Bye, bye PT Cruiser. After 1.3 million were sold, the last one rolled off the assembly line in Toluca, Mexico, today. I don’t think I can summon tears, but I have had several close encounters with this ungainly beast over the years, the most recent one just last month, and it was a perfect example of form following function. It was ugly, but the shape made for a highly usable and compact little road warrior that predated such cool cars as the Scion xB and the Nissan Cube.
The early ones had purity of form, but then bad ideas for diversifying the line took over. That awful convertible! And did they have to put really cruddy fake wood on the sides? At least it inspired the timely creation of the Fake Wood Appreciation Society (FWAS). The PT was also a pioneer in retro styling, inspiring both the Chevrolet HHR (a virtual copy) and, you could argue, the Mini.
The demise of the PT Cruiser angered the big fan who created Ptcruizer.com, but the thing had clearly run its course. Just 50,000 were sold in 2009 (versus 145,000 in the peak year of 2001), and a paltry 5,500 so far this year. In praising the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee (I can’t get all that excited myself), Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal opined on the aging Chrysler lineup:
“Consider the swamp out of which [the Cherokee] emerges,” Neil wrote. “Last year’s bankrupting of Chrysler, the auto bailout, the ignominious handoff from Daimler to Cerberus Management and now to Fiat? Can we somehow put out of our minds Chrysler’s current kennel of mangy mutts like the obsolete Chrysler Sebring and Town and Country, the PT Cruiser and 300? (To buy one of these cars you'd have to be an automotive pervert, a gerontophile. I mean, you'd really have to have a thing for old.)”
Not kind, I know, because bankrupt Chrysler was barely paying to keep the lights on, let alone undertaking the huge money suck that is also known as introducing a new model. That’s why the hookup with Fiat is a life buoy against terminal irreverence. The 500 model, which replaces the PT on the Mexican assembly line, will do triple duty (VW Bug competitor, convertible, battery car). And having seen it in its native environment, Italy, I can say its as pretty as the PT Cruiser is ugly. And it has a good chance of succeeding here, if people can get over the fact that F.I.A.T. used to stand for Fix It Again, Tony.
If I’d known the PT Cruiser Classic I drove in June was near the last of the line, I’d have paid more attention. It had the same bad door handles, the same 1930s Chrysler Airstream grille (echoed in the Plymouth Prowler), and the same really comfortable interior (marred only by a sub-standard stereo) and great visibility. With wheels at the four corners, it handled well and used space better than any SUV you could name.
The 500, in whatever form, won’t be as versatile as the PT Cruiser was, but it will appeal to a different market — the same folks who made a huge hit out of the retro New Beetle. So if it doesn’t echo the PT Cruiser in utility, it could echo it in sales performance — a big introduction, waiting lists, then a long decline.
By the way, the Times reports that Sha Na Na recorded "The Cat in the PT Cruiser" in 2006. Sha Na Na? They're even more retro than the car — these dudes played at Woodstock! But the song isn't all that bad, and it has a ton of PT Cruisers in it: