Let’s Just Take A Moment Here To Appreciate That The Plymouth Prowler Existed (And Could Be Purchased With A Trailer)

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A few days ago, I saw something pretty magical while driving. It was something uncommon, almost extinct, yet attention-hungry, like a panda dressed like Captain Kirk, blasting a couple of air horns. It was something I can honestly say I’ve never actually desired, but something I am absolutely delighted once existed. We’re also far enough away from the time period when it existed that it feels almost like a strange fever dream, and I have to remind myself that, yes, this was a real thing, once. It was a Plymouth Prowler. With the optional matching trailer.

Go ahead. Laugh. Sneer, even. I don’t care. I saw this thing on the road and I craned my neck around to follow its passage like a dog locks on a meatball in your hand.

Keep in mind that this is not a car I’d ever really want to own. If you were to take the demographic portrait of whom the 1997 Plymouth Prowler was designed for and held it up to my bare skin, it would probably burn and sizzle sickeningly, like a silver cross on a vampire’s chest. It’s not a car for me. I’d look and feel like an absolute fool plopped into that bucket-like body, but, again, I simply don’t care. I absolutely, unashamedly adore that this ridiculous thing existed, and when I saw that orange one zipping down the road, hauling equal parts ass and that remarkable trailer, all these feelings came rushing back, made all the more poignant because the flag this car sailed under, Plymouth, is gone.

Do you remember the trailer I’m talking about? It looked like this:

Remember that? Those trailers that you’d sometimes see behind Prowlers, shaped like the rear quarter of the car, sort of like if you had a roller suitcase shaped like your own ass, but, you know, cool.

Here’s the incredible thing about those Prowler trailers: you could buy them from your fucking Plymouth dealer. This wasn’t some bit of bonkers aftermarket madness, this was a goddamn $5,000 factory option.

Have any other carmakers sold a matching trailer for their cars, through their dealers, before or since? No, they haven’t. And Chrysler didn’t half-ass this thing, either. It wasn’t just some fiberglass eggshell on wheels, this was a real, full featured trailer, technically known as the Ajax trailer, with a fully carpeted interior (which you can still buy replacements for at places like this), lighting, a license plate mount, all so you could have Crown Vic-level trunk space on your tiny two-seat hot rod fantasy.

And, in case this somehow isn’t enough, it’s worth noting that the tow hitch setup on the Prowler was designed exclusively for this specific trailer; it’s not like you could haul your jet ski with the Prowler if you wanted. The hitch was good for a 1000 pound trailer with brakes, but if that was anything other than the official Prowler trailer, you’d void your warranty.

Of course, I suppose you could take a less-charitable look at the trailer, because without it the Prowler’s luggage accommodations were really pretty bleak:

Remember, the convertible top folded under there, so with the top down you were left with this carpeted hillock that really couldn’t hold much more than a couple pizza boxes sitting at the worst possible angles, and maybe a folded jacket or two.

But let’s get back to the Big Picture of the Prowler and just think about what this all means, just for a second; think it through, here. Plymouth, division of Chrysler, one of the members of the Big Three automakers, the same company that crawled and scrambled its way out of bankruptcy with sensible minivans and rational, boring shitboxes known as K-Cars not a decade before this thing, was now targeting a demographic that could charitably be called “Old Dudes With Some Money Who Are Kinda Batshit,” and boy were they giving it their all here.

 

The Prowler had some interesting engineering, which I’m happy to tell you about (I’m not, really, but David insisted, telling me, bitchily, “what’s the platform? what’s the suspension? Talk about the engineering a bit. This isn’t that entertaining, so make it informative” even though the whole point of this article is that the Prowler is beyond such mundane, rational concerns as “engineering,” but, whatever).

[Editor’s note: Sorry, Jason. I just needed to see that chassis pic below].

I mean, he’s not wrong, there’s certainly some interesting stuff going on here engineering and design-wise: those open front wheels, for example. I can’t think of a single other mass-production car that had an exposed double-wishbone front suspension like that, with fenders that moved with the wheels.

 

The chassis was light aluminum, and featured the transmission at the rear, fed power by a torque tube, like a C5 Corvette or a Porsche 944. Lots of adhesives were used in construction, and the end result was lightweight and had a perfect 50/50 weight distribution. This is all incredible because this was a completely bespoke platform–it’s not like other limited-niche, very specifically-styled cars like Nissan’s wonderful Pike cars, which also had striking retro designs, but were based on Nissan’s mass-market Micra city car. The Prowler was a much more significant lift for Plymouth.

Prowlers came in colors like that grape soda purple and vitimin-urine yellow and chili grease orange. They had a just so-so V6 engine (it made an even then just okay 214 hp, though a 253 hp option came in 1999) and a miserable four-speed automatic, they wanted to crank whatever K-Tel garbage they remembered playing on their Hi-Fis when they were 18 and tear ass all around the country, hence the need for the trailer to carry all their satin jackets and bottles of gin or stacks of vintage Oui magazines or whatever the hell Prowler drivers deemed necessary for a long-ass road trip to nowhere.

