The Plymouth Prowler Was A Fitting Hot Rod Swan Song
Compromise doesn't have to be a dirty word. Although the annals of automotive history are replete with battles between bean counters and brave engineering teams pushing to get the latest and greatest out onto the street, in the end taking a big risk in one area can often mean dialing things down in the other to present a balanced package to potential buyers.
The Plymouth Prowler is a perfect example. Celebrated for being on the razor's edge of styling when it was first introduced as a concept in the early 90s, and then lambasted in some quarters for a mechanical package that couldn't quite back up the promises made by its extroverted sheet metal, the Prowler nevertheless was a game-changer for parent-company Chrysler. Not only did it prove that the automaker's designers were world class, despite having far fewer resources to work with than its Detroit competitors, but it also focused a huge amount of attention on Plymouth and served as a living, breathing advertisement for a brand that had been teetering on the verge of irrelevance.
It should surprise no one that the genesis of the Prowler was in fact another Chrysler family Hail Mary, the Dodge Viper. After seeing the impact that the 10-cylinder roadster made first as a concept in 1989, then later as a production car the following decade, the automaker had access to a blueprint that was guaranteed to attract eyeballs from the media and the general public alike.
In the midst of a sea change at the company, which had recently bet high on the trio of the revised Dodge Ram, the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the LH platform sedans (the Chrysler Concorde, the Eagle Vision, and the Dodge Intrepid), it was high time to give Plymouth something to be proud of, too. More often than not a badge-engineered dumping ground, Plymouth's lack of a cohesive identity made it perfect as the launch pad for something the industry had never seen before.
That 'something' came in the form of a 30s-era hot rod, sprung from the brain trust at the Pacifica design studio, and championed by Chrysler honcho Tom Gale, who was a big fan of traditional roadsters. The initial sketches of what would become the Prowler were done by Kevin Verduyn, eventually graduating to a clay model that took the best of the 1932 Fords that had dominated aftermarket hot rod builds and incorporating them with modern flourishes made possible by a number of advanced building techniques that Chrysler wanted to try out.
In fact, it was the latter that helped push the Prowler from the page to the production line. Introduced as a concept in 1993 at the Detroit Auto Show, the street car would emerge four years later as showcase not just for retro-ragtop styling, but also advanced aluminum construction. The Plymouth was one of the very first automobiles to feature extensive use of the then-exotic material, including an extruded frame. This gave Chrysler a test bed for working with the material on a real-world model, and one that used specialized welding and adhesive bonding techniques in its construction.
The Prowler was developed on a very tight budget, $90 million or so at the time, which meant that after spending all of that cash on the car's fancy aluminum construction, there wasn't all that much left over to tackle other, perhaps equally important areas of its overall package. It's here that the 'compromise' alluded to earlier would raise its head and affect aspects of the roadster that would haunt it once it made it into the hands of owners.
The first, and most apparent of these, was its drivetrain. While '32 Fords were known for their flathead V8 engines, the Prowler's angular engine bay had no room for anything with eight cylinders in the current Chrysler catalog. Given that there wasn't any cash left over to develop a bespoke power plant for the vehicle, it was saddled with a 3.5-liter V6 engine more famous for pulling duty under the hood of the previously-mentioned LD sedans than for its performance. Rated at 214 horses 221 lb-ft of torque, the unit was matched with a four-speed automatic transaxle that wedge itself between the rear axle and the fuel tank, which was itself shrunk down to 12 gallons in order to fit within the Prowler frame.
On the plus side, the convertible's aluminum-intensive platform kept its curb weight at a healthy 2,800 lbs, which meant that the car responded well in spirited driving. It also made its perceived horsepower deficit less of an issue, with 0-60 mph taking place in seven seconds. That number may have been respectable, but it wasn't in keeping with the Prowler's take-no-prisoners looks, and after a couple of years the motor was upgraded to 253 horsepower, which sliced nearly two seconds from its straight-line sprint.
All About Attitude
Perhaps more than its output, it was the character of the Plymouth Prowler's drivetrain that would hold it back from becoming a true icon. Its less-than-mellifluous exhaust note was a stark contrast from the rumbly eight-cylinder thunder expected by test drivers when they turned the key, and combined with its $38k purchase price (roughly $60k in today's dollars), it's not hard to see why only 11,702 examples were sold through the end of 2002 (with the last few years branded Chrysler after the Plymouth badge was sunsetted).
Seen from a modern perspective, however, the Prowler is a remarkable achievement. It's hard to overstate just how much of an impact Chrysler's one-two Viper-Prowler punch had on raising the company's profile in the 1990s, stealing major thunder from its cross-town rivals.
In our age of towering SUVs and rigorous pedestrian safety regulations, the idea of a low-slung, nearly-bumperless, and barely-fendered street rod showing up in anyone's dealership is even more outrageous than it was when Plymouth first dared to dream in 1997. Now, as then, this is a car that is bought because it reaches out and taps into something in a driver's soul, not because it meets some arbitrary performance metric or lights up the tires at every red light.
The Prowler is a reminder of an era when design mattered just as much as a focus group customer profile or accountants slicing the SUV sausage six different ways. It also calls back to when automakers were willing to take a chance on an idea that might reach only a smaller percentage of customers, because they knew that those owners would serve as rolling billboards for what a company was capable of achieving. Plymouth might be dead and gone, but compared to other dearly departed brands of the early 2000s like Oldsmobile or Mercury, it left with one hell of a swan song.
Not all retro designs from the era achieved the same lasting impact as the Prowler. Is the Chevrolet SSR due for an image rehab?