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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Retro style and street-rod flair made PT Cruiser a star

The recipe was simple.

Use an existing small-car platform, mix in some nifty retro styling inside and out, build it in a low-cost country, and command a higher price.

When it made its debut at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Chrysler PT Cruiser with its street-rod flair was an immediate sensation.

Americans either hated or loved the little wagon born during the SUV craze. Those that adored it had to have one of their own to cherish.

And it didn't hurt that it went on sale during the U.S. auto industry's biggest sales boom.

The last PT Cruiser rolled off an assembly line in Mexico today, marking the end of one of Detroit's most celebrated product runs in recent years. A Chrysler spokesperson said the last model was stone white and destined for a U.S. dealership.

It wasn't the first retro-styled car to tap into America's penchant for nostalgia. It followed Volkswagen's New Beetle but rolled before the Ford Thunderbird, BMW Mini and Chevrolet SSR.

But the little five-door hatchback certainly has been a soldier, with more than 1.35 million sold worldwide -- generating early waiting lists and fan clubs, spawning imitators in the Mini brand and Chevrolet HHR, and the subject of more special editions than any other vehicle in recent memory.

It was a refreshing new model in an era populated with a lot of redundant designs.

Bob Casey, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., said the PT Cruiser, unlike the minivan, mixed practical function with attitude.

"Every time I see one I smile," he said. "I can well understand why they sold more than 1 million."

Unlike the Thunderbird and Mini, the PT Cruiser also made retro styling affordable to the masses, regardless of income, without trading away utility.

"It was an ideal single car or second family car," said Erich Merkle, an automotive analyst and president of "For Chrysler, it was a gamble that paid off for 5 to 7 years."

Cash cow

It is the most profitable small car in Chrysler history, according to Bryan Nesbitt, who designed the original PT Cruiser for the old Chrysler Corp. Nesbitt is now a top General Motors Co. designer, while his former employer has since been steered by Daimler AG, Cerberus and Fiat S.p.A.

With the end of the PT Cruiser, Chrysler is retooling the Toluca, Mexico, plant to build the Fiat 500 -- a tiny car to be sold in the U.S. market beginning next year.

The PT Cruiser was originally tapped to join the aluminum Prowler roadster to bolster the ailing Plymouth brand. But when Chrysler planners scrapped Plymouth, the PT Cruiser was spared and christened a Chrysler, eventually becoming one of the brand's top-selling models.

Its offbeat style immediately attracted a variety of buyers -- the young, tuners, entrepreneurs and retirees. Many owners quickly fell in love with its functionality and quirky interior. The wagon's rear seats were removable, allowing the tall interior to stow large cargo.

To keep consumers interested, Chrysler added a convertible version, a woody model and a turbo engine. Special editions -- dubbed Flames, Chrome, Couture and Dream Cruiser -- were routinely added.

But over the years it mostly stayed the same and the novelty slowly wore off.

As with many retro-styled cars, an automaker can paint itself into a corner. Where do you go next?

"Chrysler stopped caring about it and the interior suffered from a lack of upgrades," said Joe Kyriakoza, vice president of marketing for Jumpstart Automotive Group.

But in a testament to its lasting appeal, even in recent years, the PT Cruiser was one of the most researched vehicles in Chrysler's lineup on many online shopping sites.

Annual global sales peaked at 192,000 in 2001, and in the absence of a major redesign, demand dropped to just 25,200 last year. In a nod to the original, the last models are referred to by Chrysler simply as PT Cruiser Classics.

"In the end, it was a hard act to follow because it was a fairly unique," said Casey. "They got it right, right out of the box."

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