COAL: 2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser — Automotive Dress-Up

A duplicate to my PT Cruiser. Painted bumpers and silver painted alloy wheels created a monochromatic effect.

The early 2000’s were an odd time to be alive. The first real sustained stock market drop and economic reversal since the 1980’s, the first real aging-out and retirement time for early Baby Boomers, and two things that really jolted peoples’ psyches, the 2000 Presidential election, contested, with “hanging chads” (which now sounds like some sort of rude band name), and the September 11, 2001 attack.

In the midst of all of this, cars had generally become very generic and interchangeable. One could go off with Vipers or various Porsches, but for the somewhat to fully affordable daily drivers, the available pool of cars had gotten very broad, but perhaps not deep with distinctive choices. Perhaps the advent of seriously looking backward for automotive styling inspiration was intensified by the traumas of the early 2000s?

The idea of hanging evocative backward-looking bodywork onto otherwise ordinary mechanicals showed up again and again, beginning with smaller exercises in the 1990s. By the first decade of the 2000s, various manufacturers delved through their own prior work (and, in some cases, the prior work of others), to come up with cars completely devoted to aping that prior work, either generically or specifically.

Auto manufacturers have looked backwards for decades. Recall the original Mustang styling cues consciously applied to the exterior of the 1974 Mustang II. Later, in the 1990s, Ford more successfully incorporated shapes and elements of the old fastback Mustang into its then-contemporary offering of the car. The first Miata of 1989 appeared to be a rework of the original Lotus Elan. Large 1990s Chevrolets consciously incorporated styling elements (and some branding) of the older large Chevys. One could argue that Lincoln, Cadillac, and Buick had been backwards looking in their styling details and branding for decades with some of their offerings, never quite letting go of a few of the cues, long past the “stale date” for any buyers under a certain age. The 1994 Dodge pickups aped the front fender arches of the old Power Wagons, in some vague way. Jeep just kept making Jeeps that looked like the old ones, more or less, and continues to do so to this day.

The “new” Mini. A more successful “retro” styling exercise, that remains in production all these years later.

Roughly the first decade of the 2000s witnessed the first real “end-to-end” copies, or modern interpretations, of obsolete, but beloved, old cars. We had the “new” Beetle, the “new” Mini, a modern 1955 Thunderbird, and a later iteration of a roughly 1950 Chevy Suburban or panel truck. Stretching things a bit, there was the weird hot-rod Plymouth Prowler thing, and a convertible modern 1950ish hot-rod Chevy pickup. A bit later came the new Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger, straight-up modern interpretations of old pony car designs. Like movie remakes or modern recordings of old songs, our cars began ploughing old territory, rather than striking out in new directions (this is not entirely true, witness the Nissan Cube and the Kia Soul with its hamster ads, but they were not marketed to Baby Boomers, but rather to younger generations).

An early 2000s iteration of a fifties T-Bird. So many of these “retro” cars came and went, in the early years of the 2000s.

Among the most prominent, creative, and complete workovers of the era was the PT Cruiser. It was one of those cars, like the redone Mini, that went from zero to everywhere in a matter of months. While most manufacturers mined their own history for inspiration, Chrysler actually modeled their throwback design after a 1937 Ford. An argument can be made that the ‘37 was the least attractive of a long string of beautiful Fords from the Model A through the early ‘40s, before World War 2 stopped production, but the ‘37 is what Chrysler chose to go with. Perhaps the tall and stubby mien of the ‘37 Ford was needed to properly flesh out the proportions of the PT into something recognizable. Or that the ‘37 was not as obviously a Ford as were many others, so that the theft was less obvious or offensive. Perhaps Chrysler wanted to make sure people didn’t think of the Airflows of the ‘30s, considered by many a design error, even though some of the shapes and elements of the PT could look a bit Airflowesque, if one squinted very hard. Make it semi-obviously a Ford, and that problem was headed off before it ever got going. Chrysler actually did quite a bit of nice design work of its own in the ‘30s. Not particularly distinctive, but handsome.

1937 Ford. It is generally accepted that this car served as the inspiration for the PT Cruiser. The lack of rake definitely changes things.

