If you ever see one on the road, it will be etched in your mind forever. The design, the aggressive stance, and the wild colors will make you smile. It was an American manufacturer’s concept of a hot rod – it was the totally outrageous Plymouth Prowler. From its free-standing front wheels and fenders to its huge twenty-inch rear wheels, the Prowler was the perfect car to take you from the millennium of the past into the new millennium of the future in dazzling style. While not a sales success in its prime, the Prowler is now a collectible classic.
“The original Prowler was part Elvis, a touch of Marilyn,
and a pinch of Harley-Davidson in one stunning package.”
Don Sherman, Motor Trend
The Plymouth Prowler – An Image Changer
The Plymouth Prowler was, to the best of our knowledge, America’s first and only production hot rod. It grabbed the attention of anyone who had a pulse. The New York Times called it a “…street rod named desire.” Automobile magazine thought it was “America’s most outrageous automobile.” Chrysler president Bob Lutz proudly said, “It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.” One of the Prowler’s designers, Kevin Verduyn summed up the Prowler best: “No mainstream car company had ever done anything this bizarre.”
One of the primary goals of the Prowler Project was changing the public perception of the Chrysler Corporation and their Plymouth brand. Chrysler’s chief Bob Lutz said in an interview with Hagerty: “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. We demonstrated that we could do something no other American automobile company had ever done (Viper). So, we told ourselves, ‘Well, that worked, we ought to do that again, but in slightly different form.’”
Origins of the Prowler Concept
To fully understand why a major automobile company with the conservative design history of Chrysler Corporation would suddenly and without warning unleash a purple hot rod on the public, we have to set our Wayback machine to 1992 and Chrysler headquarters in Highland Park, Michigan. Chrysler’s savior, Lee Iacocca, was retiring and the company was once again facing a bleak future. Their product line was still dependent on the bland K-cars and Minivans from the eighties and their stock price had dropped to under $15 from a high of $30. Although the company was about to launch their new mid-size LH platform sedans in their Chrysler, Dodge, and Eagle brands, their foundering Plymouth brand was left out in the cold.
Since its introduction in 1928, Plymouth had competed in the so-called “low-price field” fighting the likes of Ford and Chevrolet for the working man’s dollars. Plymouths were reliable, durable, and rather innocuous, blending in with other low-priced cars. Now, in the nineties, the moribund Plymouth brand was desperately in need of something new and different to liven up its image and attract buyers. This new-and-different something took the form of an American hot rod. During a visit to their California design center, hot rod sketches caught the attention of Chrysler executives and the Prowler concept took root as the answer to changing the images of Chrysler Corporation and the Plymouth brand.
A Lightweight Masterpiece
A tangible value of the Prowler to Chrysler Corporation was as a test bed for aluminum vehicle construction. The Prowler was the most aluminum-intensive car built in America. Tom Gale, then Chrysler’s design chief said: “The real reason I wanted the Prowler was, we didn’t have a lot of research at Chrysler. 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.”
More than 900 pounds of the 2,830-pound roadster was aluminum. The perimeter frame was aluminum tubing and a series of complex aluminum extrusions; the main body tub was sheet aluminum held together by self-piercing rivets and industrial adhesives; and the suspension control arms were aluminum forged in a semi-solid state by a special process. Other materials were used to also save weight. A single-casting instrument panel lateral brace of magnesium saved eight pounds. Cast-iron exhaust manifolds were too heavy and were replaced by those made of stainless steel. The reinforced windshield frame was made of carbon fiber, and composite plastic formed the free-standing front fenders. The Prowler project gave Chrysler engineers and designers a high-tech peek into the future of automobile manufacturing.
A Stunning Debut for the Prowler
The crowd at the 1993 North American International Auto Show in Detroit was absolutely astonished when Chrysler executives pulled the cover off the Prowler concept car. Said Matt DeLorenzo, then editor of AutoWeek: “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 blew us away.” The scene was bedlam. The crowd pushed and shoved to get as close as possible to the display stand with their cameras clicking away. AutoWeek named the Prowler the “Most Fun in Show”. The receptions in shows across the country were so positive, that the Prowler was in production by the start of the 1997 model year.
The production Prowler, true to the concept car, was a two-seat, American hot rod roadster with plenty of standard features, such as keyless entry, power windows and door locks, dual airbags, leather-trimmed bucket seats, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with cassette player, leather-wrapped steering wheel, color-keyed instrument panel bezel, and tilt steering wheel. The long hood covered Chrysler’s 3.5-liter, single overhead cam V6 coupled to a rear-mounted four-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels. The 1997 Prowler’s cast-iron block V6 made 214 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. Prowler enthusiasm took a nosedive after road tests revealed its mediocre performance with the cast-iron V6 engine. Potential buyers stayed away in droves. Prowler was considered a major flop for 1997, selling only 457 cars.
The Prowler’s Limitations
There was no magic cure for the Prowler’s mediocre performance. None of Chrysler’s V8s would fit in the narrow engine compartment. The best the Prowler team could hope for was an early arrival of the new, all-aluminum version of the 3.5-liter V6, promised for the 1999 model year. Chrysler paused Prowler production after 1997 and restarted the assembly lines for the 1999 model with the new engine in the spring of 1998. The new engine produced 253 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, giving the Prowler a much-need performance boost, lowering its 0 to 60 mph time to 5.9 seconds and raising the top-speed to 126 mph.
Prowler sales boomed for the 1999 model year. But, as it became obvious that even with the all-aluminum V6 engine and the automatic transmission the Prowler was never going to live up to its image of a tire-smoking hot rod, sales declined. Other limitations inherent in the long hood short rear deck design added to Prowler’s woes. Potential buyers were disappointed by the cramped cockpit; a small 12.2-gallon gas tank limited the range between fill-ups; and a miniscule trunk of only 1.8 cubic feet severely restricted storage space and long-distance travel. For the more adventurous owners, Chrysler offered a small trailer available in the color of your Prowler for $5,000. With all of the Prowler’s limitations, sales fell from the high of 3,921 cars for the 1999 model year to a low of 1,436 cars for 2002. The handwriting on the wall was writ large for all to see that the end was near. The final Prowler rolled off the assembly line on February 15, 2002.
The Prowler is considered by many to have been a failure. Certainly, it didn’t generate enough sales to save itself or the Plymouth brand thanks mainly to its limited performance and marginal practicality. But the Prowler project did accomplish some of its other objectives. The utterly outrageous Prowler design generated so much positive ‘buzz’ that it changed the image of the Chrysler Corporation, at least until it “merged” with Daimler-Benz. President Bob Lutz was happy about the attention saying: “These products [the Viper and the Prowler] radically changed the consumer’s and the media’s and Wall Street’s perception of Chrysler Corporation.”
Tom Gale, Chrysler’s former chief designer and avid hot rod fan is happy with the Prowler project. In his interview with Hagerty, he said: “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.”
Although the Prowler was not a sales success in its prime, today it is very rare, outrageously unique, and still a “hoot to drive.” To us, that sounds like the perfect collectible car.
Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/meet-the-prowler-the-bizarro-tribute-to-hot-rods-11593528427
Car and Driver: https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/a15141560/1997-plymouth-prowler-archived-test-review/
Motor Trend: https://www.motortrend.com/news/1998-plymouth-prowler/
Motor Trend: https://www.motortrend.com/news/1997-2002-plymouth-prowler-history-specs-photos/
My Auto World: https://myautoworld.com/chrysler/cars/history/plymouth/plymouth-prowler/plymouth-prowler.html