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The PT Cruiser Is Cool Again

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Present tastes are often a shunning of the near past, mixed with a sudden embracing of a slightly older past. This is most notable in fashion, where the ’90s have made a comeback. Curiously, apparel seems to lag automotive, which embraced Clinton-era cars years ago and is moving on to Litwood, post-9/11 appreciation. So what’s the vehicular analog of the sudden reemergence of bucket hats? The PT Cruiser, if you’ll believe it.

Your reaction to this news will undoubtedly age you. If you were older when the little, retro-styled economy car came out you might be pleasantly surprised. If you were young when the PT Cruiser first debuted, you’ll probably be horrified and want to argue that the PT Cruiser cannot be cool again because it was never cool in the first place. If you’re young enough to read Blackbird Spyplane, well, you might love the PT Cruiser.

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Why The PT Cruiser Exists

1998 Plymouth Prontocruiserconcept1Since approximately 1970 until now, the company that happens to own Chrysler does not know what to do with Chrysler and has to invent some sort of Hail Mary play to save the brand. First it was the K-Car, then the Minivan, then the Dodge Neon. By the time that it became legendary automotive exec Bob Lutz’s turn, the company was yet again adrift.

What would be the solution to Chrysler’s marketplace woes? To get the answer, Lutz turned to a French medical anthropologist and psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Clotaire Rapaille. His whole schtick was getting corporations to tap into their customer’s lizard brains because carbuying, obviously, was not a wholly rational pursuit. This line of thinking would inevitably led to automakers building SUVs with high beltlines and no visibility, but for Chrysler it meant the PT Cruiser.

The PBS feature program Frontline did a great episode on Rapaille called “The Persuaders” and have an interview with him that’s instructive:

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When I start[ed] working with Chrysler, they told me: “We have done all the research. We have all the questionnaires and focus groups and everything, and we know Americans don’t want cars anymore. They want trucks; they want big SUVs; they want minivans. They don’t want cars.” And I told them, “I think that maybe you are making a mistake here, because you listen to what people say; I don’t.” So I suggested to Chrysler: “Let’s do some kind of work the way I do this. Let’s try to break the code, understand what is the code. What I believe is they are not buying cars because you’re not delivering the reptilian car they want, but if you find out the reptilian code for car and you make a car, you create a car like that, you’re going to sell it.”

So we did this kind of work. We went back to the first imprint. The result is the PT Cruiser. The PT Cruiser is a car [that] when people see it, they say, “Wow, I want it.” Some people hate it; we don’t care. There is enough people that say, “Wow, I want it,” to make a big success. And then when we tested that, and we say, “How much will you pay for this kind of car?,” people say, “Oh, we’ll pay $15,000 or $35,000.” You know that when you have a product where people say $15,000 or $35,000, the price is irrelevant.

What is it that make[s] the PT Cruiser a reptilian car? First, the car has a strong identity. What people told us is that “We’re tired of these cars that have no identity. I have good quality, good gas mileage, good everything else, but when I see the car from a distance, I have to wait till the car gets close to know what it is, and I have to read the name.” When you go to see your mother, she doesn’t need to read your name to know who you are, you see? We want this reptilian connection. And so this notion of identity, absolutely key, was very reptilian for a car.

My actual favorite description of this is from an NY Times article on the doctor:

Missing from the driveway on this particular autumn morning are Dr. Rapaille’s PT Cruiser, the model he helped Chrysler design, with a masculine exterior fit for Al Capone and a feminine interior to satisfy any mom.

Here’s a very recent video of Dr. Rapaille talking about Artificial Intelligence:

Of course, the good doctor is not a designer. The actual creation of the car can be credited to Bryan Nesbitt, who worked with Lutz and Rapaille to make the car.

1998 Plymouth Prontocruiserconcept3There were three concept cars that preceded the production vehicle, all called Pronto. There was the more European and modern Plymouth Pronto. A mid-engined dead end called the Pronto Spyder. And, finally, a radical, Foose-ian extravagance called the Pronto Cruiser Concept.

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That last car, ultimately, is what became the PT Cruiser, and it was destined to became a hit. Just not a hit in the way anyone expected.