Of course, Chrysler’s purchasing team couldn’t lift that much, which is why the Prowler’s engine came from regular old Chrysler Intrepids and most of the interior switches and other bits were right from the parts buckets. Did this make more sense than using an existing platform with a better engine and unique interior parts?

Maybe, but no existing platform could have pulled off that crazy-ass narrow nose, so, no, an existing platform wouldn’t have worked. This wasn’t the rational decision, but that’s not what this car was about.

Thank fucking every magic god for Plymouth and this wonderful last bellow of life before the division expired in 2001. And yet, I feel like a lot of people treat the Prowler like they treat Guy Fieri — with undisguised contempt, even though, objectively, he’s a great guy who does good things. You’ve all seen the standup bit about Guy Fieri defense, haven’t you? If not, here you go:

He’s right, of course. And I’m pretty sure you could search-and-replace “Plymouth Prowler” for “Guy Fieri” and the bit would still work. Well, maybe not for the altruism stuff; I can’t recall any Plymouth Prowlers being especially charitable.

You don’t have to like the Prowler. But, if you don’t look at the fact it existed with admiration and wonder, you’re just doing life wrong.

We live in an automotive era full of wonderful things, fantastic technical developments, where even the most mundane family crossover could absolutely spank most of the sports cars of our pasts. And yet, at the same time, for all the inane lip service carmaker PR teams give to the ideas of “driving satisfaction” or “performance-bred” or “dynamism” or the constant references to some bastardized idea of DNA, no modern company has the ‘nads to build anything as remotely bonkers as the Prowler was.

Sure, every carmaker is working on some EV crossover that has a face like an alien who found out their spawn-mate has been cheating on them with you and can go from 0 to 60 in three seconds, but nobody is making absurd little two seaters with the option to become absurd little six-wheeled (you know, with that trailer) purple backroad screamers.

No carmaker is undertaking the daunting engineering efforts that went into making those crazy coat-hanger-shaped bumpers meet federal crash standards, because sometimes Capitalism doesn’t have time for fun bullshit.

Especially if the end result looks like this gleefully cross-eyed fella here:

Again, and I dearly hope I’m making this clear, I don’t care what anyone thinks of the Prowler as a car. I don’t even care what think of it. It just doesn’t matter. What matters is that in the late 1990s, before Great Crossover Takeover happened in full, a major, mainstream–hell, even pretty dull, at this point–automaker could build and sell a halo car as bonkers and specific as the Prowler.

Even the test vehicles for these were unhinged; remember the Pranglers, the Jeep Wrangler-based Prowler development mules? Just look at these things:

And, yes, I’m pretty sure the front light units on that thing are off-the-shelf snowplow headlight/indicator units.

The way Chrysler advertised the Prowler usually acknowledged the hot rod inspiration of the car, and excitedly reminded everyone that, yeah, they get it’s nuts:

Well, most of them. Some commercials that featured the Prowler were strange in a more subtle, David Lynchian way, such as this Plymouth full-line commercial in Canada that gets weirder and darker the more you think about it:

Why is this dude so into Plymouths? Why are they the only cars that seem to pass on that quiet suburban street, and what happened to him to make them the primary focus of his interest? Why has he been seemingly trained like a dog by his, well, I was assuming wife, but, really, she’s more of a captor, isn’t she? Is that man okay? Does the overall calm, idyllic look of that leafy neighborhood and lovely home blind everyone from seeing she has that poor Plymouth-addled simpleton bound by his leg?

I don’t know. I suspect that woman ate Harold decades ago, and regrets nothing. All I want to do in this post is make you take a moment to sit and just consider the Prowler, free of all the pre-conceived ideas you may have about it.

There are lots of exciting and interesting modern cars, and even some genuinely radical ones set to come out, like the Tesla Cybertruck, for example. But the Cybertruck and so many other new and upcoming cars like the Lucid Air or Rivian or whatever, with their cutting-edge tech and impressive performance, all still feel more serious than something like the Prowler. These new edge-pushing cars all take themselves quite seriously, people online are fierce and irritating in their support for these new machines, and it’s all a Big Deal and everything is about how much better one particular design or engineering solution is than the other.

That’s not at all what the Prowler was about. The Prowler was just ridiculous, openly and unashamedly.

It was a strange, beautiful time, and just the fact that this thing existed should give you a little hope, and a reminder that humanity’s greatest defining trait is that, fundamentally, we hate to be bored, and we will do pretty much anything–anything–to avoid it.

Here’s hoping carmakers decide to be this ridiculous again.

 

(images: Chrysler, Prowler Store, Bring A Trailer)

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79 Responses

  1. Buddy of mine bought one of these last fall from the original owner, who was a dealer. Purple, complete with trailer and all service records from the dealership. I haven’t seen it yet thanks to Michigan’s winter, but I’m excited for him to get it on the road soon.

  2. Someone here in Melbourne (Australia, not Florida) owns a purple Prowler that’s been lovingly and expensively converted to put the steering wheel on the other side of the cabin, along the myriad detail changes needed to make the car road-legal here, where Prowlers were never sold.

