Home » The Plymouth Prowler Was Way More Advanced Than You’d Guess

The Plymouth Prowler Was Way More Advanced Than You’d Guess

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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.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

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.

Lee Iacocca Introduces the Plymouth Voyager in 1984
Lee Iacocca Introduces the Plymouth Voyager in 1984

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

1989 Dodge Viper Concept
1989 Dodge Viper Concept

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.

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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.

Kevin Verduyn's Original Prowler Sketch
Kevin Verduyn’s Original Prowler Sketch
Prowler5 1edit
Prowler Fifth Scale Studio Model

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.

Prowler Concept Production

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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.

Prowler9 Edit Copy

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.

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Prowler10 Edit Copy

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.

Prowler12 Edit Copy

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.

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Prowler11

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.

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All images courtesy of Stellantis media.

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Xpumpx
Xpumpx
8 months ago

I love them and wish there were more around. Building and designing cars used to look like so much more fun.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
8 months ago

looks like mantis sorry old saps drive one blasting Limp biscuit
.

Abe Froman
Abe Froman
8 months ago

My Grandfather spent his career working for Chrysler. Always has been a car guy, but sadly has not been driving for 8 years now (but still kicking it at 90!).

There was a run of “fun” cars that he owned when I was growing up, and he bought the Prowler when I was 14. It was so much fun to ride around in, and my 14 year old self thought cars don’t get cooler. At 18 I borrowed it for Prom and had an ear to ear grin more from driving the car than my date.

He traded the prowler for a Crossfire and dumped the crossfire for a bright blue Charger, which was the last car he drove. He still talks about how much he loved the Prowler.

Myk El
Myk El
8 months ago

There’s a definite positive to halo cars, especially with a dealership model as most do. I’m told the Scion FR-S sold a lot of Scion tCs. It was still a coupe, looked decent and more practical than the FR-S. I like the Prowler. I like that purple was the color selected to show it off. It’s not the car for me for a couple of reasons, but I am glad it exists.

Small Fact0ry
Small Fact0ry
8 months ago

Bringing back memories here: Back in the 90’s, a guy I worked for rented one for a weekend, and I was able to drive it for quite a bit. Things that still stand out to me to this day: It was a small cockpit. It wasn’t fast, but not horribly slow, really the auto transmission was bad, and really held it back. It handled well. The most memorable part was watching the little front fenders turn with the front wheels. Honestly, it was a car you’d purchase to be seen in, and just to have something different. After a long day, we got back into his new loaded NB Miata and I was impressed by the VERY different 2-seater top down driving experiences that we had in the same day…

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
8 months ago
Reply to  Small Fact0ry

Actually looked at one (purple) for sale once but then seeing how small the cabin was, took it off my list of desirables. Not at my height.

Racer71
Racer71
8 months ago
Reply to  Inthemikelane

Have a friend who’s 6’5 that had one, windshield frame was right in his line of sight. He did remove the visor to help matters some for the few months he had it.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
8 months ago

In retrospect I wonder if they considered a complete open engine Ala Dragster and fit a V8 instead of a triangle 6 cylinder?
An open engine was very hotrod for a period.

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
8 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

I’ve heard of V8 conversions, but not an open engine bay, that would be pretty cool. Another idea that could work is external exhaust pipes like the 1937 Cord Supercharged Cabriolet, always thought that was a nice look.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
8 months ago

Yes all cars have pluses and minuses. But having the biggest minus a low power engine in a car that is built for people who want fast is a killer. I would suggest negatives be in the irrelevant categories and positives be in the main area of the car.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
8 months ago

Ha, dude my first car was a 68 Charger, big block/4spd. Mopars ARE cool, and from a design standpoint they took more risks and got crazier than ford or GM ever did. From the high impact colors, to the road runner tie ins, the shark teeth on the pop up hood scoops, the giant wings and nose cones, they just went HARD and always made the competition seem a lot more boring.

Anyway, spot on about the prowler, it’s a cool car. I know people complain it doesn’t have a V8, and I get it, but also… who cares when it looks that awesome. I have always wondered why the ‘easily removable federal impact bumpers’ approach wasn’t abused more. It seems like a great way to skirt regulation and still make attractive designs, it’s like bicycle companies shipping their bikes with dorky reflectors on the wheels, seat post, and handlebars- that stuff all gets binned as soon as the new owners takes it home.

Also my random prowler story; I was snowmobiling in the northwoods of Wisconsin, and stopped by Crandon, WI for lunch. Behind a parking lot, under feet of snow…. wtf…

https://youtu.be/8MIpa9w4vAg?t=462

Even took video of it because it was so odd to see a prowler in the back of a parking lot covered in snow.

The World of Vee
The World of Vee
8 months ago

If you own a Prowler and DON’T have the trailer, like what are you even doing?

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
8 months ago

I would note that for those pining for a Prowler style thing nowadays, a better option may be that Factory 5 kit, put whatever powertrain you want in it, less issues getting proprietary parts, lighter, sleeker. Prowlers are getting fairly long in the tooth, and all those common bin plastic pieces don’t age as gracefully.

Scone Muncher
Scone Muncher
8 months ago

A dealer has one near me with 29(!) miles on it. $60K Canadian. I don’t have that kind of scratch lying around, clearly…but… https://www.autotrader.ca/a/plymouth/prowler/stouffville/ontario/5_60207516_20140416113853581/

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
8 months ago

Bulbous yes, but was it fast?
Hmm, never thought of it before but does that make the Viper Dodge’s mascara snake?

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
8 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

Capt. Beefheart approves!

Scone Muncher
Scone Muncher
8 months ago

I had a poster of this car on my wall, man I wanted one. If their target was impressionable youths, consider it a win.

Pappa P
Pappa P
8 months ago

With the Prowler they got almost everything right.
It atoned for the sins of the PT Cruiser, bringing that true hotrod profile with awesome modern huge rims and exotic suspension, and a price to match.
Of course many journalists at the time bemoaned the lack of a V8. I thought it was cool because it had decent power.
As time went on, it became very clear how horrible of a mistake that drivetrain was. Those engines and transmissions were never known for reliability, and the price of the car simply wasn’t justifiable with such a compromised powertrain.
My best (only) memory of these was circa 2000, when my friends were doing a video shoot in Toronto, and managed to hire DMX for a special appearance (I think he was in town filming Exit Wounds).
His chariot of choice for the evening was a Prowler, and it was pretty goddamn impressive seeing him pull up in it.

Dieseldub
Dieseldub
8 months ago

First time I got up close and underneath a Prowler on an alignment rack, I got a lot more impressed with it.

It’s a lot more obvious how aluminum-intensive it is when you get underneath it. And then also the inboard coil-overs with rocker arms and a big push rod to a control arm on each side is open wheel racer type stuff. It also makes the very exposed control arms look a lot cleaner not having the shock and spring visible, as well as more aerodynamic not having them in the air stream (primary reason why open wheel racers do it).

I don’t have a major complaint with the choice of engine, either. The later 3.5L making around 250 hp for a car as light as the Prowler was nothing to sneeze at. All of Mopar’s V8 offerings at the time weren’t that much more powerful and weighed a hell of a lot more.

The more modern high output V6 was not a bad choice at all. The only gripe I can really come up with is the fact that it’s coupled to a mushy 4 speed automatic. If they had offered a 6 speed manual as an option, a so-equipped car would be revered and highly sought after today. No BS.

~250 hp in a sub 3000 lb car is enough to be pretty quick, especially with a better transmission.

Ricardo Mercio
Ricardo Mercio
8 months ago
Reply to  Dieseldub

At 250hp and 2800lb, it equals a same-year Boxster S in both metrics, no doubt it’d be hotly sought after with a manual.

R53forfun
R53forfun
8 months ago

“The Plymouth Prowler Was Way More Advanced Than You’d Guess”

I sure hope so.

Astrass
Astrass
8 months ago

I’ve never seen the mandatory V6 as a an issue for the Prowler (unlike many other enthusiasts, I admit). Chrysler’s engine lineup at the time consisted of the PowerTech I4 in the Neon, the LH V6, the Magnum V8, and the Viper’s V10. Of those, the I4 was never going to fly with the Prowler’s target audience, and the Viper V10 fitting in the Prowler’s engine bay was the stuff of dreams only. So that leaves the V6 and V8: a then-modern SOHC engine versus a low-revving truck engine dating back to the 1960s. The SOHC was lighter, smaller, revved higher, and made roughly the same power as the V8 (more once with its refresh). I used to drive a Dodge van with the Magnum as a work truck; fast that thing was not. Putting in the V8 would have added serviceability, weight, and possibly crash test safety issues to an already boutique car; in that light, the V6 was a no-brainer.

The Prowler’s real issue was the (also mandatory) 4-speed automatic. I’ve never driven a Chrysler with this specific transmission, but I have driven cars with similar transmissions from the time period. Sporty and fun did not share a zip code with them. An optional manual might have made this car shine.

100percentjake
100percentjake
8 months ago

Love the continuity and purpose in the lines of the Prowler. Modern cars have adopted a “more is better” approach, seemingly, to styling with character lines that go nowhere, big swooping themes on the side of cars that are directly at odds with the beltline and other features, and a buying public that looks upon an understated elegant design and deems it “boring” because the door panels aren’t broken up with fifteen chaotic swage lines.

Disclaimer: I’m in love with the design of the 05-09 Mustang and think the facelift absolutely ruined it by busying up the front fascia and blending in the dope-as-hell fender bulges.

100percentjake
100percentjake
8 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

I love the plain-ness. It’s such a distillation of the minimum amount of design elements to make a mustang “Mustang” and it looks like car from a Robocop movie, lol.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
8 months ago

“Mopars were just cool.”

True. Here’s my former Plymouth being cool:

https://live.staticflickr.com/5281/5200086501_78080d039e_c.jpg

Martin Dollinger
Martin Dollinger
8 months ago

I really adore that small beak bumperette over the radiator in the first sketch and model. A detail that could well have been on a French experimental car of the 1940s (think Grégoire or Panhard).

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
8 months ago

Two corrections:

You said that at 2800lbs, the Prowler is a very light car. I would call that a fairly light car, but kinda on the heavy side for a two seat roadster. I mean that’s like 500lb more than a contemporary Miata, and it’s heavier than a Sentra, Tercel or Civic of the same year.

You also said that a Prowler was a testbed for aluminum cars, years before any other manufacturer experimented with aluminum. That is, except for Honda, who was already selling an all aluminum NSX, and Mazda, who was already selling cars with aluminum panels.

I enjoyed the look back at the Prowler, which I still don’t particularly like(I don’t really like 32 Fords either, so makes sense).

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
8 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Yeah a Miata is just a 90s two seat roadster that I know the weight of off the top of my head. Looks like an NSX is a more comparable weight.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
8 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

> kinda on the heavy side for a two seat roadster.

My R107 feels personally attacked

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