The 80s ushered in a time of time of bland, boxy, and purely uninspired cars, with a few exceptions like the DeLorean and Fiero. The 90s ushered in a time of less bland, boxy, and purely uninspired cars, if only slightly less boring. Everything looked the same, drove the same, and was just a rebadged version of something else. One of the automakers leading the charge of blandness and rebadging was Chrysler. Chrysler made bland cars, minivans, and trucks under the Jeep, Dodge, and Plymouth badges. Plymouth was by far the blandest, most boring, and the most uninspired. By 1996 Plymouth’s, Voyager, a boring minivan, Breeze, a bland midsize sedan, and the Neon, a uninspired compact, were all rebadged Chrysler products. there hadn’t been an original Plymouth since the 70s and there wasn’t one on the horizon. But, there was a roar in the wind.
Things were looking up for the Chrysler corporation in 1996. They sold over 2 million cars, made a net profit of 3.5 billion dollars, and Chrysler’s share of the American automotive market was 16.2%. In fact, Chrysler hadn’t lost money in 3 years. This was a far cry from 1979 when Chrysler needed 1.5 billion to avoid bankruptcy. It turns out that bland, boring, and uninspired sold, and made money. Well not really, Dodge sold 1.5 million vehicles compared to Plymouth’s 323,834. Dodge was more fun and exciting compared to Plymouth, Dodge was a hard working pickup truck brand, and they had the only American car that actively tried to kill you, the Viper. Plymouth was, well, basic transportation, and boring. Partly because Chrysler had moved Plymouth down to the entry-level brand, and what little advertising they received, was focused on value. You could get a top of the line Plymouth Neon with all the options (outside of the automatic transmission) for around 16,000$. Pretty cheep, and it showed. But the designers and engineers over at Plymouth wanted to create something fun and original to reinvigorate the brand. Since Chrysler was coming off 3 straight years of making money and growing sales, with no signs of slowing down, they gave the green light.
The Prowler concept (pictured above) was first featured at the Detroit Auto Show in 1993, right when Chrysler was just starting to make money. Many simply saw it as a PR stunt to get more press thrown their way. No one ever imagined the Prowler would actually go into production.
When the engineers and designers at Plymouth got the go-ahead to make a completely new car they brought out the 1993 concept and made a few minor tweaks and set it off to Chrysler HQ for approval. The Prowler concept soon ended up on the desk of Tom Gale. He was head of design at Chrysler. More on why he, or anyone in their right mind would approve such a radical concept later.
The design of the Prowler was bold, outlandish, retro and inspired. It harkened back to the Hot Rod glory days of the 30s. Big wheels, and no front fenders or ugly bumper in sight. Plymouth had done the unthinkable, they took a concept, and made it a production car. Compare the concept to the production model and they are almost identical. The Prowler didn’t look like anything else on the road, it stood out like a sore thumb, in all the right ways.
The styling wasn’t the only unique thing about the Prowler, the chaises was just as unique. The body and frame were constructed using lots of aluminum. This was unique, as no other Chrysler product, or many other cars at the time, used aluminum in their construction, namely because of its expense. Using aluminum in the construction is the major reason Tom Gale gave his approval on the Prowler.
In an interview for Road and Track, Mr. Gale said this “The whole thing really was an exercise in research for how to use aluminum materials”. This proves it was never about Plymouth making an awesome retro modern hot rod, it was one big experiment in how to use aluminum. Which explains the powertrain or lack there of.
With most of the budget used in the new aluminum chaises and body, there was next to nothing for the engine, transmission, and the interior. And Chrysler wasn’t about to throw more money at, what basicly amounted to a research project, being done by a brand that mostly sold minivans. So, with no money, Plymouth went straight to the Chrysler parts ben.
For the powertrain, Plymouth engineers took the engine, a 3.5 liter V6 producing 214HP, mated to a 4 speed automatic, out of a Chrysler 300 M. These were the only engine and transmission options, no V8 and no manual were ever offered.
Plymouth had the chance to make a truly unique and retro interior, perhaps using old school switches and dials. But, again a lack of funding meant that by the time the car was finished, there were parts from almost every Chrysler product, even the Dodge Caravan (for a more exhausting look see Doug DeMuro’s video linked below). The only other unique feature to the Prowler, outside of the body, frame, and styling, were the wheels. The Prowler sported 20in wheels, which at the time were massive and an uncommon sight.
In 1997 the Plymouth Prowler stalked it’s prey in showroom floors across America and…it was a major flop. Critics and consumers, raged against the V6, lack of a manual transmission, harsh ride, and lackluster handling. Only being available in purple probably didn’t help either. As a result, only a few hundred Prowlers were sold its first year. In 1999 Plymouth engineers managed to squeeze more power out of the V6, it now produced 253HP, but still, no manual transmission was offered. The 2000 model year saw the shock absorbers, springs, and run-flat tires all redesigned to provide a smoother ride and improve handling. In 2001 Plymouth added adjustable shock absorbers and additional colors were added. Interestingly ABS, traction control, and stability control were never available.
The final major change to happen to the Prowler came in 2001. In June, Plymouth, which had been in business since 1928, closed its doors for good. The Prowler went on as a Chrysler for one more year before it was discontinued in 2002.
In the end, the Prowler was a failure. Or was it? Sure it failed to sale, with fewer than 12,000 sold by the end of its production run. It failed to reinvigorate and save the Plymouth brand, and it failed to impress critics as a sports car. Mostly due to its transmission, a lack a manual was a mistake to say the least. I don’t think the Prowler was underpowered, even with only 253HP. The car only weighed around 2,800 pounds. That’s only 500 pounds more than a Miata and they have even less power. I think the Prowler can best be summed up in this quote from Tom Gale.
"Prowler was really mostly about that [the research] than about the car itself ". Tom Gale, former head of design at Chrysler.
The Prowler was a sales failure, but it was a successful research project, and one of the few American cars that wasn’t bland, boring, and uninspired. Plymouth, I think, went out with a roar, instead of a whimper. The knowledge gained in producing the Prowler went on to help keep Chrysler open and become the shadow of its former glory that it is today. Well, at least Jeep and Dodge appreciate the information.
The Prowler lives on as a cult classic and has a permanent place on my “must have list”. Also as a reminder, that even in failure there is a success.
Awesome article! I loved the Prowler. I loved the whole era of Retro-Styled cars
Thanks! I’m a big fan of the retro-style myself. Its one reason I wanted to write the article.
the prowler makes me happy
if only it came with a v8 and manual as an option
I think that would have helped to keep it around longer, but it was ultimately doomed unfortunately
Nothing is an failure its just an interesting concept
Cool! Now, why don’t you write an article about this?
I’m not familiar with that particular car. What make and model is it?
Ah, interesting I’ll have to check it out