Past Forward

Misunderstood and derided by many, the Chrysler PT Cruiser was a brave if misconceived attempt to bring something different to the automotive landscape.

(c) honestjohn

The PT Cruiser should have been a Plymouth, had that failing marque not been put out of its misery by Daimler-Chrysler in 2001 following the 1998 Merger of Equals of the US and German automakers. Chrysler’s traditional entry-level brand had fallen into a serious decline in the last decade of the 20th Century. Its limited range largely comprised badge-engineered variants of other Chrysler group products, including the Voyager and Grand Voyager minivans, and the Neon compact and Breeze mid-size saloons, all of which were comfortably outsold by their Chrysler or Dodge branded stablemates.

The only distinctive and unique model marketed under the Plymouth brand was the Prowler, a wildly styled retro two-seater convertible harking back to the 1930’s hot rod era. This was very much a niche offering and only 11,702 were sold over a five-year period from 1997 to 2002. However, its undoubted appeal led Chrysler product planners to wonder if its style could be reprised in a more mainstream offering in order to give Plymouth a much needed stronger identity.

1997 Plymouth Prowler

Launched in 2000 as a 2001 model, the PT Cruiser was, in engineering terms, a resolutely conventional FWD five-door hatchback, but its retro styling allowed it to be significantly taller than its competitors, to the benefit of passenger and luggage accommodation. To these eyes at least, the design successfully combines retro elements like the narrow upright grille, V-shaped bonnet and visually (if not actually) separate front and rear wings with a boxy and practical cabin.

Engines were a standard 2.4 litre 150bhp petrol for the North American market and a 2.0 litre 140bhp petrol and Mercedes-Benz 2.2 litre 119bhp diesel for overseas markets. The PT Cruiser was built in Toluca, Mexico for North America and Graz, Austria from 2002 for overseas markets.

A two-door convertible version of the PT Cruiser was offered from late 2003. This had a power operated hood which could be lowered in just 10 seconds (although it had then to be manually covered with a large tonneau cover and took up a lot of boot space). The convertible came with the option of turbocharged versions of the 2.4 litre engine, offering either 180 or 220bhp. These engine options were also now offered on the five-door model.

The 220bhp engine with a five-speed manual gearbox was capable of a 0 to 100kph (62mph) time of 7.6 seconds according to Autocar when it tested the PT Cruiser Convertible GT in February 2004. The reviewers were actually rather impressed by the convertible. It used the cavernous interior space of the five-door to good effect and still had plenty of legroom for rear seat passengers: 254mm (10”) more than the contemporary New Beetle convertible.

A stout rollover hoop was intended to preserve body rigidity and was profiled to improve airflow with the hood down, although rear seat passengers were still buffeted when travelling at speed. The cabin was surprisingly refined when the thick three-layer hood was in place. The car suffered from torque-steer and the stiffened ride on 17” wheels was brittle, but it was still an engaging drive.

2005 Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible (c) en.wheelsage.org

Changes during the PT Cruiser’s ten-year life were limited to engine and minor trim upgrades, although it did receive a significant facelift in late 2005. Post-facelift models are easily identifiable by their ‘peanut’ shaped headlamps and a redesigned front valance. This no longer continues the former ‘U’ shaped grille below the bumper and instead has a wide horizontal slot. Later in the model’s life various special edition versions were offered to stimulate interest and sales.

Autocar tested the facelifted PT Cruiser five-door in November 2005. The 2.2 litre diesel engine had been upgraded to produce 148bhp and 221lb/ft of torque and was quiet and refined in operation. The testers commented that the road noise that had previously plagued the car had been improved, but it still suffered from wind noise and lacked any agility on twisty roads because of too much body roll. They summarised it as “much improved, but still lags well behind the class leaders”.

At least one influential individual was sufficiently impressed by the PT Cruiser that he shamelessly copied it: Bob Lutz, who had been Chrysler’s Head of Global Product Development when the model was designed, went on to commission the Chevrolet HHR after rejoining GM in September 2001 as Vice-Chairman for Product Development. The HHR was extraordinarily similar to the PT Cruiser and even shared its 103” (2,600mm) wheelbase. Bryan Nesbitt, who joined GM from Chrysler in April 2001 as Chief Designer for Chevrolet, is credited with the design of both cars. The HHR was launched in 2005 and achieved sales of 526,813 units over seven years.

