1997 Chrysler Prowler
LAKE GENEVA, Wisc. — About six years ago, Tom Gale decided he
wanted a hot rod.
About six months from now, the vice president of design for
Chrysler could have two of them.
His own homebuilt machine should be finished by then. And
next January, production of the Plymouth Prowler, Chrysler's
corporate hot rod, begins. The showroom debut is scheduled for
spring with about 250 earmarked for Canada.
But Gale may have to wait a while before he can get his own
Prowler. If the reaction to the only two production-intent
Prowlers on the planet in this upscale resort town north of
Chicago is any indication, the carbuying public is going to
beat down the doors of Plymouth dealers across the continent,
waving bagfuls of money, hoping to be first on their block to
It'll be Vipermania all over again, except with an expected
price around $47,000, the entrance fee will be 40 per cent less
than the Viper.
The public's first awareness of the Prowler was the purple
two-seat concept car that wowed the Detroit auto show in
January, 1993. But the car's genesis began in May, 1990, at an
"idea fair" at Chrysler's Pacifica Design Studios in
Pacifica's advanced concepts designers were ordered to break
the rules with sketches of car concepts for the future. A
rendering by Kevin Verduys of a bright green "retro" roadster
caught the eye of Gale and Chrysler's president, Bob Lutz. It
was but one of about a dozen idea fair drawings that evolved
into one-fifth scale models, but only the Prowler, as this car
was known early on, was selected for full-scale treatment.
(Forget the board of directors; at Chrysler, if Lutz and Gale
want it done, it gets done.)
Production approval wasn't granted until September, 1994 (and
announced only this past January). But from the very start,
Prowler's development team did everything possible to encourage
a "go" decision, designing the car around as many existing
Chrysler bits as possible to reduce tooling, durability testing
and legislative certification costs.
The 214 horsepower 3.5 litre four-cam V6 engine is straight
out of the LH sedans. Likewise the four-speed automatic
AutoStick transmission, although it's mounted in the rear en
bloc with the differential. (A front-wheel drive hot rod? I
don't think so.)
The centre stack air vents come from the new Caravan, the
heating/ventilation controls from the Sebring. Grand Cherokee's
steering wheel. Neon's headlight switch. The Viper's and even
the Dodge Ram pickup's supplied components like door pulls and
The instrument panel, centred in the dash, is unique, as are
the dial faces. But the needles and the operating hardware
behind them are from the Chrysler Intrepid.
A lot of hard work by advanced packaging studio design manager
Tom Slanec and his staff, combined with a common design ethic
that has spread across all Chrysler products, means this
corporate parts bin approach has resulted in a surprisingly
integrated look, rather than the hodge-podge you might expect.
The production car is considerably different from the Detroit
concept, but only in detail. Without a measuring tape or a
designer's critical eye, you'd be hardpressed to spot the
changes. It certainly retains the emotion and impact of the show
car, and also cleaves much more closely to Verdyus's original
sketch than production cars normally do.
If you count part numbers, rather than dollar value, about 60
per cent of Prolwer's pieces are exclusive to this car. In many
of these cases, Chrysler has used Prowler as a technological
test bed, notably for new materials.
The frame, body, suspension and rear brake rotors are largely
aluminum, developed in conjunction with Alcoa, the world's
biggest aluminum supplier. While this project hardly leapfrogs
Chrysler ahead of Audi or Honda in automotive applications of
the light-weight metal, it does give the company some realworld
production experience, which it hopes to apply to future models.
The frame is reinforced in critical areas with steel. Most of
the aluminum joints are rivets, strengthened by adhesive bonding
strong, cheap, and easier than welding.
The fabricated double-wishbone front suspension is right out
in the airstream for all to see. But where, you might well ask
(as several onlookers did), are the springs and shocks?
Tucked under the hood ahead of the engine, and acted upon by
pushrods and bell cranks, just like an Indy or Formula One race
The gigantic wheels 17 inches in front, 20 inches in the
rear are shod with Goodyear's Extended Mobility tires. They
can run with no air pressure at all (the testing was conducted
with the valve stems removed) at 80 km/h for 80 km.
Good job, since there's barely room in the trunk for a
newspaper, let alone a spare tire. Chrysler's Mopar parts
division will market a fibreglass trailer, looking identical to
the rear half of a Prowler, for those who want to travel to hot
rod shows with more than a toothbrush.
My first view of a Prowler on the move was at the beautifully
restored U.S. Navy pier on Chicago's waterfront, the day before
the opening of the Democratic Party's national convention. If
they'd charged $5 for everyone who wanted his or her picture
taken sitting in this car, they'd have retired the American
national debt in about four hours.
Prowler's appeal is not limited to 50-year-old gearhead men
who wish they'd built — or bought — a car like this when they
were kids. Everyone young, old, every possible gender
grinned, even laughed out loud, when this car drove by.
