Chrysler Plans First Factory-Built Hot Rod

IN an era of look-alike styling, you're not likely to confuse the Plymouth Prowler with anything else on the market.

With its antique highboy hood, its bustle-back trunk, and a pair of fat front tires set well outside the fenders, Prowler could have rolled off the set of "American Graffiti." But early in 1997, it'll begin rolling off an assembly line in Detroit, making it the world's first "factory-built street rod."

"It's a tribute to the American hot rod and the artists who design those one-of-a-kind vehicles," says Cynthia Frey, promotions manager for Chrysler Corp.'s "team Prowler." Originally introduced at the 1993 Detroit auto show as a fanciful design exercise, Prowler quickly developed a cult following.

Some fans even sent checks to Chrysler on the chance Prowler would be put into production. So, in a bold move, Chrysler decided to turn concept into reality. The formal announcement came yesterday during a press preview of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

With a price tag likely to run around $35,000, Chrysler doesn't expect to sell more than 5,000 Prowlers annually, but Chrysler officials say the Prowler's success won't be measured by the traditional yardstick.

"The response [to the original Prowler concept car] has been overwhelming, not just outside the company, but inside, as well," said Craig Love, executive engineer on team Prowler.

The Prowler follows in the tread-marks of another fanciful Chrysler concept-turned-production car, the Viper. That two-seat sports car was first displayed at the Detroit auto show in January 1989. It went on sale three years later, and instantly became a "rolling billboard" for Chrysler's Dodge division, notes one company executive.

Chrysler officials hope the Prowler will do the same thing for their ailing Plymouth division. From a peak of 749,000 cars sold in 1973, Plymouth sales slipped to just 211,000 in 1994. Not long ago, Chrysler was ready to drop the division, but marketing manager Steve Bruyn predicts Prowler will "breathe new life into Plymouth."

"People aren't passionate about Plymouth, but they are passionate about Prowler," Mr. Bruyn admits, and that should help increase showroom traffic at Plymouth dealers. He says he hopes that Prowler passion will help increase sales of other new products Plymouth is introducing, including the compact Breeze and the redesigned Voyager minivan.

The Prowler will serve another purpose for Chrysler, that of a "rolling test-bed for technology," Mr. Love says. Prowler will be built from aluminum. Far lighter than steel, an aluminum body translates into a significant improvement in fuel economy. But the metal is difficult to work with. Prowler will provide an opportunity to learn new production techniques that might eventually be transferred to a high-volume assembly plant.

Though the Prowler may look like a '30s coupe, the open-topped roadster is thoroughly modern underneath its aluminum skin. The engine is a modified version of the V-6 used in Chrysler's mid-size sedans. The Prowler is equipped with air conditioning, power windows, a high-end stereo system, and a sophisticated, electrically operated, convertible top.

"It may look old," Ms. Frey says, "but you get all the technology you'd expect from a '90s car."

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