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The 1990s Plymouth Prowler: America’s only production hot rod
It was “a rolling celebration of libido” (Washington Post), “a street rod named desire” (New York Times), and “America’s most outrageous automobile” (Automobile). Its father, Chrysler design chief Tom Gale, was “a rebel with a cause” (Christian Science Monitor). In the annals of the American car business, no automobile has a story quite like that of the Plymouth Prowler, perhaps the nuttiest idea since the Stout Scarab. From the day the concept Prowler appeared in January 1993, the car stunned the public and the industry press. Whether it was grandiloquent, sublime, pointlessly nostalgic, or just plain absurd depended on the beholder, but all could agree that, in the words of Chrysler’s then president, Robert A. “Bob” Lutz, “it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.” Kevin Verduyn, one of the Prowler’s key designers, was equally succinct: “No mainstream car company had ever done anything this bizarre.”
The Prowler’s story began in the executive offices of Chrysler Corporation’s former headquarters in Highland Park, Michigan. It was 1992, and the retiring Lee Iacocca, the company’s public face and driving force, was ceding control. Although the public considered Iacocca’s 13-year tenure a staggering success, he was leaving behind a company once again in trouble, still dependent on the successful but staid K-cars and minivans it had been peddling since the 1980s. Japan had all but eaten Detroit’s lunch, and Chrysler as always trailed in last place among the Big Three. Wall Street was restless; the company’s stock price had dipped from $30 to under $15 between January 1989 and the start of 1992.
However, there were plans. Chrysler had radically rebodied a platform it had inherited from American Motors and was about to launch it for 1992 as a trio of mid-size sedans called the Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, and Eagle Vision. The success of this “LH” platform, noted the Washington Post, would determine Chrysler’s survival as an independent corporation. “Put it this way,” said one industry analyst quoted by the newspaper, “if they don’t sell, the Titanic has sunk.”
The new sedans were novel and handsome and sold briskly. But lowly Plymouth—since its introduction in 1928, it had been Chrysler’s blue-collar brand to take on Chevy and Ford—was left out of the LH lineup. Dodge had already proved the PR value of a shock auto-show reveal with its 1989 Viper concept. Plymouth, it was thought, sorely needed something like it to grab the attention of American car buyers—something even more unexpected than Dodge’s V-10–powered Yankee Doodle Lamborghini. Here, in the words of the Prowler’s creators, is how Plymouth got one of the grooviest, goofiest cars ever to emerge from a major automaker.
BOB LUTZ (former Chrysler president): “We wanted to change people’s perception of Chrysler as a boring company that built boring front-wheel-drive sedans; a company where you bought the cars only if you had a big enough rebate. It was like buying bologna at a butcher shop. You just cut it up into various lengths. Would you like a six-inch-long piece of bologna or nine inches? These cars [the so-called K-cars] were basically all the same, and the public wasn’t having it anymore. The press was terrible. Wall Street’s perception was that we had no imagination, no engineering talent. Look at the Japanese. They’re doing these exciting things, and you guys are dead in the water. The only thing we had was the Dodge Viper [it went on sale in 1992]. The Viper had a positive effect on Chrysler’s overall reputation. We demonstrated that we could do something no other American automobile company had ever done. So we told ourselves, Well, that worked, we oughtta do that again but in a slightly different form.”
TOM GALE (former Chrysler head of design and an executive VP who climbed the corporate ladder in the 1980s on the success of the company’s minivans and K-cars): “The Prowler got started at Pacifica, Chrysler’s design studio in Carlsbad, California. We would go out there searching for ideas for concept cars. Most would debut at the Detroit auto show. The guys working at Pacifica were great designers. One who comes to mind is Kevin Verduyn.”
KEVIN VERDUYN (former Chrysler designer at the Pacifica studio): “We were brainstorming. We had hundreds of ideas, all kinds of crazy stuff: edible cars, autonomous cars, cars for every demographic, a real smorgasbord. A student intern [Emile Bouret, who became a designer and artist] suggested a hot rod as a project. Once we gathered these ideas we would go off and sketch on the ones we were interested in. Two times a year we had visits from top management—Tom Gale, Bob Lutz, François Castaing [the company’s chief engineer]. We always looked forward to seeing that group—the dream team, we used to call them, because they were so passionate. I had a couple sketches of the hot-rod project on my wall, and they thought that was really interesting. It coincided with what they wanted to do with Plymouth in terms of marketing. Tom Gale was extremely enthusiastic from day one. He had a hot rod of his own going at the time.”
GALE: “I’d always been interested in hot rods. In 1990–91, right around the time the Prowler project began, I was sketching my own hot rod. Ultimately, the one I built was based on a 1933 open-wheel roadster. At Pacifica, we kept the hot-rod idea cooking on the back burner.”
