The PT Cruiser Day Thread

Last week, General Motors discontinued a number of passenger car models. It joins Ford and Fiat Chrysler on the pickup truck/SUV gravy train. SUVs and trucks are hot right now, have bigger profit margins for manufacturers than cars, and prove that we as a nation learned nothing from the high gas prices of 2004-2009.

American passenger cars also suffered from poor at-home reputations compared to Japanese, Korean and European imports. Today, I’d like to eulogize a much-maligned American vehicle that nevertheless sold 1.3 million units: The Chrysler PT Cruiser.

The PT Cruiser is a strange, strange car. “PT” stands for Politics Thread Playable Trailer Plymouth Truck, and reflects the vehicles origins in Chrysler’s defunct Plymouth marque. Wikipedia asserts that this was because the Cruiser was intended to be classified as a truck by the NHTSA. This raises an interesting question: What type of vehicle is the PT Cruiser?

To look at it, the obvious answer is “station wagon.” But station wagons are typically variant models of sedans, and there was never a PT Cruiser that had the typical sedan three-box shape. There was, however, a convertible, and if you haven’t seen one in person, they are so, so much worse than the regular PT Cruiser:

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In the movie Widows, a PT Cruiser appears briefly at a car auction in a lineup of vans, which is hilarious. (To be fair, the second row of seats is removable.) The answer lies in the car’s styling: It is a sedan, but not a modern one. It’s a sedan from the 1930s, as rodded out by a greaser of the ’50s.

If the idea of making a production car look like a hot rod sounds stupid to you, congratulations, you are not PT Cruiser material. Going into production just before the Baby Boomers started hitting retirement age, the PT Cruiser features touches like an analog clock, a shifter with an oversized ball at the top, and big, big instrument dials for those with poor eyesight. The aging Boomers (and the already-retired Silent Generation, the onetime kids you see sock-hopping in movies from the ’50s) finally had a car for them.

But how sad is the PT Cruiser, really? Once you hit a certain age, you start noticing that the only people who drive Corvettes are men in their ’50s. “Cool” cars are only affordable once you’ve reached a certain level of income, and by the time you get there, you are almost assuredly no longer cool. Maybe it’s more honest to just own an uncool car. Not that Chrysler didn’t try to make it cool, with a bevy of trim packages that somehow only made things worse:

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What I really want to do is make a movie where the main character lives in a junkyard and has assembled a Frankencruiser out of completely mismatched body panels and trim accessories. You could end up with something that looked like a smaller version of the Partridge Family bus in pretty short order.

I’ve got an alright eye for trends, and here’s my prediction: Culturally, the PT Cruiser will become the new AMC Gremlin. The Gremlin was a weird-looking car, like the PT Cruiser. The Gremlin had a poor mechanical reputation, but lacked any one killer design flaw, like the PT Cruiser. And the Gremlin sold well, but not well enough to save its parent company, like the PT Cruiser.

After being rescued from bankruptcy by Fiat in the Great Recession, Chrysler built the PT Cruiser for one more model year. The Chrysler marque is now down to two vehicles: The Pacifica minivan (the old Town & Country with a new nameplate) and the 300, a luxury rear-wheel drive car. If Fiat shuts Chrysler down, to focus on Jeep and Ram, the PT Cruiser will stand as the last high-water mark of a dead brand. Then, it will have finally achieved its destiny as the new AMC Gremlin.