Is Chrysler’s PT Cruiser the best worst car of all time?
Built over six months in 1929, the Royal Gorge Bridge, near Cañon City, Colorado, is the highest span in the United States, its wooden-plank roadway perched between two cliffs 955 feet above the Arkansas River. The old suspension bridge’s 910-ton capacity was more than enough to handle 89 Chrysler PT Cruisers and their occupants posing for a group photo in 2009. Still, slight—but perfectly normal—bounces were felt as the cars moved about, making some feel nervous.
The stunt, part of the annual “Cruise the Rockies” event held by the Colorado PT Cruisers Club, triggered, in hindsight, a kind of accidental symbolism. In 2000, when Chrysler introduced its funky retro-styled, high-roof hatchback as a 2001 model, the Royal Gorge Bridge was still the highest in the world. By the time the photo was taken nine years later, there were seven higher, all but one in China.
Also by 2009, the market excitement that surrounded the PT Cruiser for its first few years had dimmed significantly, with sales of 18,000 and then just 9,400 in 2010, its final year. That was down from the 2001 peak of nearly 145,000.
The Colorado PT Cruisers show a similar pattern. The club was one of many to spring up around the car. In the early to mid 2000s, its annual tour through Colorado mountain passes would draw up to 165 cars. When the group repeated the Royal Gorge Bridge visit in 2014, only 62 cars participated. For this year’s run in August, club co-chair Cindy Liles expects about 30 PTs.
“Every year, it gets a little smaller,” says Liles, who joined the club after buying and customizing her PT Cruiser GT in 2004. “In the PT’s heyday, some national events could draw 400 cars. We’ve gone to PT events from California to the East Coast.”
Some larger PT gatherings still occur. One in Oregon last year, which Liles helped manage, attracted 100 cars. PT clubs of various sizes are still active in Australia, the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and Japan, and Facebook groups also cater to the cars’ fans.
While enthusiasm runs high in some quarters, the numbers continue to dwindle as PT ownership ages. Liles and her husband, Patrick, who also owns a customized PT, are now in their late 50s but among the younger members of their group.
“Many are in their 70s and even 80s,” Liles says. “We call it an ‘old people car.’”
The PT Cruiser, which rode the nostalgia wave that brought in the Volkswagen New Beetle and Mini Cooper, seemed to cultivate that reputation from the start. While the latter two were modern renditions of older, well-known cars, the PT was a new entry cloaked in 1930s and ’40s design cues.
Initially intended for young first-time buyers, the low-priced PT instead caught the eyes of an older crowd. It also sparked a customization trend that took advantage of the hot rod-flavored shape penned by Bryan Nesbitt.
Chrysler famously dubbed the PT Cruiser a “segment buster,” because it defied easy categorization. PT stood for “personal transportation,” and the car was planned to wear Plymouth badges, as concept cars had teased, until Chrysler ended that brand in 1999.
PT, the car
Beneath the PT’s gangster wagon facade was a genuinely roomy and practical compact car, built on a 103-inch wheelbase and stretching less than 170 inches bumper to bumper. A high seating position and generous headroom from the 63-inch height were attributes shared with small SUVs, then becoming popular. Like those vehicles, the PT was certified as a light truck to qualify for lower fuel economy requirements.
The PT’s fuel economy was indeed on the low side, with 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway ratings. The 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline-four provided merely adequate performance for the 3,120-pound hatchback.
Some have described the PT as based on the carmaker’s Neon economy sedan, but Chrysler always said it had its own distinct platform, sharing just a few Neon parts. A rear twist-beam axle with a Watts linkage enabled a spacious cargo area, and all of the seats except the driver’s could be folded or removed, opening up a maximum 65 cubic feet of carrying space, like a small SUV.
The interior echoed the retro theme with color-matched dash panels, an old-timey-looking four-spoke steering wheel, deep-set gauge pods, and a cue ball-style shifter knob for the standard five-speed stick shift. In a nod to Chrysler’s intended buyer, the PT was a screaming value. The base model’s $15,935 price included air conditioning, a six-speaker stereo, cruise control, power windows and more. A four-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and traction control were options. The Limited, with leather, 16-inch chrome wheels, and a sunroof was $19,995.