2008 Chevrolet HHR (c) goodcarbadcar.net

The PT Cruiser remained on the market for a decade and sold around 1.35 million units, 1.05 million of which were in the US. It was a divisive design, popular with its fans but ridiculed by many others, particularly the convertible version, which was likened to a giant pram. This is somewhat harsh. In some respects, the PT Cruiser was simply ahead of its time. The five-door, with its tall build and capacious interior was a proto-Crossover before that term had been coined. The convertible anticipated the Evoque and T-Roc convertibles by well over a decade, whether you love or hate the latter.

1997 Plymouth Pronto Concept (c) supercars.net

Did Chrysler miss a major opportunity by going so heavily retro with the PT Cruiser? The 1997 Plymouth Pronto concept, on which the PT Cruiser was based, was a rather more sophisticated mix of modernist design with retro elements. That style might have had more potential to develop into a broader range of cars. As it was, the PT Cruiser’s style was never used again (not by Chrysler, at least!) and, weirdly, a certain online encyclopaedia records its successor as being the Fiat 500L.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

33 thoughts on “Past Forward”

  1. I get to see a red one- similar to the first picture but in Ltd spec with 2.4 badging- daily, as a neighbour has one (There must be something about Stalybridge that encourages outside-the-norm car buying, our next door neighbour had two RX8s in a row, there is a Honda CRZ, yes, round the corner, a Smart coupe in the next street and I regularly see both a Rover P6 estate and a white “Morris” ADo22 pootling about).
    While I don’t like the styling I can see why others might, it also wears its considerable heft well and doesn’t look incongruous with a hatchback in the way that the MINI does. Best of all though I can see a great dashboard with three round clocks inset in a 1950’s body coloured strip that looks way more convincing than the same effect on the Fiat 500s dash.
    Overall I think it’s a nice reprise of the time when different countries had different design DNA, I don’t really think we “Get” the trad U.S car style in Europe even though manufacturers have tried to copy it occasionally and I see the PT as a last flourish for “Detroit”before all cars started to look like they were designed by the same people in the same room eating the same snacks.

    1. There are at least three in my corner of North-East Derbyshire, one of which has been highly customised, so it’s not just Stalybridge…. With eyes half closed, I can almost – but only almost – imagine something very similar emerging from a factory in Bradford, had things turned out differently. Powered by a flat six, of course.

  2. The PT Cruiser was a wasted opportunity, like many others in the history of the (not only US) automotive industry.
    Another story of would have, would be, if.

    The Prowler would have laid a good foundation for Plymouth’s new design language and direction. Away from the entry-level brand, towards something more upmarket.
    A brand in a clearly defined niche, where one could have reached almost 100% of the potential customers without having to compete with brothers and sisters outside this niche for the same group of buyers.

    The Prowler was a classic “halo” model (I can use this word, now that I know what it means, haha) and the Pronto study had everything to transfer its nimbus to a smaller vehicle.

    In the end, the production car was again a half-baked realisation of what would have been possible.
    It wasn’t just the messed up headlights and the lack of the (grey) two-piece bumpers. The chassis, the cheap build quality, the loveless interior, all this still reeked of the former entry-level brand and the fact that Chrysler didn’t really know what they wanted.
    The bean counters of this world with their Excel sheets don’t see the vision and the possibility even when it’s painted in big letters on the floor in front of them.
    That’s why a timid attempt results in a (one-off) product like the PT Cruiser.
    And even such a timid attempt in a half-baked implementation ends up selling more than 1.3 million units. Actually, I think this is a proud result for this kind of niche product.

    The PT Cruiser would not only have needed better quality, but at the latest 1-2 years later a colleague in the vehicle class above it to take the design concept further. For the development and production costs of the convertible, it would almost have been enough for a second model.

