That Daring Old Company And Its Jaunty Jalopy

Chrysler bets on Prowler as a cheap way to pep up Plymouth

They were flights of fancy, a fleet of visionary vehicles dreamed up by employees. But one sketch at Chrysler Corp.'s 1991 "idea fair" caught the eye of design guru Thomas C. Gale. "It was a hot rod with the flowing forms of the early 1930s," recalls Gale. "I couldn't wait to build a scale model."

Five years later, Gale can't remember just who produced that early drawing--but the notion has become a daring leap for Chrysler. On Jan. 3, the auto maker announced plans to produce the Prowler, a $35,000 retro-styled roadster expected to jump-start the stalled image of its Plymouth brand and serve as a test bed for future models.

"WORTHWHILE GAMBLE." For a relatively puny investment of $75 million, Chrysler is turning out the flashiest niche vehicle since its Dodge Viper muscle car hit the pavement in 1992. Prowler will be the first U.S.-made production car with an all-aluminum frame and body structure. And by coaxing suppliers into doing much of the engineering research, Chrysler not only kept its costs down but cemented vendor relationships already regarded as the industry's best.

The Prowler reinforces Chrysler's reputation as far and away the nimblest, most inventive member of the Big Three. With the early blessings of Chairman Robert J. Eaton and President Robert A. Lutz, the new car flew through design and development. Rivals Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., still bogged in bureaucracy, "couldn't do it for $75 million," says Christopher W. Cedergren, an analyst with AutoPacific Group Inc. "For that price, it's a worthwhile gamble to put some new life into a brand that's been dying for the last 20 years."

The question: Will a $35,000 two-seat convertible set the right tone for a brand that makes its money pitching entry-level Voyager minivans and Neon subcompacts to the middle class? Former Chrysler Chief Financial Officer Jerome B. York, now an aide to hostile Chrysler investor Kirk Kerkorian, calls the vehicle, aimed at affluent car enthusiasts, a "questionable" addition to Chrysler's lineup.

Chrysler execs, though, contend that the Plymouth brand desperately needs some excitement. Less than 300,000 Plymouths were sold last year, compared with nearly 750,000 at the brand's peak in 1973. Research shows that Plymouth has little identity among the first-time car buyers it covets. "There is clearly no real passion associated with the brand," says Steven Bruyn, Plymouth's marketing manager. "Prowler is meant to startle you."

The low-slung, sinister-looking roadster certainly turned heads when it was unveiled as a concept car in 1993. But its limited market meant Chrysler had to keep its own investment modest. The project would fly only if it borrowed heavily from existing parts, if its technology could be extended to mass-market cars, and if suppliers shouldered much of the R&D.

DIMPLES, TOO. No problem. Vendors jumped at the chance to work on Prowler. While few are likely to make money, most envision marketing tie-ins and the prospect of bigger Chrysler orders to come. "Chrysler is the pacesetter--they take risks," says Richard A. Schultz, director of automotive products for Aluminum Co. of America. Alcoa provided 100 frame and body parts for the Prowler; similar parts may go in the next-generation Chrysler LH sedans.

Loading the car with aluminum posed challenges. Body panels had to be riveted rather than welded, and steel fasteners needed special coatings to prevent corrosion. Because aluminum is one-third the weight and stiffness of steel, engineers could only estimate the thickness needed for safety. The frame on one early Prowler was so stiff the car "almost broke the barrier" in a 30- mph front-impact test, recalls Chrysler engineer Craig R. Love.

To add flexibility, Chrysler and Alcoa indented the frame with "dimples" so it would buckle safely on impact. Other suppliers went the extra mile, too. With no room for a spare, for example, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. developed oversize tires that can be driven even when flat. And about 40% of Prowler's parts came from other Chrysler vehicles. The result is a stunner. Chrysler may sell only a few thousand Prowlers a year, starting next spring. But in inventiveness, the auto maker will lap the competition again.

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