    I’ve no idea why anyone would embark on this endeavo(u)r, but I’m glad they did. Just seeing it made me happy!

    1. I had no idea there was one here – I just Googled it and found out it is owned by a company that hires out chauffeur driven hot rods, mostly for weddings. No idea if they imported and converted it, or bought it from someone else who did. And it turns out it lives only a few kms away from me in the next suburb!

  3. I have a strange appreciation for the prowler, I’m not sure why, and not that I would drive one, but that trailer has made it that much cooler or quirky (I’m still not sure), in my mind. I have to admit I have never seen one, but I kind of like it as an option.

    Although, I would drive a prowler only if it was V8 swapped, so I could eventually and certainly go out in style – not with a bang but in what would be a flaming chariot with that trailer attached 🙂

  4. Much is said about the V6 in these, but looking a the chassis picture, the transaxle had me confused. It seems to have a bell housing on it. Some Googleing of transaxle images shows many of them to have a mounting flange for the torque tube, which makes sense. Then I came across some others with bell housings on them and the half sharts coming out ot the bottom of the casing, but they are all mounted to the back of the engine in mid-engined cars, hence the need for a bell housing. I guess it makes sense from a cost perspective to re-use and existing mid-engined car tranaxle, but it looks a bit funky at first glance.
    Now Jason, I owe you an apology as I found the article entertaining enough on its own, but I’ve just just backed up David’s comment about more engineering content. Oh well, it’s all about engagement I guess 😉
    I’m not sure if I’ve stated it elsewhere but this place is off to a really strong start, the only thing I’m really missing is notifications of likes and comments on my comments. Great stuff!

    1. Because anyone who wasn’t certified to work on full line (including Prowler) will be confused.
      The transaxle in the Prowler is in fact a modified 42LE from the LH platform, with a snout added and longer half-shafts.
      “But wait, the LH was FWD!” Yes. “And this is clearly longitudinal!” Yes. The LH platform was a longitudinal FWD which was both great and absolutely terrible.

      In the LH packaging, the 42LE’s main casing mounts direct to the engine. No bell housing, no snouts. There were plans (known even down to the dealer level) for an AWD version of the 42LE as well. Obviously never happened. But the 42LE is in fact, a re-cased 41TE, which is an updated A604, which is an updated A413. The A604 was used for the 41AE found in every AWD Chrysler minivan from 1991 to 2008. But repackaging for the LE? Uh…

      Anyway, here’s what a 42LE looks like from the top:
      https://www.charlietranny.com/42LEtop.JPG
      As you can see, the axles are all the way forward of the body to the point where they nearly interfere with the torque converter. It underwent a shitload of revisions because it was so problematic, because the focus had been on longitudinal rather than ensuring it was at least as reliable as the 41TE. (41TE’s are fine, just change the damn fluid.) The Prowler’s 42LE uses the exact same main body, but a completely different rear plate which is significantly beefed up, and larger transmission cooler taps.
      I always found it hilariously ironic that they built the Prowler with the 42LE though. Because the whole POINT of engineering the LE in the first place was to try and give FWD cars more of a RWD handling character! And then they just went back to building RWD cars (Aspen, Prowler, Crossfire, 300, etc.)

  5. I always liked the concept of the Prowler, make an updated hot rod, but in the end the execution was not on point. Possibly a bit before the tech caught up with it?

    Now you can get a pretty beefy V6 and pop a manual on it.

    Sure it is purpose built weekend cruiser with no luggage space (not even an overnight bag), but that is the point.

  6. Owned a prowler as a daily driver. Put over 80,000 miles on it which took some effort. I am 6’10” and bought it sight unseen and totally didn’t fit in it. I modified the seat and dropped it down 5 inches with custom brackets so I could drive it with the roof up.

    The radiator was too small and the engine would overheat pretty often. Air would often get trapped in the coolant in the top of the engine and I had to bleed it out with a rubber hose with the engine running. Made a big mess. Bought it for $24K and drove it 15 years put 80K miles on it (with almost no significant mechanical issues ) and then sold it for ~$17K. Beat the crap out of it. It was actually a really cool car, but no space for ‘stuff’. Really it was just a penis extension so when I finally got married I sold it. In a world of same-same I felt like the prowler was refreshing and different. I loved it.

  7. I wish they’d made more than just a prototype of the ’99 Plymouth Howler. All the good bits of a Prowler, except 250bhp 4.7L V8, 5-speed manual, and more room in the trunk (plus a better-looking ass).
    https://www.fantasycars.com/derek/cars/howler.html
    It was done once, could be done again. I’d build one in a heartbeat and drive it every day. I was 27 when they came out, a bit younger than the target demographic, but I’ve always wanted one.

  8. I loved the look and styling of the Prowler. It must have taken a lot of effort just to convince the bosses at Chrysler to get it to production. I got to see one when I was in Vegas many years ago, but have never gotten to ride in one. I’m sure like most Plymouth cars from that time it was not as great to sit in a Prowler as it is to sit and look at a Prowler.

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