    And above all, the PT Cruiser would have needed the Plymouth label, I think. The PT Cruiser did not really fit into Chrysler’s model range right from the start, because even the production car had the original idea of the Prowler.

    But we don’t even want to know what share the barbarians from Untertürkheim, who had already passed through the gate at that point, contributed to the misery.

  3. At the time the PT Cruiser came to the market in the Netherlands, the brand was doing relatively well. It didn’t last. Pretty much the same can be said for the PT Cruiser, it sold well initially and I believe there was even a waiting list for the first 9 months or so these were sold. It outsold the Chrysler Neon by a significant margin over here. I did a brief search for the PT cruiser this afternoon and I can find 197 for sale over here against 5 Neons. Can’t really remember the last time I saw a Neon.

    I’m staying at my mum’s place, sadly my dad passed away earlier this year, but there is a cream PT Cruiser convertible over here in the village somewhere as well as a cream over caramel HHR van. Both rare sights.

    Wishing everyone a great Sunday

    1. Condolences on your father’s passing, Freerk. It’s been a tough year.

    2. Thank you, Eóin an Daniel. The last couple of years have been really hard over here. Things will improve.

    3. Please accept my condolences, too, Freerk. My experience has been that it has taken me three or four years to really come to terms with my father’s death. Apparently that’s not uncommon, and it varies, of course.

      My father was a bit of a character, and when I told one of his friends that he’d died, his friend replied “I didn’t think that was his sort of thing”. That observation makes me smile to this day.

    4. Thanks, Charles. That was a nice observation 🙂 I can very well imagine it makes you smile to this day.

    5. I feared the PT cruiser had disappeared, but today I saw it again.

  4. Richard Sennett made favourable mention of the P/T Cruiser in his rather over-cited book the “Craftsman”.
    For me the problem with the P/T cruiser was the way the roof´s peak lay too far back. And the other problem related to the horrible interior. Rather misleadingly, simple or bold interiors require a lot of subtle work to make them look acceptable. Dieter Rams did a food mixer which only looks like it is simple; in fact every line and radius is nuanced. The P/T cruiser interior is what a journeyman designer thinks is minimal but she or he is not seeing with her or his eyes but seeing the idea in their head. It´s a cargo cult idea of the simple, bold interior (and might have been exactly what my 27 year-old self would have produced if I´d been given production assistance to realise my bad idea).

    1. Hi Richard, The roof issue is because despite what Chrysler wanted us to think*, both the Prowler and the PT Cruiser were inspired by Fords, in the PT Cruiser’s case it’s the 1937 “Slantback”.

      It’s near impossible to find a picture of one that hasn’t been hot rodded, often with the rear raised to exaggerate the unusual roof profile. And that was the point, that roof profile a feature, not a bug! Chrysler’s design director at that time: Tom Gale was known to have been enamoured of 1930s hot rods, and generally speaking that means Fords.

      Now add Jürgen Schrempp and you’ve got a classic… non-sequiter, and just one part of a very sad tale.

      *Airflow shmareflow! believe your eyes.

  5. This reminds me of the days when the UK magazines breathlessly talked of a design revival in the US. That was the last roar of the US car industry from a design stand-point. There was some buzz around Cadillac in the 00s. One could point a finger at Tesla. Their cars appeal to their customers and the design strategy works. What they are not is expressive of rigorously executed, relevant, acceptable originality. To be fair, there´s not a lot of that on this side of the mid-Atlantic ridge either. There are brights spots (Ford surfacing, Peugeot grilles, Renault form language) yes, just as there are in the US but nothing to make me wet my pants. I think the Japanese are doing the most original work now; it´s limitation is the narrowness of its appeal. I like it but think many non-Japanese wouldn´t.

  6. An interesting article that succeeded in making me reappraise this car. It’s not for me but I can see it being for someone and the original design was a coherent whole (high praise in the context of the current car design landscape). The facelift spoiled the front end very effectively.

  7. The PT was a trend-setter, and makes me grateful that Rover were in no fit state to have a go at a retro retread of the Morris Minor, which this somewhat resembles.

