Interview: John FernandezViper. For Dodge fans, it has come to mean as much as Cobra did to Shelby enthusiasts. A decade ago, Dodge introduced its long-fanged serpent to the masses, seriously affecting how things were done. For instance, platform teams of individuals in different automotive disciplines united and designed vehicles that revolutionized the structure of the company's employees; that came from Dodge Viper's different way of doing things. Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated December 7th was a date that would live in infamy. Now 60 years later to the day, it may become memorable to Chrysler enthusiasts for another reason. In 2001, December 7 was the day DaimlerChrysler's new Performance Vehicles Operations, or PVO, was formally recognized.
The idea was to create a new engineering team combining the Chrysler Group's specialty vehicle and motorsports know-how into a single profitable enterprise. Modeled in some regards on Germany's Mercedes-AMG, which does high-end factory vehicle conversions for that market, and with former AMG Chief Executive Officer Wolfgang Bernhard as its champion (Bernhard is now the Chief Operating Officer at DaimlerChrysler Corporation), the PVO dream gained momentum during 2001.
Its first formal vehicle release (following final work on the new Viper platform) is the turbocharged Neon-based SRT-4, already in the pilot stage and available to the public in 2003. There is the Ram SRT-10, slated for release even sooner, and long-range planning includes a plethora of performance cars the likes of which we've not seen before, even in the musclecar era. Every PVO release will be the equivalent of a Hurst Hemi A-Body; performance is the reason for its creation and existence. Beyond that, these cars will be known for their as-built racing technology with a vast array of people and technology behind each product.
PVO is based out of a corporate building on Featherstone Road, about a mile from the towering DaimlerChrysler Tech Center (DCTC) in Auburn Hills, Michigan. PVO takes up about 40 percent of this building, sharing space with fleet services, a factory training center, and a call center. It encompasses a large garage area and fabricating shop; CATIA rapid prototyping capability; various departments for chassis, powertrain, electrical, and body development and engineering; conference rooms; and laboratories. Powertrain and vehicle testing are handled here at Auburn Hills, on the company's Chelsea and Arizona Proving Grounds, and at the Nelson Ledges race facility in Ohio, where the LeMans Viper engines were endurance-tested.
Recently, we had a chance to sit down with the man given the keys to the corporate candy store, John Fernandez, whose official title is Director of Performance Vehicle Operations. Fernandez has been with Chrysler since 1969, possessing a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet maintaining a cutting-edge attitude about what PVO is going to become in the months and years ahead. He recently granted Mopar Muscle an exclusive interview, which is printed in part here.
Mopar Muscle: Let's begin with how and why PVO got going and what role you played in it.
John Fernandez: PVO's basis came from Team Viper and Team Prowler, formerly called SVE (Specialty Vehicle Engineering), because we knew that something would need to be done once the next-generation Viper was completed. We also knew the Prowler would be going away; we just didn't know when. So the teams had a sort of town meeting and said, "If we want to stay viable, we need some other things to do." So we talked about where we wanted this to go and our options as a new group.
This was initially hard on some of the people because they had been with Team Viper since the beginning. The reality was that once the new car was done, it would not need 129 people-70 of them would be going home. That's why we decided to become something more.