From a packaging standpoint, there were all sorts of constraints combined with open avenues to try new things. Like the PT or not, it represented a very creative piece of work, in various disparate ways. The willingness to “go there”, to do something that was novel in so many ways, and actually take it into production, may represent some sort of high-point in taking chances, that we may not see again from a car company with significant Detroit DNA in it. Keep in mind that Chrysler was coming off of a hugely successful and sustained gain in market share from what was essentially a bold design exercise on its full size pickups. They had also hit a solid double with their LH “Cab Forward” sedans, which demonstrated design and engineering moxie that was well respected, even if sales and public reputation were solid but not spectacular. “Going for it” had reaped rewards, so Chrysler “went for it” with the PT.

The car was roughly based on a Neon-sized platform, with a Neon-based powerplant. The Neon itself had been another Chrysler project that added heft to their product catalog. It was, again, a double rather than a home-run, but it gave form to the underlying mechanicals of the PT, and it showed that Chrysler was actually capable of offering a contender in all sorts of different target markets, if they chose to go there. So Chrysler had a mechanical starting point to work from, and they definitely had the confidence to go out there and try some things.

Low in the front, high in the back. Playing visual games with a basic box of a car.

The PT was actually engineered to be categorized as a small truck, due to a redesign of the rear suspension to enable a flat, low floor in the back. The minutiae of various dimensional and capacity definitions and arrangements allowed the truck designation, legally, which offered some slack on things such as fleet fuel economy requirements (more “trucks” in the mix allowed a lower overall “fleet” fuel economy requirement). The small PT engine raised the overall Chrysler average vehicle fuel economy, even as the PT “truck” designation lowered the target. Quite a clever “two-fer” for Chrysler. And because the car sold well, the calculations were enough to meaningfully move the needles (so to speak).

Let’s get to the car itself. It looks distinctive, and, initially, at least, oddly attractive and cute (at least to me). As it became, over time, more of a car seen as owned by poorer Middle America middle-agers, and as a platform for questionable flamed paint jobs or di-noc “woody” exercises, the bloom came off the rose a bit. Unlike, say, the original Mustang, when the styling novelty wore off, the PT was just an older, slightly odd-looking car, rather than as something still loved or desired. The retro-styled peers also seemed to lose their luster (and their resale value) fairly quickly, as a group. They either went on and on, as the new Mini has done, or they came and went without retaining the aura of the original. I am thinking of the new Beetle and of the T-Bird remake, which hold no particular value these days. Perhaps the lack of sustained enthusiasm has to do with the idea that the car was primarily for “older folks”. The new Mini bucked the “older folks’ car” tag a bit better, so it sustained solid sales for a longer period of time. Mini also chose to work and extend the car line over the decades, to keep things a bit “fresher”. The other retro offerings were more “one-and-done”.

The PT doesn’t appear particularly “big”, but the egg shape and the overall proportions emphasize the “high” and “stubby” look. In particular, the unbroken, unwavering, raked belt line adds to the feel. Typically, a “high” belt line would mean shorter side windows, but it is really not the case here. The side windows are full sized in height, not tiny slits. The belt line is actually fairly low at the front of the car. It is the extreme rake of the belt line that defines everything else here. The car even has the propensity to go “stink bug” in its proportions. But the “fat” rear end with a lithe front end (though short and framed with big, fat front fenders) makes it all work, in a fashion. I would call this one a case of the whole being a bit greater than the sum of the parts, because the design work actually pulls off a fairly impossible task, which is to give grace and a sense of motion to a not long, but tall, fat car. Most cars with similar proportions (I’m thinking here of the Cube, the Scion iB, and the Honda Element) just stay with the box shape and don’t even try. The Chevy HHR (the Suburban throwback, designed by the same person as the head of the PT design team, Bryan Nesbitt) didn’t make a big attempt to deviate from the “box” arrangement either.

The side profile demonstrates the degree of rake designed into the car.

When one actually sits in the car or otherwise begins interacting with it, the smallness of the entire package really begins to reveal itself. One gets leg room and head room, but not shoulder room. The rear seat passengers are right behind the front seat occupants. The head rests prevent those in the back from breathing on the backs of the necks of those up front, if one wants a bit of a creepy mental picture to explain it. Likewise, the shoulder room is evocative of other, very small cars. Perhaps not Austin Sprite tight (nothing is that tight), but much less than one expects. Note how the doors hang a bit inboard of the front and rear fenders, evoking a bit of “running board” capability. That makes the interior extra narrow for a car of that wheel-to-wheel width. Even the seat cushions, gauges, and controls all feel about 3/4s or 7/8s size, once one is sitting in the thing. The efficiency in a small package creates all sorts of proportional scaling-down of everything, once one gets past the overall boxiness of the interior space.

