It’s easy to dismiss the Plymouth Prowler as lazy boomer bait. Another car in an endless wave of wheeled kitsch that remixed a rose-tinted past for the nostalgia-addicted present. Automotive edge lord hacks will decry it for having the wrong engine and transmission. All of this misses just how bold and influential the Prowler was, and what makes it so interesting. Welcome back to Damn Good Design.
It’s not a galloping shock to regular readers that I’m a massive Mopar fanboy. A love affair first ignited over twenty-five years ago by a snarling, overpowered and under-braked green hell-beast of a car – my 1971 Plymouth Duster 340. Not an ideal daily driver, but petrol was cheap and I was young and stupid. Months of carefully examining the for-sale section of Custom Car magazine had convinced me I had to have a Mopar of some description. Ford and GM muscle cars were too apple pie for me. A Dodge or a Plymouth was the car for someone who went to a loud metal concert and then woke up in a stranger’s bed the next morning with three hangovers. Mopars were just cool.
That wasn’t always the case. Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca was a brilliant salesman who by the early eighties had dragged Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy back into the black. The K-car and the minivan had been runaway successes and gave Iacocca a lot of freedom to make decisions unopposed at the top of the company.
But by the end of the decade he was losing touch with the market and his desire to make Chrysler more European led to some terrible decisions – the Chrysler TC by Maserati was a monumental blunder on every level. Buying troubled Lamborghini, another company that lurched from crisis to crisis was never going to work, although it would indirectly inspire the LH cars.
Mopar Finds its Design Mojo
Head of Product Development Bob Lutz had a better idea to improve Chrysler’s image. Working with head of design Tom Gale, Craig Durfee sketched a modern version of the AC Cobra. The maximum amount of engine in the minimum amount of car – what was to become the Dodge Viper. First shown as a concept at Detroit in 1989, Iacocca initially balked at the (relatively paltry) $70 million investment required, but the Viper’s rapturous reception convinced him to approve the car for production as a 1993 model.
Freed from Iacocca ,who retired in 1992, by the middle of the decade Chrysler was on a roll. The success of the LH cars, Jeep Grand Cherokee, second generation Ram and the Neon was Chrysler finding its design confidence. After the Viper, Tom Gale wanted each of Chrysler’s brands to have a halo car. The Viper had shown Chrysler the time and financial benefits of having a small skunkworks team dedicated to one project, bringing in outside engineering help only when necessary. This approach would be pivotal in getting the Prowler off the ground.
The Prowler is Born
In 1990 a small team led by Tom Tremont at Chrysler’s Pacifica studio in California was given the job of coming up with some off-the-wall ideas for niche, low-volume vehicles. Designer Kevin Verduyn came up with a ‘retro hot-rod style vehicle’. Bob Lutz, then the head of Global Product Development for Chrysler, liked the small thumbnail sketch but thought it needed more attitude. Gale was a fan of hot rods but he was against the idea of a throwback car for the sake of it. Nevertheless, Verduyn’s idea was the clear stand out proposal and it progressed to a full-size model for management to approve a year later.
If you want proof of how far ahead designers are thinking when they are getting the ideas down on paper, look at that first Prowler sketch. It has a completely glazed passenger compartment and a horseshoe-shaped bumperette in front of the grille. By the time it progressed to a fifth scale model, it gained Syd Mead-esque hub-less wheels. The overall shape is the only hot rod thing about it – the rest is wildly ahead of its time.
None of this overt futurism would make the concept that appeared for the first time at Detroit in 1993. Like the Viper before it, the reception was incredibly enthusiastic. But not for one minute did the attending journalists and public think Plymouth would actually build it. It was just too out there. An OEM hot rod. Had Bobs Eaton and Lutz lost their minds? What the audience didn’t know was that from the beginning it was envisaged if the Prowler made production, it would plunder the deep Mopar parts bin. And secondly, being a halo car Chrysler was prepared for it not to make any money.
What’s incredible is how little had to be changed for production. At least, that’s how it appears – in reality the real Prowler you ended up being able to buy from 1997 was about 75 mm (3”) longer and 100 mm (4”) wider than the concept. Visually, the faired-in headlights had to be pulled out from the nose slightly and side marker lamps appeared on the front of the bodyside, but for all intents and purposes, nothing was lost in translation.
Breaking Down the Design
Having wheels outside the bodywork gives you all sorts of packaging headaches, something I learned the hard way when I designed an electric hot rod for my degree graduation project. Essentially you’ve got less body space to squeeze everything in. Because the Prowler has a narrow nose, this pushed the engine way back giving it a big dash-to-axle ratio (measured from the back of the wheel). Having too big a dimension here is a bit of an overrated virtue and can make your design look cartoonish and out of proportion (c.f. Mercedes AMG GT). The Prowler avoids this trap by having the base of the windscreen in front of the halfway point of the car, so it doesn’t end up nose-heavy.