Turning a journalist loose in downtown Chicago in a priceless
prototype seems a brave strategy — I was subtly warned that any
damage to the car would be followed by damage to my person. But
we both arrived at the former Playboy Club in Lake Geneva
without incident. Except for the pedestrians waving, yelling,
pointing, walking into stop signs, and other cars nearly driving
off the road.
When a car attracts this much attention — and surely, that's
why you'd buy one what it drives like is almost irrelevant.
Fortunately, unlike most hot rods, the Prowler needs little
The doors don't open very wide the original idea fair sketch
had rearhinged suicide doors, which would have made it easier
to get in, but would never have made it past the lawyers.
Once inside, the car is roomy. Actually, it is asymmetrical,
the engine having been shifted about 50 mm to the right to allow
more sprawl room for the driver.
Sixway manually adjustable seats and a tilt steering wheel
make a proper driving position possible for drivers of any size,
although some of the controls are a bit hard to reach.
The sides of the body are high, making the classic
elbow-on-the-doorsill cruisin' pose a possibility only for
contortionists. Better to keep both hands on the wheel anyway,
even if it doesn't look as cool.
If you have never driven an open-wheel race car, it will be
odd to see the left front wheel bouncing up and down as the car
passes over bumps. In truth, it's the cyclestyle plastic fender
you see; they're attached to the wheel hubs, and turn with the
wheels as the car steers.
These fenders don't do a perfect job of deflecting road
debris: a stone, picked up by the left front tire and fired
upwards inside the fender, whizzed past my left ear on a
secondary Wisconsin road.
The fenders aren't the car's only mobile body part. Prowler's
flexiflier chassis won't keep Mercedes-Benz engineers up at
night. That said, cowl shake is well within acceptable limits,
and the newer of the two prototypes I drove was considerably
tighter than the older, suggesting improvement in the right
Subjective evaluation of ride quality is always negatively
influenced by noise and shake. Factoring this out as best I
could, I'd rate Prowler's ride as firm but not unreasonable.
Sharp pavement edges introduce some harshness. Again,
The steering is well weighted, and while I hardly tried any
hero tactics, the handling feels eminently stable and benign.
Prowler is not a car for ten-tenths driving, although in final
trim I'll bet it'll be sensational: Its lightweight, fully
independent suspension and gigantic tires almost guarantee it.
Huge disc brakes, ventilated at both ends and fitted with
standard ABS, have no problem coping with Prowler's 1300 kg
If the British had been able to design a convertible top as
easy to erect as Prowler's, they might still be in business
here. It'd be a strong person who could put it up from the
driver's seat. But from outside the car, it's a solo act of
about 10 seconds duration.
Lift it out of its uncovered well behind the seats, fit the
two windshield header catches, push the rear portion down onto
the rear deck until two catches snap into place. The nifty oval
backlight is glass, and is electrically defrosted.
A brief nighttime topup tour proved the car has lots of
headroom (the Prowler project's executive engineer, Craig Love,
is 6 feet, 9 inches tall. Say no more.)
The midnight run also proved that despite being closeset, and
offering very little direct frontal area, the headlamps are,
literally and figuratively, brilliant. The Bosch projector
internals inside reflectors made by Michigan-based supplier
Lescoa give the car as distinctive a face at night as in
daylight. There are a few stray shards of light off into the
weeds at the side of the road, but forward illumination is
There's never been a hot rod built that couldn't use more
power. The LH motor feels torquey and flexible, but I can
guarantee "kustomizing" shops across the land are working on
chips, probably even superchargers, to extract more poke out of
The transmission in both my test cars shifted well, although
the elder exhibited considerable hunting and torque converter
lock/unlock behavior at freeway speeds. Final calibration of the
tranny's electronics should eliminate this.
The AutoStick, which allows quick manual up or downshifts by
slapping the shift lever right or left, is the sort of trick hot
The Prowler will offer hot rod profiling without the pain and
expense of doing it yourself. It will be a fully developed car
most hot rods are, frankly, pretty awful to drive. And it will
be fully equipped, with air, cruise, trick radio, CD changer,
power windows and locks.
Does this all sound too sissified for real rodders? Apparently
not. Reaction from the roddin' crowd has been upbeat, almost
universally so. What Chrysler has done — take a bunch of
disparate parts and built a nifty car out of them — is exactly
what rodders do. The aficionados understand that not everybody
has the time or talent to do it themselves.
They also understand that Prowler may help publicize their
hobby, remove the negative associations some people have of it
(not unlike how Honda helped erase The Wild One image from
motorcycles back in the late '50s.)
And if you know the guy you hated in high school will be
driving a Hummer to the reunion, just you show up in your