Bringing a car to market is such an astonishingly convoluted task, it’s a wonder that any ever make it through the process. Automobiles are the single most complex consumer good sold, and there are always hundreds of fingers in their developmental pies. From design to engineering to government regulation and the bean counters, it’s no wonder that new models often get watered-down as they move through the multi-year process from initial sketch to assembly line.
When it came time to develop the, the team behind it knew they had to keep the car out of sight — not just from the the rest of the world, but internally, as well. To make that happen, they had to keep its very existence a secret, with core knowledge limited to just a few dozen people. As I learned speaking with several key players in the car’s development, the Demon team accomplished this bit of corporate gamesmanship in a surprising number of ways, many of which I will detail here.
According to FCA’s head of passenger cars, Tim Kuniskis, the car that would become the Dodge Demon was originally signed off on by the product committee back in September of 2015. There, Kuniskis and the committee presented specific performance targets for the proposed model and a basic business case.
It would’ve been fascinating to be a fly on the wall in that boardroom. FCA’s product committee includes lawyers, finance types, and so on, and the idea of presenting such a radical, politically incorrect, single-purpose drag racer surely must’ve raised more than a few eyebrows. But with the early success offresh in the committee’s minds, a budget was hammered out and the improbable program was given the green light.
The Demon started life as a very different automobile, codenamed ADR — American Drag Racer. Despite having quarter-mile superiority firmly in mind, the ADR actually made use of different suspension and powertrain technologies, and had a unique interior. The car got so far along in development that it was actually shown to dealers. The ADR, which Kuniskis describes as “a cool Hellcat Plus” with the target of a low-10-second quarter-mile time, eventually gave way to today’s more extreme Demon.
Kuniskis realized that first and foremost, regardless of any changes or snags in the development process, it was strategically important never to have to ask FCA’s leadership for more money to make the car a reality, if only to avoid bringing up the vehicle’s existence again. The team had to make tough choices in order to keep the project in-budget and under the corporate radar. Plans for the ADR’s new interior were scrapped in order to make room on the balance sheet for an air-chiller system that adds 15 horsepower. Designs for a disconnecting sway bar were broomed to free up money for the car’s novel weight-transfer suspension that enables wheel-standing launches.
And it wasn’t just important to keep the Demon project away from the red pen brigade — the team didn’t want anyone else in the company to know about the car — this was a “need to know” project. A subtle bit of scheduling subterfuge was called for: A lot of people within the company have access to Kunikis’ meetings calendar, as well as those of other team members. All planning meetings related to the car were thus innocuously titled “Special Edition.”
The name-game extended to the heart of the Demon, its 6.2-liter, supercharged 840-horsepower V8 engine. Referring to the powerplant by a name as in-your-face as “Hellcat” in internal communications would’ve drawn a lot of attention to the program, as would naming it after another warplane, which was also considered.
Chris Cowland, Director of Advanced and SRT Powertrain, came up with a playful moniker that kept the Hellcat’s feline connection: The Demon’s engine was dubbed “Benny,” after Benny The Ball, the pudgy blue sidekick from “Top Cat.” In homage to the cartoon character, Cowland struck a deal with Kuniskis specifying that the production car’s engine block would be painted “Benny Blue” to match its animated namesake.
Being an SRT model, the Demon was largely developed away from Fiat Chrysler’s main campus in Auburn Hills, Michigan, at its SRT headquarters down the street. SRT only has about 45 engineers, but even then, not everyone was aware of the project. Select staffers worked on the model, and Demon-related information was kept on its own server with its own password.
When SRT engineers did have to use non-SRT facilities, such as the engine dynomometers in the Chrysler Technical Center, the trickery continued. Initially, engineers ran test engines on Saturday and Sunday nights, away from prying eyes. They did that until they figured a smarter solution.
According to Cowland, “Just to give you an idea of how paranoid we were […] we actually had all of the instrumentation on the dynos recalibrated.” Basically, his teamed hacked the test-rig readouts to display “707 horsepower” like a standard Hellcat engine, regardless of what power the test engine was actually outputting. That way, passers-by would think the engines being evaluated were standard Hellcat mills. That wasn’t all that was needed — the Demon’s test V8s were so thirsty when running flat-out that they had to be careful not to overwhelm the building’s fuel-delivery system and shut everything down.
Remarkably, the entire SRT team was only informed of the Demon’s incredible performance numbers — 840 horsepower, 770 pound-feet of torque, 9.65-second quarter-mile time, and so on — hours before the April 11 special event ahead of the New York Auto Show where the information was made public.
Of course, automakers don’t develop and manufacture all of a vehicle’s constituent parts in house, they farm out much of the work to suppliers. In order to keep a shroud over the Demon program, outside firms weren’t given as much information about what they were working on as they would with normal assignments. “It was a very different approach,” notes Cowland. “We baked it down to the only technical parameter that they needed to know in order for them to engineer their individual part.” For example, “The guys who did the supercharger were given one airflow number, and nothing else,” said Cowland. All the simulator work needed to determine which parts were necessary was done internally.
As I noted at the beginning of this story, when most new cars progress through the development process, they get subtly watered down. Appearances are dialed back in search of broader customer appeal. Features are removed to control costs or limit build complexity. Performance targets are relaxed to preserve reliability. That didn’t happen here.
Admittedly, one important planned feature didn’t make it to production: Cowland didn’t get his blue engine block. FCA didn’t have a suitable shade of paint that had already been validated for the performance rigors of a high-temperature engine bay. But a few licks of blue paint seems to be about the only thing that Cowland and Kuniskis failed to to get in their.
That’s what makes this car so remarkable. During the Demon’s development process, it didn’t get diluted. On the contrary, as it morphed from American Drag Racer to Demon, it was distilled to an even stronger, higher-proof formula.
In the automotive world, that’s incredibly hard to do… even when you do it in secret.