What Is A PT Cruiser

Brian NesbittWith Plymouth dead, the PT Cruiser became the Chrysler PT Cruiser. I don’t know that I’d call the PT Cruiser a bad car, but it’s far from a good car. While not actually a Dodge Neon, like most Chryslers, the front-engined, front-wheel drive car shared a few parts with its bubbly economy stablemate. International markets also got the Neon’s 2.0-liter naturally aspirated fourbanger. In the United States, however, we were treated to a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with a whopping 150 horsepower, with an optional five-speed manual.

A PT Cruiser is immediately identifiable by its massive, pontooning fenders and aggressively scowling headlights. The car looks like James Cagney screaming “I made it ma! Top of the world!” in gangster flick “White Heat.” It’s a ridiculous vehicle. You can’t even call it a car because Chrysler tried to pass it off as a truck to skirt fuel economy standards.

Pt Cruiser Surfboard

What differentiated the PT Cruiser and Neon was not performance or technology, but 300 pounds of vintage style in a 10-pound bag. Here’s how Tony Swan of Car And Driver described it back in the June 2000 issue:

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Still, stir as you might, you’re in no danger of rocket-sled face distortion when you mash the pedal to the floor. In this sense, the Cruiser’s hot-rod look is out of step with performance reality. Chrysler insiders say there’s likely to be a turbo option in the Cruiser’s not-too-distant future. But for now the emphasis is on cruisin’ and lookin’ cool.

On the other hand, the Cruiser is surprisingly adept on snaky sections of back roads. Body roll is well-controlled, particularly in view of the relatively high center of gravity; the power rack-and-pinion steering is nicely weighted, with better-than-average road feel; and the damping rates are well-selected for keeping the tires in contact with the surface, even on sections of washboard gravel road.

I like to think Swan absolutely dumped this beast on the rickety gravel farm roads on the outskirts of Ann Arbor back in 2000. Eventually, the PT Cruiser would get a Michael Scott-approved convertible and an actually quick turbo version with the 230 horsepower motor shared with the SRT4 Neon.

Why Millennials Don’t Always Love This Car

I was 17 when this car came out, which makes me an Elder Millennial. While I didn’t hate the way it looked, it immediately felt old to me. It’s the “mom jeans” effect. While I get how high-waisted denim works well with certain body types, the preponderance of the look among actual moms I grew up with has changed the context with which I view the look.

When the car debuted it was not young people who flocked to the PT Cruiser in great numbers. It was actual people above the age of 40!

I found an old press release from PT Cruiser that actually included the demographics, and check out the median age:

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Gender: 46 percent male/54 percent female
Median Age: 51
Median Annual Household Income: $58,000
Education: 18 percent college educated
Household: 70 percent married

So, your typical PT Cruiser owner was a bank teller in their 50s. That’s how I remember it. It’s not like I dislike the cars, it just means something else to me.

Why Young People Seem To Like The Car

This article has been sneaking up on me for a while. I think it started when Jason mentioned that his son Otto wanted a PT Cruiser as his first car. His dad’s a weirdo, and a car nerd, so that sort of tracks. Then I started noticing the PT Cruiser more on Instagram and, yeah, even TikTok. There’s a young woman on the platform that’s documented her life with the car. Also, they seem to be really popular in Japan:

And whatever this is.

Just today, local weekend boy Rob Spiteri brought up that his 12-year-old sister told a group of friends that “Everybody should drive a PT Cruiser Convertible.”

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My assumption is this is somewhat ironic, in the same way that clamshell iBooks and other Y2K aesthetic signifiers have suddenly rocketed back into our lives. I reached out to Syd, from OHOAT, as both a certified young person and also an individual with a good read on weird culture.

Pt Cruiser

“I think it’s satire, but also they genuinely like it,” Syd told me, before adding “Which is weird, because the cars are absolute pieces of shit.”

LOL.

Our own Mercedes Streeter had a similar line.

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“I cannot explain why other people like the PT Cruiser, but I love them (and the HHR) because in my eye, it showed a time when Chrysler and Chevrolet weren’t so boring.” Indeed, say what you will about the PT Cruiser (or GM’s clone, the Chevy HHR), They are not boring.

Thomas Hundal followed suit.

“Young people are enjoying PT Cruisers as a semi-ironic fashion statement,” he said in Slack. “The 20-year cycle means the early aughts are where nostalgia’s at right now…. except for that one year where everyone got weirdly into chants. Juicy Couture, Von Dutch, wired headphones, early iPods, CDs, compact digital cameras, all of that’s now fashionable again.”

Well, now I have to:

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So, there you go. Semi-ironic appreciation that becomes regular appreciation. I was into swing music when I was 15, so I am not going to judge.

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Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
9 months ago

We were members of the target demographic when we bought our 1st (a new 2003). Since then two used — turbo 2004 (not GT) and another 2003.
I guess I need to find an objectively “good” vehicle for comparison, as I’ve had no reason to complain about our PT’s.
But, at 71, I’m clearly an old guy, driving an old guy’s car!

Bork Bork
Bork Bork
9 months ago

I like it just because it’s not a boring blob and I don’t care if it sucks since I don’t have to drive it, I’m fine with other people filling the roads with shitty non-boring cars!

Drh3b
Drh3b
9 months ago

I always thought the PT Cruiser was a good looking car, but the only interesting version of it was the GT Cruiser. That, I wouldn’t mind having.

Ron888
Ron888
9 months ago

The poster child of what overexposure can do.
It was a great idea,done in a slightly cynical way ,then pushed so hard everyone got sick of looking at it

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
9 months ago

I still remember the elementary-school gotcha joke of “Are you PT?” When someone said no because, uh, what’s a PT in the pre-Cruiser era, the response was always “YOU’RE NOT POTTY TRAINED? OHHHHHHH!!”

I think this was a better car than it was given credit for—not good per se, but something that was funky and different, cool before the boomers truly took it over to its silliest ends, and better driving than the histrionics about it suggest. Like, it was successful for a reason.

But it will never, ever escape the fate of being the Potty-Trained Cruiser.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
4 months ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

“No ma’am, I’m not. I prefer to just let it rip in my pants. Never have to look for a washroom and people leave me alone… and I feel GREAT!!!”

Last edited 4 months ago by Manwich Sandwich
Black Peter
Black Peter
9 months ago

Please go into this document, use Find/Replace and add “stock” PT Cruiser to all your statements. Because I still see the appeal but just not the atrocious reeditions some people are shameless enough to drive around. Like adding porthole rear windows to extra geegaws on the hood/fenders

415s30
415s30
9 months ago

No, you’ve lost your damn mind.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
4 months ago
Reply to  415s30

… for thinking that the PT Cruiser was ever uncool!!!

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
9 months ago

Counter point: No it is not. It’s not ironic, it’s not fashion. It is a hulking pile of crap, just like almost every other Dodge or Chrysler car of that era (the Viper was cool, and mini vans, and trucks get a pass from me). The generation that thinks this thing is cool also had to be told not to eat laundry detergent, so I don’t think their judgement counts yet. They will soon see the errors of their ways and become old and jaded like the rest of us.

Highland Green Miata
Highland Green Miata
9 months ago

We had one as a rental car some years back. We picked it up in Savannah Georgia on a hot summers’ day and within a few minutes all of us were like “what is that SMELL?”. There was a poopy diaper under the driver seat. To my kids forever more that type of car is known as a PU Cruiser.

Last edited 9 months ago by Highland Green Miata
Black Peter
Black Peter
9 months ago

lol

Beer-light Guidance
Beer-light Guidance
9 months ago

I always appreciated that they existed as something different and as something different I could get how some people just loved them (I’ve told the story here before about a friend’s wealthy dad who would let his kids drive his brand new 7-series, but the PT Cruiser was off limits).
I will never forget being at the rental counter and the agent doing her best to upsell me on a PT Cruiser for only $15 a day. After I passed she just kind of shrugged, handed me some keys and told be parking spot number. I got to that spot only to find a PT Cruiser. My appreciation diminished considerably after driving it around for several days.

Jonee Eisen
Jonee Eisen
9 months ago

I get it. When I was a little kid the AMC Pacer came out. It was kind of that era’s PT Cruiser although never as popular. The Pacer was briefly cool and then became a source of ridicule. I thought it was the prettiest car on the road and grew up loving it. When I was old enough, I bought myself one. Then another and another… I’ve had 13 Pacers in my life and adored every one. I never liked the PT Cruiser myself, but respect to the kids who do. At least it came in purple.

Myk El
Myk El
9 months ago

I won’t critique the PT Cruiser for its style, that wasn’t the issue. However the vehicle itself was an awful experience. If it was built to cruise in, those seats made it so you wouldn’t want to for very long. The car will never, ever be cool to me.