    It’s odd how pretty much all manufacturers seem to go through a retro-futuristic stage. Renault is one of the few, older brands which I can think of which hasn’t rummaged through its past designs catalogue.

    1. Charles – Renault were not immune. There was the rather nice Fiftie, although they didn’t have the nerve – or possibly money – to put it into production:

      I suppose the Alpine A110 could also be considered to very late to the party retro.

    2. Hello Robertas – yes, you’re right. I’d forgotten that one. And I’d include the Alpine, too, as you say. As a designer, i guess it must be fun to revisit old designs.

  8. Thanks all for your comments. Richard, I hadn’t really noticed before, but you’re right, the rising roofline does look a bit odd:

    It also explains why they looked so tall when sitting in front of you in traffic. More generally, the PT Cruiser once again suggests that retro design is ultimately a dead-end unless you can find a way to evolve it. Even though it’s a bit of a rip-off, I actually prefer the 1950’s look of the Chevrolet HHR.

    Interestingly, MINI are promising that the next Hatch will be smaller than the current model. Hopefully, that will mean better packaging because rear seat legroom is still marginal behind a 5’11’ (180cm) tall driver in the current model. If it could look a bit prettier as well, that would be a bonus.

    1. BTW, the “PT” designation is for “Plymouth Truck”. Here’s another hot rodded ’37 Ford slantback for comparison:

      “HHR” is for “Heritage High Roof”. In this case the heritage was the brand’s own:

  9. Oe of the reasons that the PT made it to production is that the NHTSA classified it as a light truck, so it didn’t hit the division’s CAFE (corporate average fuel economy- the real reason the Cadillac Cimmaron came to market) numbers. Once when it first came out a friend was given one as a rental because she had a reservation and they literally had that and a Lincoln SUV the size of a building on the lot for her. The PT looked good, but the interior was dreadful even by mid 2000 US standards- I think the dash might have been made from old Samsonite luggage and the seats from the linings. It also was woefully underpowered. It would have been better if we had the diesel- I could forgive dog-slow acceleration if I was getting stellar gas mileage.

    The HHR had the moniker “Chevrolet Me-Too Cruiser” when it came out.

  10. gooddog – “PT” designation is for “Plymouth Truck”.

    Oddly the question of the PT initials came up in Autocropley’s Christmas Quiz (not a patch on Daniel’s) and they say it’s “Personal Transport”. Wikipedia agrees with you on “Plymouth Truck”.

    A quick look into Allpar came up with this from Chris Theodore, Car Development Leader for the PT Cruiser project, interviewed by Marc Rozman in 2012:

    “The code name for the 2000 Neon was PL, and the plan called for a “tall” version of the PL, so its code name was PT [P Tall]. I’m not sure where the “Cruiser” came from, but I think it may have been on Brian Nesbitt’s original sketch. Some people tried to add meaning to the PT, after the fact, for “Personal Transport,” but that never stuck. Finally, remember that it was supposed to be a Plymouth PT Cruiser!”

    1. I had the experience (‘pleasure’ might be overstating things somewhat ) of driving a Neon for a day when our Jeep Cherokee was in for a service. It was grey outside, grey inside and drove, stopped and steered as expected, but was the very epitome of car as domestic appliance. That said, it wasn’t unpleasant, was quite neatly styled and had one very surprising feature: frameless door windows:

      Amazingly,there was a Mk2 version, which lost this sole distinctive feature.

    2. Robertas – I guess you have seen what has happened at Allpar? Thankfully, the new owners have preserved articles from the old site as forum topics (under “Allpar.com Content”) though they’re buried deep in the mishegoss.

      Yes, I’d lean toward a primary source, thanks for your research.

  11. I love the PT Cruiser (pre-facelift) and also the Prowler and HHR. The evolution of car styling has passed its’ peak, so going backwards is a good option. These days legislation, perceived safety, and frugality of resources are the factors pushing style changes, cars haven’t become more modern since the 1990s.