The packaging problems don’t end there – the Prowler’s wheelbase is a whopping 2895 mm (114”), which is longer than an LH car. Apart from something like a Smart, it’s about as wheel-at-a-corner as it’s possible to get. Again, this is something I see amateurs and students overdoing all the time – shoving the wheels to the corners is a cheat to make your side view sketches look dynamic but as soon as you get to a front or rear three-quarter view it falls apart. And it’s implausible for production. The Prowler solves this problem by having 17” front wheels and 20” rears – keeping them in proportion with the bodyside so it doesn’t look stretched out and helps hide the overhangs, making them look smaller.
The profile has a wicked forward rake – coming from the rear the body follows the shape of the rear wheels and then dive towards the nose. Designers describe this using flowery words like ‘dynamism’ but what it really means is the profile has a feeling of movement even though the car is stationary. There’s just one feature line but look how cleverly it’s also the shut line for the trunk and hood. And the flare at the base of the body neatly becomes the rear wheel arch – it adds substance to the lower body but the way it wraps under stops the car looking heavy; important because at 1270 kg (2800 lbs.) the Prowler is a very light car.
Quite often I think that even some of the best designs have one part that’s a bit challenging to look at: the beauty in imperfection. And on the front those federally mandated front quarter bumpers are it. They’re just a little bit too soft and bulbous. It’s only four 13 mm bolts to remove them, but I’m not convinced removing them is an improvement. Without them, the front view looks a bit insubstantial and naked. I generally don’t like the de-bumpered look on any car, so slimming them down a bit and tightening up the radii of the fillets would work better. Keeping the grille body color makes it look modern, and the shape has an almost art deco feel to it, which ties it visually to the Chrysler Atlantic and slightly less successful Phaeton concept cars from around the same time.
The quarter bumpers are replicated at the rear where, aside from protecting the under-slung exhausts, they allow the rear fenders and bodywork to start much higher than normal – contributing to that raked stance I mentioned earlier. Look how high the rear fender starts in relation to the wheel – it’s way above the axle line. Again, this stops the car from looking soggy and heavy, and exposes a healthy portion of the tire for that proper hot rod look. I love how smoothly the taillights are integrated and the trunk lid is so clean. There’s no visible catch or handle and it has subtle surfacing that is ever so slightly hollowed out before rising again towards the centerline, adding tension and visual interest. The shut line management around the trunk lid is brilliant – it just wraps around the base of the trunk before continuing up the side of the car with no breaks. It’s so simple but visually consistent.
It Wasn’t Just a Pretty Car
You might think I’m contradicting myself praising the Prowler. Aren’t I always ranting against post-modernism and retro redoes? First, chief designer’s prerogative. If I had a heart I’d be allowed to change it on a whim. Harley Earl used to do it all the time. Second, hot rods are an idea. An ethos not tied to a specific car. Anything can be a hot rod – soup it up, lighten it, customize the bodywork. The first hot rods were built from whatever post-war tinkerers could find lying around – the Prowler uses Viper coil-overs, the engine and gearbox from an Eagle Vision, the steering rack from a Dodge Caravan.
More than just giving Plymouth a halo car, what Chrysler learned from the Prowler project was even more priceless. Despite their mid-nineties success, Chrysler didn’t have R&D money to throw around like Ford and GM. They had to be a much leaner, smarter company. The Prowler was essentially an engineering test bed for using aluminum to build cars, years before anyone else had gotten far with the idea. VP of Procurement Tom Stallkamp led efforts to get suppliers involved much earlier in the design process and leveraged their knowledge and research to pioneer advanced construction techniques, such as adhesive bonding and self-piercing rivets. This way of working would eventually lead Stallkamp and Chrysler to introduce the SCORE (Supplier Cost Reduction Effort) program that would reap huge savings, right up until the disastrous ‘merger of equals’ with Mercedes Benz.
Was the Prowler perfect? No car ever is. There’s always compromises somewhere, even if they’re not immediately visible. Unfortunately for the Prowler they were a little too visible – there was no room for a V8 or any luggage, both a consequence of the tight packaging. The engine being forced rearwards meant having to use a transaxle, which destroyed trunk space.
’32 Fords are iconic, but they are an ergonomic shit show. Plus you’ve got to build the damn thing, an undertaking of considerable time and expense. The Prowler did the dirty work for you. It was a turnkey hot rod with modern conveniences and safety systems you could buy from your local Plymouth dealer. It looked fabulous doing it, and despite some parts bin mechanicals, elsewhere it was extremely advanced under the skin.
As Tom Gale reflected at the time, it’s not a sin to have fun.
All images courtesy of Stellantis media.
- The Radical Ford That Changed The Trajectory Of Automotive History
- Why The New Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale Can’t Measure Up To The Gorgeous Original
- Let’s Just Take A Moment Here To Appreciate That The Plymouth Prowler Existed (And Could Be Purchased With A Trailer)
- Here’s The Story Of That Iconic 80’s Plymouth Duster Ad That Stole The Show At The First MTV Video Music Awards