By Chris J. Carpenter
When Bryan Nesbitt and Tom Gale shocked the world with the “retro” 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, the new domestic hatchback quickly became one of the most notable cars of its time. Bursting onto the scene on the heels of Volkswagen’s newly revived Beetle, the PT Cruiser gave a new voice to the seemingly forgotten hot rods of the ’30s and ’40s, a surprisingly affordable option which made a statement wherever it went. Born out of Chrysler’s Neon, the PT Cruiser was a car that quite simply, nobody had done yet.
As Chrysler’s “shot heard round the world,” the PT Cruiser found its way into the hearts of fans both old and young, successfully conquering several demographics in a single leap. The small five-passenger MPV was a refreshing candidate for an industry desperate for something new. Enter fan and auto-enthusiast Benjamin Gross of Dearborn, Michigan, and his Inferno Red Crystal 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, “Katie” – our Car of the Month for December.
Born and raised in a Mopar family, Gross grew up surfing the backseat of America’s favorite minivan – the Dodge Caravan – and could occasionally be found shooting around town with his Dad in his ’89 Dodge Omni. He is not at all unfamiliar with turning wrenches; his father taught him the basics of car maintenance at a young age. Living a mere stone’s throw from Motor City, USA, the love of the open road is a part of his genetic makeup.
Days away from turning 18, Gross began his search for a car to get himself back and forth to school, 300 miles away in Indianapolis. While looking at several Ford Escort ZX2s, what would become “love at first sight” was sitting less than 100 miles away in the driveway of a family member. Bereft of the continued need for several vehicles, his Uncle Mike announced his PT Cruiser was for sale. From the moment Gross slipped behind the wheel and took to the streets with the little Chrysler, he was sold.
Named one of Car and Driver's “10 Best” for 2001, as well as “North American Car of the Year,” Gross’ PT Cruiser certainly boasts a proud heritage. With Chrysler’s signature 2.4-liter inline four, the PT Cruiser was rated at producing 150 horsepower, mated to the company’s tried-’n-true 41TE automatic transmission. The engine, used heavily throughout Chrysler’s lineup, could be found in cars from the Dodge Caravan and Jeep Liberty, to the Chrysler Sebring and the Plymouth Breeze.
The 41TE automatic transmission, used on Chrysler’s S, AS, NS, RS, and RT minivans, could also be found on nearly all Chrysler’s small to mid-size vehicles throughout the ’90s and early ’00s. It’s a self-adaptive transmission that evolved out of Chrysler’s Ultradrive four-speed automatics. It had a flash-programmed transmission control module, fewer moving parts, and less weight than its predecessor.
Gross’ PT was equipped with a rare combination of features that identify it as one of the earlier production models. His PT Cruiser came with an automatic transmission, sunscreen glass, power windows, trip computer, AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo with graphic equalizer, removable rear seats, rear shelf, and cruise control. As seen in this picture, you’ll notice that there are no mount holes for rear-seat headrests. This is a true sign of an early model. The standard base model PT Cruiser came equipped with a five-speed manual, AM/FM/cassette radio, and no standard sunscreen glass.
As is so often true with the American male and his chariot, some of Gross’ fondest memories are of traversing the open road behind the wheel of his PT Cruiser. Recalling his favorite journey, Gross spoke of the time when he packed up the little car and drove to Florida.
“It was great,” he said. “I checked the fluids and tire air pressure, packed up my things, and headed out. Though I brought tools to be safe, Katie never once needed them and made the trip there and back, flawlessly.”
While a PT Cruiser sighting isn’t altogether rare (with some companies even employing them as fleet vehicles), Gross has kept his PT in tip-top shape, regardless of what the harsh Michigan climate seems to throw his way. Combined with the full-chrome “moon” 16-inch rims (only used in the summer), the bright-red Cruiser is a sight to be seen.
While many PT enthusiasts have gone the route of custom paint jobs, a bevy of different spoilers, aftermarket body kits, a rainbow of lighting kits, and even retro-fitting a HEMI, Gross decided early on that he wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the car’s design, putting his efforts into more functional (rather than presentational) modifications, with the notable exception of the moon rims.
Models produced from 2001-2003 equipped with the grey bumper covers had the misfortune of getting “tape marks” left by the adhesive used at the factory to attach the temporary plastic coverings over the vehicles. This adhesive caused the plastic to fade unevenly, making the marks more pronounced as time went on. Gross fixed the problem by resurfacing and painting both bumper covers, giving the vehicle a smarter, better-than-stock finish.
Under the hood, he modified the Cruiser’s stock airbox internals by removing the upper mounted snorkel and trimming the lower snorkel to be more flush with the airbox itself – the end result being improved airflow to the throttle body.
No good story is complete without a little conflict. On April 9, 2007, the PT Cruiser fell victim to a rear-end collision while on loan to a family member. Having struck a vehicle with an extended tow hitch, the Cruiser suffered damage to the grille, bumper fascia, both fenders, hood, and radiator. Although the engine compartment escaped largely intact, the A/C condenser, fan, and hood mechanism were damaged as a result of the collision.
Over the course of the following two months, Gross’ Cruiser underwent a significant amount of work, both at a dealer and in his own driveway to get the car back to its former glory. His patience and diligence in repairing the vehicle paid off, as to this day, you can’t tell the incident ever occurred.
Gross has kept his PT Cruiser classy, and it serves as a beautiful reminder of just how far, some tender love and care can truly go. Today, the Cruiser remains his daily driver, taking him back and forth to his job at Roush Industries in Detroit. He has been to several car enthusiast events in the PT Cruiser, including the Woodward Dream Cruise. Gross is an avid-reader of Allpar.com and an active contributor on PTCrew.com.
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