The cars we loved.
Once upon a time the hot rod scene in America was full of improvised crates fitted with home tweaked, high-powered V8 engines. These were simple cars that could be repaired in the parking lot of the local drive-in or burger joint. Those people who fondly remember growing up with Ford and Chevy hot rods of the 50’s and 60’s had no simple modern equivalents by the time that they had reached their golden years. The buzz generated by specials from Boyd Coddington and later Chip Foose heightened the interest from old hot rodders and the young foreign car tuners alike. Some one must have asked what a mass market modern hot rod would look like. Interestingly, it would be Chip Foose whose posed that question to his students while teaching at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design. The class project called the Hemisfear, looked vaugely like an old hot rod, but with modern touches. The project inspired interest beyond Southern California that reached all the way to Detroit. The big question was could it be mass-produced and by whom?
The answer to that question would come oddly from Chrysler, who Neons and rental car grade Stratuses seemed to be everywhere . Beyond the Viper, the resourceful automaker was not always first company to come to mind when the term hot rod is mentioned in the modern context. The company, seemingly always on the brink of bankruptcy or rebirth made a name for itself with scrappy turbocharged fours during the 80’s. Kicking butt all the way to the bank, with a little help from its friends (Mitsubishi). By the late 90’s another performance renaissance had been spearheaded by the Viper, Stealth and Talon. Always the design trendsetter, Chrysler helped popularize the retro boom in America and was looking to combine it’s advanced computer aided design and manufacturing processes learned from the Viper on a new project.
As looking back for design inspiration was gaining steam, Chrysler was banking on the PT Cruiser (Plymouth Truck) to aid in revamping the sagging fortunes of its Plymouth brand. In addition, a new halo car for the revamped Plymouth would be a specialty performance car crafted in the mold of an old 50’s hotrod. It would be called the Prowler. With its open wheel design and menacing profile, the name was fitting. Chrysler gave the engineering team free rein to develop something Foose like, but at a more affordable price point. As a result the Prowler would be a parts bin shopper, but with creative touches to separate it from most any car ever sold from Chrysler or any other mainstream American manufacturer for that matter. First shown as a concept at the North American International Car Show in Detroit in 1993, the actual production car was almost unchanged, saved for the engine. The look of the Prowler stayed the same throughout its production run with mostly under the hood changes. As interesting as the Prowler was, it would not be enough to save the ailing Plymouth division.
As it turned out the decision to slowly dismantle Plymouth meant the PT Cruiser would be branded a Chrysler while the Prowler would continue under the Plymouth label as a possible Viper alternative halo car. While the term retro was fitting for the Prowler, then Chrysler chairmen Bob Eaton, hated the term and referred to Chrysler’s new specialty products as Heritage design. Heritage was a fitting term as the Prowler embodied all the best attributes of the scrappy hot rod era with none of the major drawbacks. This was a car that would have all the dependability of a Neon, but with the presence of a Viper or Corvette.
More importantly the Prowler utilized advanced production techniques pioneered with the Viper and carried to their logical evolution. The Prowler’s aluminum body would be crafted in Ohio while final assembly happened in Detroit. The heart of the Prowler would be a 3.5 L V6 borrowed from the LH cars. Initially it had 214 hp, but would see an increase to 253 after 1997. Oddly the car was produced for one year and after a break production resumed in 1999 (presumably to get it right?). The rear wheel drive Prowler would be the back spinner Plymouth since the Grand Fury of 1989.
Engineers would go to great lengths to maintain light weight and an ideal 50/50 weight balance. The transmission was at the rear and a special adaptive drive shaft was installed that was similar to setups in the Corvette and the Porsche 944. The suspension was exotic car like too with exposed upper and lower control arms up front in an open wheel design. A classic independent double-wishbone setup in the rear aided handling and stability on all but the most tortured roads. The interior was a remix of LH and Neon parts. The resulting cockpit had go-cart simplicity with only a tach gauge in front of the driver while all other instruments were centered over the main console. The emphasis on the tach was odd considering that only automatic transmissions were offered. The look was a simple, almost elegant if you ignored the few lower end materials shared with the Neon. The low slung driver position still offered good visibility with the manually operated soft top up.
Initial reviews of the 97’ Prowler with the less powerful engine were mixed due to the lack of power and the four speed automatic transmission (no manual was ever offered). One publication, Time magazine hastily named the Prowler one of the 50 worst Automobiles of all time. It’s rough ride and sharp handling were very much in the spirit of a true hot rod, but Chrysler would address those media criticisms when the car reappeared in 1999. With the ride improved and horsepower up to 253, the Prowler had become something of a sports car bargain. At nearly $40,000, it was not cheap but was still less than the Viper, even with the $5,000 factory “trailer” option. Speaking of options, there were few from the factory, prompting third-party companies to fill the void with a sizable list of accessories to improve performance, looks and convenience.
Still with only an automatic transmission, the four speed auto stick was tuned to shift aggressively giving the driver more a sense of the power of the returned engine. Production number peaked to 2,631 units in 2000 and would drop off dramatically to 516 when production ended in 2002. A total of 11,702 cars were produced during the short run, making the Prowler rare enough for collector status, but not completely unobtainable to the casual consumer. Although not perfect, the Prowler proved that Chrysler could pull all sorts of tricks out of its hat while still producing reliable cost-effective cars. It was hoped that the technology used in the Prowler’s production process would be applied to future Chrysler products, yielding interesting limited production cars. Although the hits kept coming for Chrysler, it has yet to produced a car quite as unique as the Prowler.