VERDUYN: “The build of the concept car took about a year. Eventually, we got to a full-size clay model. That took a lot of twists and turns. We had to decide whether it was going to have a top or not and how close it was going to be to the iconic hot rod, the ’32 Ford. That’s what’s so ironic about the whole thing. The core idea was the ’32 Ford [Ford being, of course, the competition]. I know Tom had a hot rod of his own going, and I could tell he was always comparing what he was doing with what we were doing. He was a strong advocate and a hot rodder himself, so it was the perfect car for him. He had the power to make this happen or not.”
The Prowler got its name, and its “crouching cat” logo, during caffeine-fueled brainstorms at Pacifica. The concept car debuted at the Detroit show in 1993, and it was a sensation. Mobs formed around it, cameras flashing. AutoWeek named it “Most Fun in Show.” Journalist and car historian Matt DeLorenzo, who was then AutoWeek’s editor, remembers: “When the cover came off, nobody expected this. Nobody thought a manufacturer would do something like this—a hot rod. Especially with cycle fenders. The original concept was very cool. It kind of blew us away.” Chrysler had debuted its Dodge Viper as a concept in 1989 and brought the car to market in January 1992. Would the Prowler follow the same trajectory? Would Chrysler actually build the first-ever production hot rod?
GALE: “Management knew what we were doing. They knew it was coming. The Prowler team was led by Craig Love, a wonderful engineer. He had the responsibility of making it happen.”
CRAIG LOVE (former Chrysler VP of engineering): “There was this sense that the Viper had done good things for Dodge, so maybe we could give Plymouth a shot in the arm. We got a handful of guys to try to put together a business case. The concept was a running car, but this study required us to build another running prototype. I remember the day we took Bob Eaton [who had taken over as chief executive after Iacocca left], Lutz, Castaing, and Gale for rides in it. We discussed the business case and decided, Hey, let’s go for it.”
LUTZ: “Bob Eaton was chairman and I was president. He left the operations side to me. The only thing he said was, ‘We’re not going to increase the capital budget for this.’ I said, ‘No, that won’t be necessary. It will be minimal investment.’ Which it was, because we went to great efforts to use parts from a lot of other Chrysler vehicles.”
VERDUYN: “I was pretty much done with the project after the concept car, and I never thought they were going to actually build it. I thought: That’s crazy. They’re not serious, are they? There were so many hurdles to get over to make it a reality. It was all extremely unusual, and in a broader sense, it illustrated the shift that Tom Gale was responsible for, to get design more involved in what the company was going to do.”
GALE: “The real reason I wanted the Prowler was, we didn’t have a lot of research at Chrysler. It was all hands on the pump most times, because of the financials. Up until that point we really didn’t have much experience with forming and stamping aluminum, and we decided to make the Prowler a research project for creating a new kind of aluminum car. When you look at the Prowler’s frame, it is a complex series of aluminum extrusions. All that was fairly new at the time.”
LOVE: “Bob Lutz was a dyed-in-the-wool car guy, and he wanted to put a V-8 in. Bottom line: It wouldn’t fit. The Prowler was about achieving a look. We wanted to make it a test bed for lightweight materials, particularly aluminum, while keeping it ‘throttle responsive.’ It became apparent that the combination of the dimensions of the impact-capable extruded-aluminum frame, the triangular front-end shape of the Prowler, and the manufacturer production clearance requirements meant a V-8 wouldn’t fit. But by keeping it light, maximizing the output of the V-6, and tailoring the throttle response curve, we were able to achieve the all-important ‘fun to drive’ quotient.”
LUTZ: “A driving force of the whole project was Tom Gale. I was never a big hot-rod fan. Tom got into the car business because of his interest in hot rods and street performance. He did a ’33 Ford street rod, and it got a lot of recognition. A lot of people design hot rods, but not all of them are decent designers. Tom’s hot rod looked fantastic. He thought, Well, what if we did a modern hot rod with all the modern components that met all safety regulations and so forth? The thinking behind it was: And now, from the incredible Chrysler Corporation, here’s our next number!”
LOVE: “We were organizationally part of the minivan design team. We were constantly shopping their and other teams’ parts bins for parts we could adapt. I want to say the overall budget was about $90 million. That’s not much for a vehicle. The Indy-car suspension, the aluminum frame, the body parts, the convertible top, the lighting—all that was unique to the Prowler. But other parts—radio, power window motor and switches, transaxle, engine, steering wheel and column, air conditioning unit—were borrowed from other bins. We ended up sneaking a V-6 in and put a front-wheel-drive transaxle in back, driving the rear wheels with a small fuel tank on top of the transmission. It became quite a packaging challenge.”
Ramping up for the debut of the production Prowler, Chrysler benefited from a wave of hot-rod enthusiasm that spread across the country like a contagion. “All these hot-rod guys started coming out of the woodwork in the ’90s,” DeLorenzo says. “You had the Boyd Coddingtons of the world building modern hot rods with new engines and brakes, and at the same time, you had guys finding old rods they’d grown up with and restoring them to show quality.” In 1997, hot rods appeared on the lawn for the first time at the Pebble Beach Concours in Monterey.
