When Chrysler’s PT Cruiser made its debut at the North American International Auto Show n 1999, it caused quite a stir. Its retro style was an instant hit with many consumers. Others scoffed at its street-rod styling.
The PT Cruiser hit dealer showrooms during the biggest boom in U.S. auto industry’s biggest sales boom and at the height of the SUV craze, and became an instant cash cow for Chrysler. The Cruiser was built on an existing small car platform and manufactured overseas to keep production costs low. The result was one of Chrysler’s most profitable product runs in the automaker’s often turbulent history.
On Friday, the PT Cruiser officially became a collector’s item as the last production model rolled off an assembly line at Chrysler’s Toluca, Mexico factory to make way for production of the Fiat 500 small car.
Chrysler was by no means the only major automaker to have success with a retro-styled vehicle. The PT Cruiser was introduced after the launch of Volkswagen’s New Beetle and the Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet SSR and BMW Mini all appealed to consumers’ nostalgic sensibilities. Unlike the Thunderbird and Mini, however, the PT Cruiser made retro styling affordable on just about any budget.
Over the course of its production life, the PT Cruiser was a perennial best-seller for Chrysler and developed a devoted following.
According to the Henry Ford Museum curator of transportation, Bob Casey, the PT Cruiser struck a chord with consumers by mixing practicality and attitude. For many, the PT’s distinctive styling was a breath of fresh air at a time when most designers seemed to be either playing it safe or going too far, as in the case of the ill-fated Pontiac Aztek.
Bob Casey is among the millions who “get” the PT Cruiser. “Every time I see one I smile. I can well understand why they sold more than 1 million,” he said. Autoconomy.com president Erich Merkle said the PT Cruiser was “a gamble that paid off for 5 to 7 years” and attributes much of its success to its broad appeal. “It was an ideal single car or second family car,” he said.
The PT Cruiser holds the distinction of being Chrysler’s all-time most profitable small car with annual sales reaching 192,000 units in 2001. In subsequent years, Chrysler added a convertible model and a woody version but made no major redesigns. Last year, Chrysler sold a mere 25,200 units.
According to Casey, Chrysler had an unusual dilemma when it came to the PT Cruiser – trying to improve on an instant icon. He said, “In the end, it was a hard act to follow because it was a fairly unique. They got it right, right out of the box.”
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