COAL: 2004 PT Cruiser: 21st Century Answer to a Question No One Asked? or, Just Because You Can, Does It Mean You Should?

“First things first, but not necessarily in that order. – Dr. Who

Authors note: I kind of half thought about approaching my return to this series chronologically, like an old-time film serial, but to honest, that’s a discipline that doesn’t come easily if at all to my mind. I like to say that I was born with a wide-angle lens (a more acceptable way of terming Attention Deficit Disorder?) as I have a lot of disparate interests with no obvious connections, and it is extremely difficult for me to focus on a single objective (like deadlines, for example).

Chrysler turned out a lot of concept cars during the ‘90s, and looking back, a lot the design cues, if not the entire concepts, eventually became visible as production vehicles. One of the most notable, known mostly as the Pronto, became the PT Cruiser.

At the mention of the PT Cruiser, I am visualizing this scene from Animal House:

Nearing the turn of the century, I was just past 40 and newly divorced. I had totaled the 1987 Volkswagen Jetta (story to come) I had gotten out of the divorce, and in a hurry had purchased a barely used 1995 Dodge Neon with under ten thousand miles on the odometer. It was a surprisingly good car at a reasonable price (around $8,000) and still under factory warranty. Once I had service done at a local dealer, I got on their mailing list and was soon inundated with announcements and images of the soon-to-come PT Cruiser. Once they were introduced, I liked them. They looked like nothing else, except perhaps . . .

In my formative years I was an avid car model builder, and Revell had released a series of model kits named “Deal’s Wheels,” models designed to resemble the caricatures of actual cars as drawn by artist, Dave Deal. This is what the PT Cruiser looked like to me. A full sized “Deal’s Wheels” model.

It was just the right size for me. (With a few exceptions I’ve lived by the idea that it’s best to live large and drive small.) It was based pretty much on the Neon platform that I had recently been driving. (There’s another car in between, another story to come later.) With a significant difference! A writer named Mickey Kaus wrote a very good piece in Slate about what he accurately termed “Cartoon Cars,” focusing mainly on the Cruiser but also taking shots at the then-new VW Beetle and Ford Thunderbird, and he mentioned a quote from celebrated Italian stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro (too many cars to mention) regarding the future of autos. He had stated, “I think cars will have to be approximately 2.5 inches taller.”

While the Cruiser was three inches shorter than its stablemate Neon, it was eight inches taller. The difference in cabin comfort and usable space between those two cars was amazing, to say the least. Kaus was not at all happy about the styling, saying among other things, “I keep expecting Jessica Rabbit to emerge from the back seat.” “It’s a costume, not a car.” That stated, later in the review he had this to say. “Unfortunately, I liked the thing. Driving it, anyway. The steering feel is excellent, and the optional fat 50-series tires on my test car gave it substantial cornering power. Plus, when you’re in the PT Cruiser, you don’t have to look at it! The inside experience is as unpretentious and pleasant as the exterior appearance is ostentatious and annoying. You’re sitting straight up, getting the job done, happy in your work.”

If you were paying attention at the time, you might remember that the PT was a huge hit for Chrysler. A couple of people I knew had purchased them and paid dearly to be early adopters. I remember bringing my three young girls to a dealer to take a look at one in the showroom and getting a strange look from a woman there. It happened that she had just purchased that car and was not happy to see strangers trying it on for size.

I guess it was just as well that I was in no position to buy a new car at the time. I was working in Emergency Procedures Training for Trans World Airlines (TWA) which we often said should have been labeled FTTWA for, “Financially Troubled Trans World Airlines,” and while early in 2001 it was announced we had been purchased by American Airlines, part of this process included having to endure yet another chapter 11 bankruptcy, and then came September 11, 2001. A devastating day for all of us, but the bottom basically dropped out of the airline business.

As in any merger or acquisition, among the advantages, at least on paper, is that there are opportunities for instant savings by eliminating duplicate departments. People were being furloughed (just as many had been when Ozark had been purchased by TWA), but because the crews would have to be retrained we remained extremely busy. That is until we finished training the American Airlines flight attendants who would replace all of the TWA flight attendants. After 25 years, I was called into the VP’s office and told it was my last day.

Without going into too much detail, let’s just say by the spring of 2004 I was gainfully employed and ready to move on from the 1992 Toyota Corolla I had been driving. Demand had fallen to the point where I was able to get a great deal. A discounted price, along, with an interest free loan and a rebate. The sticker on the “Bright Seamist Green Pearl” Touring Edition was (I think) around $22,000. The discount and rebate brought it to around $17,000 and when I calculated in the interest-free loan, figuring in the future value of money in the equation, it came out to equate to a price under $14,000. Sometimes it pays to wait. In addition, the front and rear bumpers, once black on all trim levels, were now matched to the body color. A small but significant improvement.