Autojunkie
Autojunkie
9 months ago

Middle Gen Xer checking in here.
I purchased one as my wife’s car/family car when my daughter was 2 (she’s 23 now). It was the car she grew up in. We kept it until I traded it just before she turned 16. It survived in our family longer than I wanted and longer than I expected, thanks to The Great Recession.
I purchased it because my wife loved them and I could see that this would make a great roadtrip car without having to resort to a minivan. Guess what? It IS a minivan. Travel we did. We drive that car, a 2001 model I purchased used, everywhere including our first roadtrip to California, along all of Route 66, back in 2006. We removed the larger of the two back seats, loaded up our bags and camping equipment, and drove across the country (from Detroit). The car had what we needed as a young family. It was versatile and fun to drive with the 5-speed.
Aside from the power steering rack taking a shit and a handfule of other minor issues, it held up well. We never fixed the power steering and just kept driving it without the power assist.
Would I want another? Fuck no! Would I let my daughter buy one? I’d do my best to talk her out of it.

Yes I Drive A 240
Yes I Drive A 240
9 months ago

It’s cool? AGAIN?!?!

When was it ever cool?

Jerry Johnson
Jerry Johnson
9 months ago

I didn’t like the PT when it came out because I thought it was ugly. Then, I realized they could come in 5 speed….then after I bought my first neon I realized they came as a PTGT with a 2.4 turbo 5 speed setup, that is basically a chubby SRT-4. Suddenly, this was a really cool car to me. Ugly, and unsuspectingly fast.

I had a PT for a while. Paid $200 for it, rebuilt a few things after my wife totaled the front end hitting a tire retread, and then got paid $2200 by an insurance company when a cop backed into it and undid everything I fixed. Honestly a great car to drive, and I would gladly own another if it was a PTGT.

But….I think there is a direct line from the introduction of the PT Cruiser to the modern day crossover, because the PT was technically a “not a car”.

The Artist Formerly Known as the Uncouth Sloth
The Artist Formerly Known as the Uncouth Sloth
9 months ago

I have an issue with the word “Again” in this title

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
9 months ago

Personally, my problem with the PT Cruiser is that it seemed too obviously watered-down. The 1930’s retro form is OK in and of itself, but between modern regulations and Chrysler’s financial decision-making, it came out bland and blobby like too many others of its contemporaries. On top of that, it was built on the front-wheel drive Neon platform, which wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great, either, in base form — plus it was now carrying around a heavier vehicle.

Had Chrysler offered sportier packages and the turbocharged version sooner, the outcome might have been different. Had they built it as a rear-drive car, it would have been closer to the Prowler that they promoted it as emulating, and probably could have started up a whole enthusiast cult of its own. But they didn’t. In the end, the PT Cruiser came off more as a car posing as something it wasn’t. Style over substance.

D-dub
D-dub
9 months ago

As a grumpy old Gen Xer, I’ll just shake my head at the yutes that think the PT is cool the same way I shake my head at the yutes that think their white tube socks are cool.

Bob Boxbody
Bob Boxbody
9 months ago
Reply to  D-dub

Young hipsters like to relive all our mistakes. Sometimes it goes too far. They tried to bring cassette tapes back recently!

Tim Connors
Tim Connors
9 months ago
Reply to  Bob Boxbody

I’m a teacher. I recently had a 16 year old explain to me how you can record stuff on cassettes. I was pretty much like, “Dude. I’m 40. I know.”

Bork Bork
Bork Bork
9 months ago
Reply to  Bob Boxbody

Not just tried, it’s a fast growing market.

ChefCJ
ChefCJ
9 months ago
Reply to  D-dub

I see all these kids walking around now with mullets, it’s like we’ve learned nothing

Emil Minty
Emil Minty
9 months ago

It reflects Gen Z’s greater comfort with post modernism.

(IMHO, best Regular Car Reviews video.)

https://youtu.be/hoxqtnI4I4c

Last edited 9 months ago by Emil Minty
World24
World24
9 months ago

I still miss the PT Cruiser GT I wanted to get as my first car….
PT’s were always gonna be cool to me. Honestly, I prefer the Daimler update far more than the originals.
If I ever win the lottery, I swear I’ll probably have like 7 of them just for different builds!

Thebloody_shitposter
Thebloody_shitposter
9 months ago

To paraphrase Mean Girls: “Stop trying to make fetch PT Cruiser happen, it’s not going to happen”

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