers such as Dan Leija use special jigs to make sure the stripes align over multiple panels.
The cars then get coats of paint and clear coat by hand in six spray booths. Only then do they come to the “finesse room” for final sanding, polishing and inspection. Viper Chief Engineer Graham Henckel says he looks for “depth and flop,” meaning the richness of the coats and how they reflect the complexity of the color over the curves of the car.
Eventually, the panels come to workers such as Trathen, who hunt down and fix any imperfection before they got to Chrysler’s Conner Avenue plant in Detroit, where the cars are assembled.
She says she looks for any signs of overspray, dried paint debris or the need for a touch-up. It’s not just being “OCD” for her, but pride in getting it right.
“It’s got my name on it,” she says.