The dashboard carries over the retro theme. Once you take a seat, you realize that everything is 3/4s to 7/8s size.

The space behind the rear seat is extremely triangular in the vertical, given how the rear hatch slopes forward as it goes up. A removable flat panel gives that rear space a measure of privacy that one typically does not get in a hatchback arrangement. Flip forward or remove the rear seats, and quite a bit of space becomes available. It is a useful space, given the high roof, but it is not a “big” space. Once again, the small scale of the car deflates the measure of victory accorded by clever design work.

With the back seats flipped forward, there is a nicely shaped space to work with. Looks are deceiving, as the car itself is so small.

Speaking of space, note how the rake drops the front of the car fairly low. The narrowness of the hood, side to side, squeezes the lateral dimension, while the bottom of the windshield to the front edge of the hood is actually quite short. Open the hood, and you get no space to work in there, in any direction. Things are packed in. There is also a ton of plastic visible, and not much metal. For an old-school mechanic such as myself, this is an unattractive environment, both spatially and materially. The less done under there, the better. Efficiency creates its own issues.

The 2003 had the original front bodywork, but with body-color painted bumpers, instead of grey plastic.

Driving the car was pleasant enough. I opted for the manual transmission, which gave the car just enough pep and a capacity for responsiveness to make it mildly pleasing, rather than “flooring it and waiting for something to happen”. However, in high speed sweeping corners, the high center of gravity revealed itself, particularly if I was carrying passengers. I could feel the car’s willingness to lift the inside a bit too much, given the opportunity. Most newer cars, and even most light duty trucks, never exhibit such a feel, under mostly ordinary circumstances. This feeling harkened back to my old autocross days, and it was a bit unnerving on open highways in an ordinary car. I never actually had any issues, but the feeling that a potentially dangerous threshold was being approached was not a good one.

In 2006, the front bodywork was changed, and not for the better, in my opinion.

I bought the car, new, in 2003, ordered up exactly as I wanted it. I got the silver with body-colored bumpers, but, luckily (to my taste), before they had done the redesign with the changed front grille-work. Silver-painted alloy wheels completed a very monochromatic look. Combined with the manual shift and drum rear brakes (all too often, optional rear discs can be prone to premature lock-up in panic stops), I believed it to be the best iteration of the car.

This was my attempt to keep my big truck from getting too many miles on it, too quickly, and it was a small treat to be able to zip around in a more nimble vehicle, all the while sitting up a bit (though not as high as in a truck), instead of being down in a “hole”, as a typical sedan would do to my seating height. I considered a Mini, which was also fresh and new, and “retro” themed. I was in the mood for some whimsy in my car purchase, so the “retro” cars were on my list. But the early reports on reliability for the Mini, and reports of lack of dealer responsiveness to issues were not good at all, and I also didn’t want to be tempted to head back into autocrossing with it, as many Mini owners did at the time.

Lots of plastic, and no room to work. Would you like to change that radiator out yourself? This is not a mechanic-friendly environment.

After six years and about 75k miles, the PT’s radiator was holed by road debris, and I set out to pull the radiator and (likely) replace it. There is typically so much plastic and aluminum in the radiators of newer cars, that replacement rather than repair is the order of the day. But I couldn’t actually get in there to pull the old one very easily at all. The lack of engine room space really showed itself. At the same time, shifting gears became an “iffy” proposition from the cable-operated shift mechanism. Per clues from the internet, I found my rubber transmission-end cable bushings had turned to mush. One had to buy new cables for some huge three-figure outlay, so I cobbled up home-brew replacement bushings out of bits of rubber, metal washers, and cotter pins. It actually returned the operation to original. But I felt that the car was telling me to move on. The occasional whiff of anti-freeze smells while driving, along with the persistent slow falling of the coolant level in the new, dealer-installed replacement radiator, suggested a warped cylinder head. I didn’t want to deal with constant repairs on a car that was not user-friendly to repair. I moved on in 2009.