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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

own one.

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

California.

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

interior latches.

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

car. Neat.

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

apology.

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

direction.

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,

development continues.

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

weight.

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

outstanding.

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

this motor.

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

rodders love.

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

Prowler.

Trust me.

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