The production Prowler was built at Detroit’s Conner Avenue assembly plant (Verduyn and Love drove the first one off the line), and it appeared as a 1997 model at the 1996 Detroit show, where, as automotive journalist Paul Eisenstein put it at the time, “the world’s first ‘factory-built hot rod’…was easily the most unusual production vehicle to debut.” The Prowler wore Goodyear rubber and weighed 2800 pounds. Its 3.5-liter 24-valve overhead-cam V-6, rated at 214 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, was borrowed from the LH-sedan platform, and so was the four-speed automatic. Zero to 60 mph went by in seven seconds, and the top speed was 117 mph. The handling was pretty good, but clearly, it was all about the look. The price was $38,300, and the car came in one color, metallic purple, originally developed, but not used, for Tom Gale’s personal hot rod.
GALE: “[At the debut] Bob Eaton drove the car out with Lutz sitting next to him. They were wearing sunglasses, getting into the spirit of the thing. I look back now, and it’s kind of a goofy shtick, but it got all the press there and the flashbulbs going. It was a great time, a proud time, just the fact that we were doing something like that.”
LUTZ: “Bob Eaton and I introduced it. It stunned the crowd.”
LOVE: “I was there, and a bunch of us were watching, all excited. Eaton pointed at us and said, ‘There’s some of the 80-odd people who did this.’ And I thought, Yeah, well… [laughing] we are kind of odd. We were an unusual group. I remember another press conference quote, something like, ‘Some people get the Prowler, some people don’t. We’re building the Prowler for the people who get it, who love it, and who can’t wait to get one.’ ”
VERDUYN: “The concept car was quite different from the production car. All the restrictions on production—crash testing, fitting everything in—made the rear end of the car visually heavy in my opinion, compared to the concept.”
GALE: “The reaction was kind of amazing. We were careful to cultivate to some extent the hot-rod community, because when a big manufacturer comes in, there’s a tendency to think, Oh, boy, these guys are just trying to be crazy and cool. We met with a lot of the leaders of the hot-rod community. We felt it was important to do that, so you weren’t out there poking somebody in the eye.”
KEN GROSS (journalist, curator, historian, hot rodder): “They did a special preview for hot-rod journalists at the Chrysler offices in Auburn Hills. We thought it was an interesting exercise, because they managed to have a quasi-fenderless car with bumpers that passed whatever the regulations were. But it was never a car a serious hot rodder would want. The thing about it that none of us liked was that it had a V-6 [rather than a V-8] and it sounded like a vacuum cleaner in a fight.”
Overall, the reaction to the Prowler was what Chrysler executives expected. It was called “1997’s most outrageous new car,” a car “driven off the set of American Graffiti.” “It is a toy with its roots in the past, and it proves that America’s streets still know how to grin,” wrote Warren Brown in the New York Times, calling the car “far and away, my biggest hoot for 1997.” The press also gave the Prowler props—along with the new Audi A8—for being innovative in the use of aluminum. The downside? The V-6/V-8 argument arose again and again. The car had almost no space for luggage. And drivers found the gas tank too small. Even though the Prowler got about 25 mpg, it had only a 12-gallon tank. “I had to fill up before I had to go to the bathroom,” recalls DeLorenzo. “Usually, it’s the other way around.”
The car reflected an overall shift in the company: the continued influence of Tom Gale and his design team. “Chrysler Corp. has done something remarkable,” noted the Washington Post, “not only with the Prowler, but with its entire line. The company has styled its cars and trucks so nicely that people are buying them for looks alone.” In fact, over the first production year of the Prowler, the company set an all-time sales record. Chrysler was back on its feet and charging forward.
Following the first production run, Chrysler offered the Prowler in new colors, and the engine got an upgrade to 253 horsepower. In all, the car was built from 1997 to 2002 (it became a Chrysler model when the company dropped the Plymouth marque in 2001), with a total of 11,702 rolling out of the Conner plant. Well-kept examples have held their value, according to Hagerty estimates. Ultimately, the Prowler was a money loser for Chrysler. So was the first iteration of the Viper, according to Lutz. The latter vehicle ultimately obtained far more significance than the Prowler. The Viper’s last iteration was in production until 2017. But that has little to do with the Prowler’s legacy.
LUTZ: “It was an image and perception changer. If it cost us $20 million or $30 million a year, so what? We blew 20 times that on bad advertising. What works better: billions of dollars’ worth of meaningless TV ads that go over people’s heads, print ads where people just turn the page, or super-exciting products that maybe cost us $20 million or $30 million a year? These products [the Viper and the Prowler] radically changed the consumer’s and the media’s and Wall Street’s perception of Chrysler Corporation.”
GALE: “Today, it’s hard to find a car that doesn’t have some kind of stamped aluminum component, or is even all-aluminum. That was pretty rare at the time. To me, the legacy was also what it meant for team building within the company and for the design and engineering staff being able to exercise their creative skills. I have a Prowler. As I get older, it’s harder to bend my neck to get in and out of it. But it’s still a hoot to drive, and, wow, does it get attention.”