Where Are They Now

How the PT Cruiser Became the Dad Jeans of Cars

In between the minivan’s decline and the SUV’s surge, one of the century’s most beloved — and despised—cars experienced a brief moment of fame

Do you remember the PT Cruiser? Yeah, you do: Chrysler’s po-mo hot rod with the funny name and the Dick Tracy-esque curves? It’s in the first shot of the new CW series Superman and Lois, because it’s the closest thing on the road to the car on the cover of Action Comics #1, the 1938 comic book in which Superman makes his debut. It’s just right — like the current comic-book universes, the PT Cruiser was designed to be contemporary, entertaining, and a very loud echo of the past.

It was also supposed to be as ubiquitous as the DC and Marvel properties feel right now, and it worked. The PT Cruiser was huge, selling for well over the sticker price soon after launch in 2000, all the more surprising because it was the effort of a struggling manufacturer in a brand-new class of vehicle. Ultimately, the throwback vehicle was too popular for its own good; instantly appealing to Boomers, it became overexposed and devolved into the dad jeans of cars, eventually ending up on a lot of worst- and ugliest-car lists. Still, a lot of cars that fared better in the long term owe it a debt.

To understand the PT Cruiser, you first need to understand how automobile sales started shifting at the turn of the millennium. U.S. minivan sales peaked in 2000 and began declining over the next decade, while crossovers rose from 4% of the U.S. market from 2000 to 19% in 2008. Light truck sales, after years of increase, surpassed passenger-car sales for the first time as pickups and SUVs climbed toward their physical and numerical dominance of the American road.

The idea was “candy-coated medicine.”

Americans demanded bigger, more aggressive cars. In 2000, the Wall Street Journal reported that General Motors had nearly beaten DaimlerChrysler to what would be the PT Cruiser’s niche by importing a popular European mini-minivan, the Opel Zafira, but American focus groups were turned off by the small size. DaimlerChrysler, however, figured out a trick.

The idea was “candy-coated medicine,” says Chris Theodore, who was vice president of platform engineering at Chrysler at the time. “There was a market for a mini-minivan if you will, but it couldn’t look like a minivan, and it had to be practical and functional. There had been a history in the American market where hatchbacks in general had failed. If you get into the psychographics, Boomers rejected the station wagons they grew up in, and that helped make the minivans successful, and similarly, the next generation would reject minivans.”

So Chrysler designed something that was none of these things yet all of these things, a compact yet roomy vehicle that was more maneuverable than its SUV and minivan brethren yet flexibly built for ample cargo. The ’30s silhouette wasn’t just a nostalgia nod. Cars like the Deuce Coupe of hot-rodding fame were tall and boxy yet muscular and streamlined, with associations of speed and cool from their illicit street-racing heritage. All that ran counter to the clichés of minivans and station wagons that had those classes on the decline. (On the other hand, Theodore says, British focus-group subjects were underwhelmed by the design because it reminded them of London cabs.)

The result was divisive within focus groups: People either loved it or hated it.

Lead designer Bryan Nesbitt, then in his late 20s, worked with a French medical anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, to find the “reptilian hot button” that would sell the car. Their answer: intimidation. Subjects “contrasted a dangerous outside world with a secure interior of the car,” the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, with Rapaille boiling it down to “It’s Mad Max. People want to kill me, rape me.” That view of the world was selling ever-larger vehicles. Nesbitt took a different approach. He “bulked up the fenders, giving the car a kind of bulldog stance from the rear,” the designer told the Journal.

The result was divisive within focus groups: People either loved it or hated it. But the company had been through a similar experience with the successful Dodge Ram truck, and had realized that what mattered was the share of people who loved it, not the share that hated it. Even if the portion of haters was in the low double digits, the share who loved the car — around a fifth in their market research — represented a lot of sales. Confident that there was a substantial niche for the PT Cruiser, the company gave it the green light despite skepticism within the company.

Chrysler also had another audience in mind with the PT Cruiser’s genre-bending design: the feds. CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) mandates require an automaker’s average fuel economy for each class of vehicle fall below a certain level. So the PT Cruiser was designed to fit in the truck category, helping DaimlerChrysler fall below the 20.7 miles-per-gallon maximum for its light truck/pickup category, offsetting the Ram and other big vehicles that guzzled more gas. This bonus, Theodore says, also got the Cruiser skeptics in the company to sign off on the risk.

This was supposed to be a car for young people. Instead, the PT Cruiser was embraced by Boomers, who connected to the retro styling and liked its familial practicality.

In short, Chrysler designed something that gave drivers what they wanted emotionally from a truck or SUV and what they wanted functionally from a minivan, and it gave the government what they wanted categorically from a truck with the fuel economy of a car. It was a clever aesthetic and engineering decision, and the final product was both distinctive and inexpensive. The PT Cruiser was the North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show, the car equivalent of Best Picture at the Oscars, and was a Car and Driver top-10 pick. Buyers immediately responded. The PT Cruiser sold so much better than the company expected that dealers sold it above the sticker price, and even those who paid up faced delays as the company struggled to meet demand.

Even so, the PT Cruiser didn’t reach the market DaimlerChrysler was aiming for. Its origins can be traced back to the Plymouth Prowler, a niche two-seater hot rod meant to save the flagging Plymouth brand by appealing to the youth market. The PT Cruiser started as a Plymouth. After Chrysler was acquired by Daimler in 1998 it shifted the car to the Chrysler brand and killed Plymouth altogether in 2001, but the intent remained. This was supposed to be a car for young people. Instead, the PT Cruiser was embraced by Boomers, who connected to the retro styling and liked its familial practicality.

This sold a lot of cars — Boomers have money! — but it marked the vehicle as a parental unit shifter. (Square, man.) There was also a hangover from its success that fed the backlash, as people who had bought PT Cruisers at a premium found, just a couple years later, a satiated market with new models selling below sticker price.

The PT Cruiser’s success also doomed it by opening up opportunities for its champions. In 1999 Theodore became a VP at Ford. Nesbitt was hired away by GM in 2001 and soon produced the PT-esque Chevrolet HHR. DaimlerChrysler continued to sell the PT Cruiser, breaking the 100,000 mark for six straight years but coasting on its success. The car’s death knell came in 2008, when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named it the most dangerous small car in America. As Jalopnik noted at the time, the unsurprising news was the result of it “having been abandoned with no new model on the horizon by a sinking company.” Sales of the PT Cruiser fell from 50,000 in 2008 to less than 18,000 in 2009, the same year DaimlerChrysler filed for bankruptcy.

The last PT Cruiser was made in 2011, when fewer than 2,000 were sold. More than a million had been manufactured over 11 years, which left a lot of used cars with a dad reputation for aesthetics and a bad reputation for safety. But the PT Cruiser also helped create a new class of hatchbacks that includes the unashamedly boxy Kia Soul and the softly retro Mini Cooper and Fiat 500L and can be proudly what they are — modestly priced, space-efficient city vehicles that function as spiffed up grocery getters.

Freelance writer/editor in Chicago. Words in Marker, The Atlantic, COVID Tracking Project, elsewhere. Author of ‘Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis.’

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