Prowler was a vision brought to life

October 20, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

It was a larger-than-life vision that dared to be different.

And in an era where profit margin and volume rule the day, it's amazing that it even existed.

The head-turning Prowler was so radical that to spot one cruising the roads seemed totally unreal. It was as if Chrysler Corporation stylists took some high-school kid's dream-car doodle and turned it into the real thing.

No one suspected that this modern-era hot rod stood a chance of going into production when the initial concept showed up at the 1993 Detroit International Auto Show. At the time, it seemed like a whimsical piece of fluff created by some off-the-wall day-dreaming designer.

Then they actually built the thing.

The driving force that brought the Prowler from the idea stage to full production was Tom Gale, who at the time was Chrysler's senior vice president in charge of design.


In his spare time, this certified car nut worked on a number of his own projects, including a Porsche 356A and a 1970 AAR 'Cuda as well as an open-wheeled 1933 Ford high-boy street rod.

Gale's passion for personalized custom transportation came through loud and clear on the Prowler. Its motorcycle-style fenders, nerf-bar front and rear bumpers, oversized low-profile tires (17 inches in front and 20 inches in the rear) and chopped roofline provided the kind of just-right styling touches that made this extraordinary vehicle a crowd-pleasing standout.

Some purists, however, howled in dismay when the first batch of purple-only Prowlers arrived. This aluminum-bodied concoction was a fake and a phony, they decried. A real hot rodder wouldn't be seen in such an off-the shelf pretend-mobile. A real hot rod contains the blood sweat and tears of someone who has toiled for countless hours building the real thing and spent every last dime on parts and materials. A real hot rod is a very personal statement of automotive artistry and not some mass-produced forgery. A real hot rod doesn't come with a three-year/36,000-mile warranty. And a real hot rod is always powered by a raucous V-8 and never, ever by a meagre off-the-shelf V-6.

Despite these protests from a vociferous minority, the Prowler became an instant automotive fashion statement when it was finally launched in July of 1997. From the tip of its pointy prow (hence the name, Prowler, perhaps?) to its sensuously sloping trunk lid, the two-seater demanded the undivided attention of every passer-by. The pushing and shoving by those who lined up for one of a limited number of first-year cars resulted in more than several being sold for significantly more than their $35,000 manufacturer's list price.

What buyers got for their money was a retro-shaped roadster that came fully equipped with modern-day conveniences. Air conditioning, leather seats, cruise control, power windows, tilt steering, run-flat Goodyear tires (there was no spare) and a seven-speaker audio system were all part of the package. Under the Prowler's elongated hood was a 214-horsepower 3.5-liter DOHC V-6 connected to a four-speed automatic transmission with Chrysler's AutoStick manual gear-selecting shifter.

The rear-hinged trunk lid opened wide to swallow a manually folding top and very little else. If you wanted to be seen by your friends and neighbors, though, you drove with the roof stowed. Because of the low seating position and high door sills, your head could barely been seen behind the sharply raked windshield.

Anyone requiring additional luggage space could order a cute little two-wheel trailer in the shape of the Prowler's rear-end for an extra $5,000.

After making only a couple of thousand first-year cars, the Prowler took a year off for some fine-tuning. When it returned in 1999, it sported a new 253-horsepower SOHC V-6 that lowered its zero-to-60 m.p.h. times to six seconds, a full second quicker than the first-year version. Also available were three new colors: yellow; red; and black.

With the demise of the Plymouth brand, the Prowler switched to the Chrysler camp in early 2001 and added a special Black Tie edition (silver and black paint scheme) to celebrate the occasion. That would prove to be the final full year of production as Chrysler announced that the last of what became more than 11,000 total Prowler production, priced at more than $45,000, would roll off the assembly line by February, 2002.

Although Chrysler made very little (if any) profit on each car sold, the Prowler proved to the world that the company was an innovative leader when it came to automotive fashion. Cars such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Crossfire sports coupe and Pacifica crossover wagon have proved this to be no idle boast. Some, or all of these models might never have made it to dealer showrooms had the Prowler not hit the mark.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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