I was, like Holly Martins in “The Third Man,” happy as a lark. It was the first new car I’d bought for myself in over 20 years. It was a bright color and very rare as it had been discontinued. (My future wife said she could understand why.) It had alloy wheels with 205/55-16 tires and the interior was very pleasant, a mixture of gray and chalk white, with exterior colored panels surrounding the instrument panel and facing the front passenger seat. It had a six CD changer and a moon roof. The seating position was upright and the visibility was excellent. This was also the first new car I had ever purchased with an automatic transmission, so while I missed the driving engagement necessary to shift a manual, I came to appreciate how much easier it was to drive in traffic. Two of my daughters took their driving part of their license exam with it.

Yes, it was relatively slow to accelerate, and for being so slow it should have gotten better mileage (averaged 23-25 mpg). But once you got to freeway speed it had more than enough power and was very stable.

The back seat was slightly higher than the front, which (along with the upright seating position) gave rear passengers a very open experience. And the space behind the rear seat was amazing. “But,” (as they say on the late-night television commercials) “that’s not all!” The rear seat backs could be folded down (separately, with one on the left and/or two on the right) or could be pushed forward down into the footwells. Or if need be, completely removed from the car. The front passenger seatback folded down as well. (And when combined with the rear seatbacks folded and the rear compartment tray moved to a lower position provided a level space that was eight feet long by at least two feet wide. It was how we brought our Christmas tree home for years, as there was still the left rear seat available for my wife to sit in on the way home.)

We live close to the Katy Bicycle Trail and was a common weekend activity to drive to Defiance, take the trail to Augusta and back, and drive back home. We never had to fool with racks, just folded the rear seats forward, removed the front bike wheels and we were good to go. My wife and I had never taken a driving trip, but now with our airline careers behind us, we planned a vacation to Deadwood and Keystone (home of Mount Rushmore) in South Dakota. The Cruiser was an exemplary road trip car.

Even by 2004, the novelty had not quite worn off. Not only would you see Cruisers at cars shows, there were clubs and PT Cruiser only exhibitions. Honestly one rarely saw any cars that had been modified (although I once did see a gold limited edition model that had been transformed to front engine/rear drive configuration using a Buick V6 and running gear); most were decorated as you might decorate your table at a trivia night. And just this week, among a collection of true classics, a Cruiser modified into a covered bed pickup, much like the Chevrolet SSR.

Our daughter volunteered to take our cat Chip for a week while we went to Florida. She lived in Columbia, Missouri (about 100 miles away). Chip was (and pretty much remains) a pretty cool cat, but never more cool than on that trip. I had belted his carrier on the passenger seat, and placed his litter box in the back. I dropped the single rear seat back on the left. After we got on the interstate I opened the carrier door. Ever curious, Chip rotated from looking out the front passenger window, sitting on the folded seatback and looking out the left rear passenger window, proceeding to the rear to use the litterbox, then peering out the rear window, and every now and then placing his front paws on the passenger or driver’s armrest and looking through the windshield.

I had only a few gripes about maintenance and reliability. First, it was easy to maintain. Yes, you had to remove the intake manifold to replace the plugs. But I don’t think I ever owned a car that was as easy when it came to changing oil. My old ramps were too steep to get the car on. So I just nailed a shorter section of a two by ten on top of a longer section, made two and just by driving on to those and lifting the car not quite four inches I could get under, remove the plug, remove the filter, let it drain while I did something else, then replace the filter and plug, fill it and move on. Twenty minutes of actual work.

It did require a new head gasket at around 130,000 miles, and it went through two steering racks. (I had never heard of a steering rack failure, but my Neon had to have the original replaced while under warranty.) The body held together very well, with only a few subcutaneous blisters appearing shortly before I sold it in 2017. So did the cloth, described by author Lee Child as “mouse fur” seats. (Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of leather interior.) Since it had been garaged and presented very well, I had no shortage of prospective buyers when I placed it in Craigslist, even with mileage north of 170,000. However when a buyer requested a state inspection I discovered it needed a new catalytic converter. I was not going to do this myself, so I wound up selling it for $800 to someone who was willing to tackle the job.

All in all, it was a pleasant ownership experience. I never owned a more versatile car. A late friend of mine used to like to say that, “A multipurpose tool never does a single thing excellently.” But I have to say, unless you were drag racing, the PT Cruiser did a lot of things fairly or very well.