1997 Plymouth Prowler
1997 Plymouth Prowler. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Plymouth brand, which was produced from 1928 to 2001, was always a proud member of the Chrysler, later DaimlerChrysler, family. But it was proud in a way that was usually subdued, noted more for solid, reliable transportation than for flamboyant ostentation. True, it did break out a few times with such models as the 1956-’58 Fury, the 1960s Barracuda, and the audacious NASCAR-inspired, high-winged Superbird of the early 1970s. But most of the time it built its reputation on sensible, conservative cars.

That’s why it was such a surprise when Plymouth brought forth the Prowler, a modern reincarnation of the classic 1930s-based hot rod with open wheels and a nose-down, hound-on-the-hunt profile. Dodge was cultivated as Chrysler’s performance division, most recently spawning its over-the-top, V10 powered Viper, but here was demure Plymouth daring to outshine Dodge, not to say such retro-inspire models as Ford’s Mustang and Thunderbird.

To test the waters Chrysler showed the Plymouth Prowler as a concept car at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show, hinting that it could be put into production in three to four years. When public and press response was overwhelmingly favourable, they decided to go ahead.

When the production Prowler appeared in 1997 it was remarkably close to the show car. The flush headlamps were no longer narrow slits, but were now carried in bulges on the side of the hood. The hood was slightly longer, the body a little wider and bumpers sturdier, but all-in-all it was pretty true to the concept.

To keep costs down the engineers dipped generously into the corporate parts bin. Power came from the 3.5-litre, 214-horsepower single overhead cam V6 from the LH cars (Dodge Intrepid et al.). It was kept stock except for the replacement of the cast iron exhaust manifolds with stainless steel exhaust headers necessitated by the Prowler’s narrow hood.

Power went to the rear wheels via an aluminum driveshaft and a combination rear-mounted transaxle unit. The transmission was Chrysler’s four-speed manumatic “AutoStick” modified for rear wheel application.

Suspension was independent on all four wheels, the rears by coil springs and control arms, and the fronts by coils and A-arms. The front coil/shock absorber units were mounted under the hood race-car style, and were actuated by lever arms, keeping them out of sight and out of the breeze. The exposed front wheels had small cycle-type fenders attached to the suspension so that they rose and fell with the wheels.

The Prowler was strictly a two-seater and its fabric top was manually operated. When open it folded down out of sight under the rear-hinged trunk lid. “Trunk” is a bit of a misnomer because the Prowler was so tightly drawn there was little room for more than the 45-litre fuel tank and a soft garment bag.

Three wasn’t even room for a spare tire, so the Prowler was fitted with run-flat tires, complete with tire pressure monitors. For those who wanted to take things with them Chrysler offered an accessory trailer whose shape mimicked the rear end of the Prowler.

As in authentic hot rods, the gauges were deployed across the instrument panel with one exception. As a real retro reminder, the tachometer was mounted separately on the steering column just the way an aftermarket tach was in the original concept.

Weight was kept to just over 1,270 kg (2,800 lb) by the extensive use of light metals. Doors, hood, decklid and parts of the frame and suspension were aluminum, and the instrument cowl was magnesium. Because of the difficulty in welding aluminum, extensive use was made of bonding and riveting in the assembly of the Prowler.

The Prowler was no slouch in performance. Car and Driver (10/96) tested an early production model and reported zero to 96 k/h (60 mph) in 7.0 seconds. Top speed, however, was limited to 188 km/h (117 mph) by the Prowler’s brick-like 0.49 coefficient of drag.

The Prowler was introduced as a 1997 model. There were no 1998s, but when it came back for 1999 it was powered by an aluminum version of the V6, now up to 250 horsepower. In the Plymouth brand’s last year, 2001, it was down to just one model: the Prowler. The Prowler became a Chrysler for 2002, the last year it would be produced.

The Prowler was an interesting throw-back to the hot rods of the past, but one with modern convenience and safety features that weren’t even thought of when the quintessential 1930s Ford flathead V8 hot rods were produced.

It’s highly doubtful that Chrysler and DaimlerChrysler made any money on the Prowler; it was strictly an image car to bolster Plymouth’s fading fortunes. Alas, it didn’t work, and Plymouth joined the hundreds of other automotive nameplates that disappeared over the years. But at least it went out with an interesting flourish.

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