The Viper was initially conceived in late 1988 at Chrysler's Advanced Design Studios. The following February, Chrysler president Bob Lutz suggested to Tom Gale at Chrysler Design that the company should consider producing a modern Cobra, and a clay model was presented to Lutz a few months later. The car appeared as a concept at the North American International Auto Show in 1989. This concept vehicle was originally named Copperhead because of its low, wide appearance characteristic of reptiles. All engines for the Viper have since been known as "copperhead". The name would later be changed to Viper. Public reaction was so enthusiastic, that chief engineer Roy Sjeoberg was directed to develop it as a standard production vehicle.
Sjoberg selected 85 engineers to be "Team Viper", with development beginning in March 1989. The team asked the then-Chrysler subsidiary Lamborghini to cast some prototype aluminum blocks based on Dodge's V10 truck engine for sports car use in May. The production body was completed in the fall, with a chassis prototype running in December. Though a V8 was first used in the test mule, the V10, which the production car was meant to use, was ready in February 1990.
Official approval from Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca came in May 1990. One year later, Carroll Shelby piloted a pre-production car as the pace vehicle in the Indianapolis 500 race. In November 1991, the car was released to reviewers with first retail shipments beginning in January 1992.
The first prototype was tested in January 1989. It debuted in 1991 with two pre-production models as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 when Dodge was forced to substitute it in place of the Japanese-built Stealth because of complaints from the United Auto Workers, and went on sale in January 1992 as the soft roofed RT/10 Roadster.
The centerpiece of the car was its engine. It was based on the Chrysler LA design, which was a truck engine. The original configuration made it too heavy for sports car use, so Lamborghini, then owned by Chrysler Corporation, revamped Dodge's cast-iron block V10 for the Viper by recasting the block and head in aluminum alloy. Some within Chrysler felt the pushrod two-valve design, while adequate for the truck application, was unsuitable for a performance car and suggested a more comprehensive redesign which would have included four valves per cylinder. Chrysler, however, was uncertain about the Viper's production costs and sales potential and so declined to provide the budget for the modification.