    1. Mervyn: some important parameters were gradually optimised. The packages were settled at FWD and transverse water cooled engines and the silhouette reached a point of maximum smoothness (the Primera Mk2 was the epitome of the car-decked-in-snow silhouette). Legislation has mostly affected the front, raising bonnet lines. Thus distinction came to be expressed in scultpure (hence all the busy bodysides) and front and rear graphics (busy). “Modernism” in cars also went against the conservatism that has emerged in customer tastes. “Modernism” in cars involved a certain amount of palatable wierdness such as Citroen championed. It was also evinced in the kind of austere styling purity that Mercedes and BMW and Audi pursued. Neither of these two modes go down well now. What is the wierdest car on sale? I think it´s Toyota´s C-RV. Perhaps Volvo´s S90 is the cleanest car out there right now. I can´t think of others. Perhaps we should give BMW a rose for their i3 which is definitely Modern , inside and out. And that´s your lot.

  12. Was under the impression the 1997 Plymouth Pronto concept much smaller hatchback compared to the proto-crossover PT Cruiser despite both using similar Neon-derived underpinnings.

    The 1997 Plymouth Pronto concept together with the 1999 Chrysler Java concept would have made for a more complete range outside of the US market, the latter was Tritec powered and featured similar a body that anticipated the 2002 Mitsubishi Colt / 2004 Smart Forfour.

    1. Hi Bob. I wasn’t familiar with the Java concept, but it really is rather nice:



      It also looks perfectly feasible for production too.

    2. The Java is very nice indeed. I searched out more details, and came across a programme about the 1999 Frankfurt show. The Java and the rest of the Chrysler range is shown from 7.20 onwards.

      It also shows the Opel G90 concept, which I’d forgotten about. Looks like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole, again.

    3. It is nice all things considered, find it difficult to believe it is not related to the Colt / Forfour given the similarities.

      Maybe Chrysler’s plan for a hypothetical production Java was to either carry over the same engines as the Colt / Forfour, fully utilize the 1.4-1.6 Tritec or some compromised solution involving a 1.6 Tritec at the top and 1.1 3-cylinder / 1.3 4-cylinder Mitsubishi units beneath it.

  13. A few years ago I kept a PT Cruiser at my mother’s house in America for whenhandling and ed.
    Having grown up there in the forties and fifties guess the styling reminded of those times. I really liked the retro shape and mine being high gloss black all the curves and bulges really stood out. I would liked to have blanked off the headlights and mounted two free standing bullit type to ad even more character but alas never did.
    Interiors were very spacious for tall passengers even in the back due to the rising roof while there were more seating configurations than thought possible. Split rear seats double fold forward providing a huge luggage area plus have quick release for easy removal., this same seat slides forward or back providing either added leg or luggage space, front passenger seat back folds forward flat forming a work area,snack table,foot stool etc.
    Rear parcel shelf had three height levels or could be locked into an outer position at standing height with hatch open becoming a picnic table for those tail gate parties!
    This compact car absorbed road imperfections like a luxury model, had great handling, pin sharp rack and pinion steering and was quiet and comfortable.
    One car I would own again.

    1. Hi DGatewood. Nice to hear a positive review from someone who has experience of the PT Cruiser, so thank you for sharing your experiences.

  14. A few years ago I kept a PT Cruiser at my mother’s house in America for when I visited.
    Having grown up there in the forties and fifties guess the styling reminded of those times. I really liked the retro shape and mine being high gloss black all the curves and bulges really stood out. I would liked to have blanked off the headlights and mounted two free standing bullit type to ad even more character but alas never did.
    Interiors were very spacious for tall passengers even in the back due to the rising roof while there were more seating configurations than thought possible. Split rear seats double fold forward providing a huge luggage area plus have quick release for easy removal., this same seat slides forward or back providing either added leg or luggage space, front passenger seat back folds forward flat forming a work area,snack table,foot stool etc.
    Rear parcel shelf had three height levels or could be locked into an outer position at standing height with hatch open becoming a picnic table for those tail gate parties!
    This compact car absorbed road imperfections like a luxury model, had great handling, pin sharp rack and pinion steering and was quiet and comfortable.
    One car I would own again.

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