Wednesday, December 16, 2015
The Plymouth Prowler Was Secretly Chrysler's Most Important Engineering Experiment
ROAD & TRACK
The Plymouth Prowler doesn't have a sterling reputation in the automotive press. At the time of its 1997 debut, it was criticized for packing a 3.5-liter V6 in a body that screamed for a V8; today, its Syd Mead retrofuture styling has gone out of vogue. By the time it was discontinued in 2002, wearing a Chrysler badge after Plymouth's demise, fewer than 12,000 Prowlers had been sold.
It may seem like the Prowler was a fluke, a strange side project that somehow made it past the accountants to share a showroom floor with Town & Country minivans and Ram pickups. But when the Prowler came up in conversation at the R&T office this week, it made me wonder: What made Chrysler pull the trigger on this particular project?
To find out, I spoke with Tom Gale, the former head of design at Chrysler who shepherded the Prowler into production. As it turns out, the car was far more than a 1990s spin on a 1933 Ford—it was Chrysler's largest-ever experiment in building aluminum cars, coming nearly 20 years ahead of the aluminum car revolution we're seeing today.
"The whole thing really was an exercise in research for how to use aluminum materials," Gale says of the Prowler. "At the time, Chrysler really didn't have a lot of applied research. So in my view, this was a great way to kind of force us to take a look at aluminum stamping, aluminum forming, extrusions, welding, and combining that with composite materials.
"Prowler was really more about that than it was the car itself, and I was kind of the one that pushed that. I was just anxious to see us have that kind of research," Gale says.
"At the time, we could see where things were going to go, especially if you looked at a long-term trend, with fuel economy and weight," Gale told me. "And yet we really didn't have the kind of expertise we felt we needed. So having [Prowler] happen, having the ability to bring [aluminum] panels into a production environment, definitely provided us with knowledge that we wouldn't have gained in other ways."
When the production Prowler hit the streets in 1998, its classic hot-rod styling hid some highly advanced, aluminum-intensive construction, including adhesive bonding techniques similar to those used in the extremely lightweight Lotus Elise. "When you look at how the frame rails were done, how the A-arms were cast, they were all special-purpose pieces made with production tooling," Gale says. "To me, it was always more about the research than it was the product itself."
Of course, a big part of the criticism against the Prowler, both at the time of its debut and in the years since, had to do with its drivetrain: A 214-hp 3.5-liter V6 turning a four-speed automatic transaxle. "If we had it to do over again, I would probably have wanted a V8," Gale says. "I think the Prowler would have been more successful had we gone with a V8. We were trying to be responsible—here you've got this totally irresponsible project, and yet you're trying to be responsible by using a V6."
There were packaging reasons for choosing the six-cylinder engine as well. In our conversation, Gale explained how difficult it was to make such an aggressive design meet the day's crash safety requirements, especially considering how little front bumper structure was provided by the open-wheel design. "All of those were good reasons to end up with the V6 and the packaging we did," Gale told me. "Of course, I've got the benefit of 20/20 hindsight."
I asked Gale if the Prowler was ever meant to be a large volume seller. "Oh no, never, never ever," he told me. "The real reason, the rationale in my view, was always applied research for using aluminum."
"You have to remember, everybody thought design was brain-dead in the mid-80s," Gale told me. "We were trying to say, look, we know how to do this stuff. This was the chance to have a separate group of people that could be relatively autonomous, and it was perfect for a research environment."
Gale explained how cars like the Prowler, along with the Viper and the original Dodge Neon concept, helped to revive the culture of concept cars. "We were looking for a way to differentiate ourselves in a meaningful way," he says. "[Concept cars] really did serve a purpose—everybody else had kind of abandoned them."
Gale says the push for concept cars, along with a new philosophy at Chrysler that placed designers, engineers, and sales and marketing people in horizontal teams, helped to bring the automaker back from the brink. "In my view, it really was largely responsible for the resurgence of the company in the 90s, and thank goodness for management to have that foresight to go along with it," he says.
How does Gale view the Prowler today? "I don't know that it's necessarily one that I would want to stand there and say, this is my claim to fame," he told me. "But by the same token, when you look at its success from the inside of the company, I applaud it because of what it meant to us. I think it was a success that it even made it to production."
"I always chafe a little bit because the car, from a design perspective, I would argue is quite good," Gale told me. "It's fresh, there's no discordant lines."
The Plymouth Prowler is one of the hallmark cars of an astoundingly daring era at Chrysler. Looking back, it's hard to believe that the same automaker known for the stylistically underwhelming K-Car and Caravan was cranking out Vipers, Prowlers, and the wholly under-appreciated LH and LX platforms just a decade later. Gale hesitates to take credit for it, but his design influence led Chrysler to take big gambles with far-out concept cars, then turn them into production vehicles that the average American could buy.
In our conversation, Gale, who is unfailingly polite, lightly bemoaned how conservative car design has become lately. "If I lined up all the vehicles [on sale today] and you just looked at some of the graphics, it's like all of the designers are drinking in the same bar at night," he chuckled. "I just think it's everybody watching everybody else. Maybe it's an over-emphasis on planning and engineering, and maybe not quite as much focus on design," he says.
"Maybe too many of us did things that were crazy."