When Bryan Nesbitt was designing the Chrysler PT Cruiser, he needed something that would define the car's personality. And he found it in a dog.
"I found this description of a pug," Nesbitt, the Cruiser's principal designer, says from his Detroit office. "It said they're an acquired habit, they're individualistic, tough and opinionated, independent and resolute, muscular, with a compact body, a strong presence and personality but rarely aggressive, and make a rewarding companion. That was the personality of the vehicle I was looking for."
That a cute-ugly, energetic little dog with a pushed-in face helped inspire a car makes the phenomenal success of the Cruiser even more of an enigma. In an age when most people like their cars super-sized (SUVs) or boringly efficient (Accords, Camrys), the Cruiser is a square peg in a round hole that still manages to fit. The "PT" stands for "Personal Transportation," which was added onto the name to highlight the car's chameleon nature -- to allow it to be retro and modern at the same time. But the secret to this car's success goes far beyond just being different.
It is tapping into a trend happening throughout the culture: innovative design at affordable prices available to the masses. We can buy a Michael Graves teapot at Target and Martha Stewart paint at Kmart. The iMac proved that even affordable computers didn't have to be boring boxes. And the Cruiser, whose price tag starts at $16,000, is both cutting-edge and affordable. Nesbitt says it boils down to this: "We all want to feel better. People want something that's really going to promote their own self-esteem. Everyone wants to feel like they're on the cutting edge."
The Cruiser made its debut on the market early this year like a handsome bad boy crashing the prom, all swagger and bravado, turning heads, oozing a potent mixture of charm and danger. It still turns heads. The Cruiser's chunky body is offset by a sloping roof that ends in a tall grill and inset teardrop headlamps. Faux running boards and fat, rounded wheel wells and fenders add to its nostalgic look. Even with the exterior length the size of a small car, it feels large, thanks to a roomy interior and tall overall height.
Add to that a cuteness factor found in the generous curves, which soften any rough edges. "Huggable" is often used to describe the Cruiser, which makes it appealing to demographic groups -- especially women -- that typically haven't gone for hot rods or old cars.
Despite its vintage heritage, this is a modern vehicle with all the bells and whistles: tilt steering, quad halogen headlamps, an optional sun roof, and the all-important cup holders.
Chrysler can't keep up with demand for the car; so far, about 57,000 have been sold, and there's currently a months-long wait for a new one. That wait may get even longer now that the Cruiser has been named the 2001 Motor Trend Car of the Year. This couldn't come at a better time for Chrysler, which is having major corporate woes. Amid slow sales, Berlin-based parent company DaimlerChrysler recently ousted members of top management, replacing them with German executives.
Like the Woody, the VW bug and even the Saturn, the Cruiser is inspiring loyal fans. A club based in Long Beach, Wash., boasts 4,500 members; its Web site, (www.ptcruiserclub.org) gets 450,000 hits a day, according to founder and president Mike Challis, a former Chrysler service technician. Chat rooms are filled with owners talking about their customized cars, and local chapters have hooked up for events.
Challis chalks up the car's appeal to "a combination of the looks, the usefulness and the price. I like the hot-rod look of it. I liked hot rods growing up but I never had one. This is one I could buy and not have to restore. And it has all the high-tech gadgetry."
Nesbitt had no such love of '50s and '60s hot rods and, just 31, no childhood association with that breed of car at all. He was all of 27 when execs plucked him from Chrysler's design pool to work on the Cruiser, which they wanted infused with a vintage feel. A graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., he had previously worked on Chrysler's Composite Concept Vehicle, a tall car for foreign markets.
"I wanted to capitalize on the American culture," he recalls. "It's about unconventionalism and a pioneer spirit. Narrowing that down to the American car culture, the genre that epitomizes that spirit is the custom car, and that's where I drew inspiration."
He zeroed in on 1930s autos, "the typical car to customize," borrowing those exaggerated shapes that lent character and personality. "We can take those exaggerations and evoke emotional reactions that are extremely powerful. The car delivers on an emotional level."
Nesbitt knew he didn't want to simply recreate a vintage auto. Plymouth essentially had already done that with its limited edition Prowler hot rod, out in 1997. Rather, he "just wanted to evoke that spirit of that individualism. If you do something that's too trendy, you risk being disposable. We wanted something that was a little more classic, that would blend the best of the old and the new. We never want to lose that American love affair with the automobile."
Plus, cloning a classic could present problems in making the car technologically advanced and appealing to 21st century drivers. The Cruiser's interior has both retro and modern touches, including a vintage-looking dashboard, and upright, chair-like movable seats. However, in a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration frontal crash test, the driver's side scored low.
As Ron Hill, former chairman of transportation design at Pasadena's Art Center points out, not every old car is suited for making a comeback: "I don't see us going back to the classic era. Technology has advanced, and some of those cars had slow-turning engines and required long chassis. Today we have small, very powerful engines that can fit into a smaller package. How would you update a Model T?"
In building a car with bones that harken back to another era, the Cruiser strikes a chord with drivers who don't want to get from point A to point B in the same shiny fiberglass box everyone else has. "Small vehicles have become so boring -- they all look alike," says Matt DeLorenzo, Road & Track magazine's Detroit editor and the author of "Chrysler PT Cruiser" (MBI Publishing Co., 2000). "It's really exciting to see something different at that end of the spectrum. Here is a car that looks different and functioned differently from most small cars. The Beetle kind of looked cool, and so does the Cruiser, but the Cruiser ups the ante with four doors, a functional back seat and (a movable shelf behind the back seats). There's a high utility factor there. The key is that there's a conventional car underneath."
The fact that the Cruiser "isn't a re-creation of anything else, but a kind of composite of classical themes," may make it all the more appealing, says Leslie Kendall, curatorial manager for Los Angeles' Petersen Automotive Museum. It's sort of like a Rorschach test in a car. Some see in it a hot rod, others a lumbering London taxi, a '30s gangster-mobile or an old Woody. For some owners, the car is their canvas. They add flames, chrome exhaust pipes and wood panels. To some, it's the best-looking minivan, to others, an automotive step back in time.
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