Future Curbside Classic: 1997-2001 Plymouth Prowler – Suddenly it’s 1957

Yellow Plymouth Prowler

Unless you’re reading this after January the 18th, 2048 (in which case, hello there from 2015! Hopefully all the nutjobs running around predicting the end of civilization were wrong and we’re all doing just fine) there’s one of these buried, or covered with dirt at least, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hopefully when it’s time to take it out, all the planning done by the organizers way back in 1998 will have ensured it is in a better state than the 1957 Belvedere that was taken out of the earth before it. In any case, it has already outlived the Plymouth brand.

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Now the reason that a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere was chosen all those years ago was, at least according to Wikipedia, “for its Virgil Exner styling as a way of showing the people of 2007 the good taste and forward thinking of the people of 1957.” I wouldn’t have picked any other car really. I’m guessing if it had been 1959 the vehicle chosen would’ve been a Cadillac and if it had been 1961 a Lincoln Continental would’ve taken its spot if styling is the only criteria. Unfortunately it seems 1950s concrete sarcophagus design was rather less than impressive and when Miss Belvedere was taken out it looked less like a 1950s example of beautiful design and more like a rust bucket.

It would be a shame if the Prowler disintegrated, as it really is a breathtaking design. As beautiful an example of retro design when it was released in 1997 as it was four years earlier when it was shown as a concept in the 1993 New York Auto Show. Really, would anyone have predicted the Chrysler would actually take it into production? It’s not like the Chrysler Corporation didn’t already have a stylish, mental roadster in the Viper, and the chances of investing more money on such a low-return sector of the market would be very small indeed.

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However, the 1997 model was essentially identical to the concept. Oh sure this time they weren’t working in concept car-land so they had to make it comply with safety regulations and ensure that the powertrain could cash the checks the body was making. Speaking of which, I suppose we do have to talk about the powertrain don’t we?

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When I first saw the Prowler, on a copy of Popular Mechanics that I begged my father to buy me, I was just stunned. I thought, “Here was a car that looked like all those hot rods that they showed in car shows and music videos. But this time people won’t have to destroy a lovely old car to make it, they can just buy it from the factory. I bet the engine is also amazing and unique!” In fact, the drivetrain was the same 3.5-liter engine V6 engine you got on the Chrysler LH cars and it was mated to a four speed automatic. Not the most exciting combination, is it?

The funny thing is, the drivetrain was actually quite good. If they had tried to stick…say the 5.2 or the 5.9-liter Magnum V8’s they would’ve had to do substantial alterations to the design just to get the engines in, essentially taking away the purpose of the Prowler to begin with. After an update in 1999, the engine got a power bump to 254 horsepower, more than either the 5.2 (230) or the 5.9 (230) while weighting less than those engines to boot. Okay a four-speed automatic is not as easy to defend and was already out of place on a ‘90s sports car, at least in concept, but this one benefited from having the option of manual control (AutoStick).

To top it off, it was a very light car thanks to the liberal amounts of aluminum parts used, including the engine block, hood and doors. This, combined with the engine, meant a 0-60 of 5.9 seconds. Nothing to scoff at. Top speed was 126 mph, not that you’d want to drive it at that speed for very long.

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Of course, a product on such a small niche and with love-it-or-hate-it styling was never going to top the sales charts. Common criticisms included the interior ambiance (though that’s to be expected of anything built by an American manufacturer around that time) exterior visibility and a chorus of “it must have a V8”. Chrysler didn’t produce more than 5,000 units a year and on its best year (1999) only 3921 models left production lines. In any case, what I like the most about the Prowler is the simple fact that it exists.

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Few cars make a transition from outlandish concept car to production without losing some pizazz along the way; another example from that era would be the first-gen Audi TT.  The Prowler was something that sold on its design and absolutely nothing else. It was a brief return to an era where you made cars that were stylish first. I wonder how it’ll look alongside what we’ll all be driving in 2048?