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‘Vipers’ for Sale in New Hampshire

May 26, 1998

LACONIA, N.H. (AP) _ Tourists have come to Lake Winnipesaukee for years to swim and boat and fish, not to buy cars. But Dan Fitzgerald is changing that.

He has made little Laconia, population about 16,000, a world sales center for one of the most expensive cars built in America _ the Dodge Viper _ a modern-day Batmobile without the gadgets and frills.

On one recent day, the son of a wealthy Arab strolled around Fitzgerald’s new $1 million showroom, picking out one of the sleek muscle cars with a 450-horsepower engine and $70,000 sticker. On other days, orders come in by telephone and fax from around the United States and throughout the rest of the world.

Although Chrysler Corp. doesn’t keep records on used car sales, Fitzgerald said he has sold more than 500 new and used Vipers since Dodge began selling the car in 1993. He figures that makes him the top volume dealer in the world.

Last year, he said he sold 64 new Vipers, compared with 48 sold by a dealer in Roanoke, Ill., outside of Peoria.

``It’s pretty incredible if he has sold 500,″ said Chrysler spokesman Jeff Leestma in Detroit. ``It certainly would make him one of the top dealers in the country.″

Chrysler has sold about 7,000 new Vipers in the five years of the car’s limited production.

``It’s such a specialty item, few dealers bother,″ said Fitzgerald, who was selling speed cars out of his used car dealership in Manchester in the 1960s before the gasoline crunch of the early ’70s killed the market.

When he opened his dealership, Fitzgerald Dodge Isuzu, in Laconia and Dodge came out with the Viper, he and the car were a perfect match.

At 58, stocky and wearing glasses, Fitzgerald doesn’t look the part of a Viper man. But it is in his blood.

Taking a photographer for a ride, he plunked a $100 bill on the dashboard and said, ``If you can lean forward and grab it after we get going, you can have it.″

Then he floored it, and the V10 engine took the car to 60 mph in four seconds. The bill remained untouched.

In road tests, the Viper has reached 195 mph.

The low-slung, six-speed Viper, which comes as a roadster or coupe is the fastest American-built street car ``hands down,″ Fitzgerald said.

Distinctive air vents on the hood and side cool the engine for more speed. The 8.0-liter, 488 cubic inch engine is one of the biggest made, though it is relatively quiet. The 18-inch wide tires are comparable to those on Indianapolis-type racing cars.

It still manages about 11 miles to a gallon of gasoline in the city, 21 on the highway.

It’s the kind of car that people point to and can’t take their eyes off, a ``follow-you-home type of car,″ Fitzgerald said.

It certainly isn’t because of the luxuries _ no reclining seats or cruise control, and air conditioning and power windows became part of the package only a few years ago. The 1998 model came in only two colors _ shiny red or silver with blue stripes down the topside.

To be a major dealer, Fitzgerald said he spends about $10,000 a month advertising Vipers all over the world.

``It takes dedication. I know the car inside and out. I know the buyers,″ he said.

He also sits on the largest nest of Vipers outside of Detroit, he said. He keeps about 20 on hand, new and used. The latter start at $42,500.

Other Dodge dealers might keep one or two because of the cost, he said. It can double the inventory of a regular dealership, and double the overhead, he said. A certified Viper mechanic also is required.

``I didn’t even consider the risk,″ Fitzgerald said of his inventory of exotic cars, which can total $3 million in Vipers, Porsches, BMWs, Mercedes’ and Corvettes.

The Vipers, however, are the showcase attraction, filling the showroom that faces the main street in Laconia; others are in a downstairs showroom that faces the lake. This summer, Viper enthusiasts will be able to travel by boat into Fitzgerald’s new marina at the back of the showroom.

The target is ``the high rollers from Massachusetts,″ he said. ``I don’t know of any other exotic car store with lake access.″

Viper owners range from wealthy foreign students to doctors and lawyers, to Dana Barros of the Boston Celtics and Mo Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox to Fitzgerald himself. They are the kind of people who plunk down cash.

But not all of them are wealthy. Marilyn Savage is the town clerk in Mont Vernon and president of the region’s Viper Club, which has about 45 members. She and her husband, Peter, an engineer, have one of only 306 green Vipers ever made.

They always liked cars, and when the Viper came out, ``it was like love at first sight,″ she said.

She knows of others ``who barely can afford them, but bought one anyway. They just love the car so much they just had to have one,″ she said.

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