Automotive media were smitten with the PT Cruiser. The baby Chrysler nabbed Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award in 2001. Car and Driver, while unmoved by the PT’s engine performance, praised its handling, style, and versatility and included it on its “10Best Cars” list that year. Consumer Reports initially recommended the PT, but thanks to uneven quality control, that wouldn’t last.
“Some people say it’s the best car they’ve ever had, others say the worst,” Liles says.
When it launched, the PT commanded waiting lists and dealer markups. By early 2002, though, Chrysler was offering a $1,000 rebate to maintain sales momentum.
“People either loved them or hated them,” Liles says. “It was a cult following.”
$100k PT Cruiser?
Chrysler saw the potential in the PT customization trend and offered Flame and Woodie appearance packages. Later came “Dream Cruiser” editions, named for Detroit’s annual Woodward Dream Cruise, and “Street Cruisers,” limited-run factory customs with special paint, wheels, and grille designs.
In 2002, Chrysler even produced a run of 1,000 PT Cruiser Woodie specials for the East Coast-based Ron Jon Surf Shop chain. For 2003, the turbocharged GT model with 215 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of torque gave the PT Cruiser the guts to back up its hot rod looks.
Much of the customizing defied the PT’s low-priced nature. Liles says some owners spent more than $100,000 personalizing their vehicles, adding suicide doors, split rear windows, panel van conversions, and wild paint jobs. There were even some rear-wheel drive conversions with Hemi V-8 engines.
A magazine, PT Cruiser Quarterly, covered the scene until folding around 2008. One of the major aftermarket players, PTeazer in Santa Ana, California, still sells parts and builds custom vehicles.
Liles’ PT is one of about 150 GTs made in Seamist Green, a color offered only for a part of 2004. She had it customized with painted flames, extra chrome, and a mountain scene mural. “It’s not as crazy as some,” she says.
Comic books, football, and fish
Patrick Liles bought an Electric Blue PT Cruiser in 2005 and turned it into a creation he named “Fire & Ice,” featuring an aftermarket grille, custom flame paint job, and, on the back, a mural painted by comic artist Monte Michael Moore.
“It’s a famous show car in the PT community,” Liles says. “We drove 2,000 miles round trip to a show in Ohio because they put his car on their t-shirt.”
Colorado PT Cruisers founder Rick Conine, also a club co-chair, has a PT convertible done up in a Denver Broncos football theme, along with a hatchback called the “Silver Surfer” after the Marvel comic book character.
In the early years of PT customizing, some owners built elaborate displays inside their cars’ trunk areas. Liles recalls one from St. Louis containing a detailed diorama of the city’s famous Gateway Arch, surrounded by miniature PT models. Another, made by a man from Hawaii, had a working volcano and a pond filled with live goldfish. Unsurprisingly, the tailgate displays had their own competitions.
Chrysler kept PT interest up by introducing a convertible in 2004 as an ’05 model. The following year, the whole PT line received a mild facelift, dialing back the retro vibe with a deep front apron, shorter grille, and scalloped headlights. PT loyalists weren’t pleased, exposing the main pitfall of retro design: How do you update old?
“We call them first-gen and second-gen,” Liles says. “The second-gen cars are not as loved by PT people.”
The 2006 refresh bumped up the GT to 230 hp, while a 180-hp version of the turbo engine, using a different computer calibration, became an option on other models. That year, the PT got some company from Chevy’s HHR retro-wagon, also penned by Nesbitt, who’d left Chrysler for GM. The HHR did quite well for a few years, taking a bite out of PT sales. Chrysler’s own small Jeep Compass and Patriot crossover SUVs dug into the PT’s market, too.
The PT Cruiser would go on to sell nearly a million in the U.S., with other markets tallying another 350,000. PTs for North America were built in Chrysler’s Toluca, Mexico plant. European markets, which also offered a diesel engine, sourced theirs from a plant in Graz, Austria.
For the PT loyalists who continue to enjoy and show their cars, the novelty of the PT’s retro persona has never worn off.
“It’s not a car to us, it’s a lifestyle,” Liles says. “This little car brought us the best friends we’ve ever had, from all over the world.”
As for what the future holds for PT Cruisers, Liles muses, “Who knows, maybe this will be the ’57 Chevy of the 2040s.”