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.
Why The PT Cruiser Exists
Since 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:
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.
There 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.
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
With 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.
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:
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:
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.”
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.
“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.”
Our own Mercedes Streeter had a similar line.
“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:
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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