Chris Theodore on the Creation of the “Chrysler” PT Cruiser

Chris Theodore... In the product plan, Chrysler had penciled in a tall car off the Neon platform. Chrysler had tried way back in the ’80s, after the success of the original minivan, to do a mini minivan. The program at Chrysler was called the Z Body, and Chrysler designed it, but every time they market tested it, it failed.

Chrysler finally ended up giving it to Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi improved upon it and did the Summit, and of course that failed. Everybody else that had tried to do a mini-minivan failed. The American market was not ready for that. You can look at the Toyota Matrix that came later, and all the other tall cars like it have failed. So we knew we had to do something different.

Between Castaing, Lutz, myself and Bryan Nesbitt, the designer – Bryan came in a little bit later – we knew what we wanted. We knew the car had to look different. In my mind, I had been sketching up 1940 Ford panel delivery vans and Francois would say that what we needed to do something like Legend racecars. I don’t know if you remember those. They were big hit in racing at that time… just do a little Legend car.

We all knew what we wanted, but the designs we kept getting from the design office were contemporary four-door or hatchbacks like a Toyota Matrix. It just wasn’t right.

Then we tried to do retro, but retro always ended up looking like a Volkswagen kit car with a 1940 Ford front end. That wasn’t working. Lutz kept pushing for a retro solution. We were doing some bizarre research with a cultural anthropologist called Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, who had been introduced to us by Dave Bostwick, head of Market Research.

This young designer, Bryan Nesbitt, and I sat in on these sessions - and I mean you would literally lay on the floor, listen to soothing music, meditate and remember and remember your first childhood experience with automobiles and write about them. And meanwhile…

Oh really? This is company work?

This is company work.

Of course I wrote about the first car I ever drove. I used to sneak when I’d make deliveries with my dad and my uncle. They would deliver wholesale supplies to restaurants, and while they were delivering the goods, I’d drive our Chevy panel delivery van using the starter motor and the creeper gear. Do you remember how the starter button used to be on the floorboard?

I’d drive around this van. That’s how I learned to drive.

Then I’d put it back in the parking spot before they came back from the delivery. Nobody ever knew that I was driving the truck around. So my story was my first childhood memory of driving. [Added later by C.T.: Dr. Rapaille’s theory was that people get emotionally imprinted when they’re young teenagers by significant emotional events, and want to recapture that emotion.]

Yeah, I feel the same. I’m the same way.

pt cruiserI wrote stories about cars. Anyway, Bryan and I kept passing sketches back and forth.

The key was Bryan – everything that came up, we just kept rejecting it. It was not good. Either it was too contemporary or too retro or wasn’t right. We had a review and Eaton was there and Lutz was there and we didn’t like the models, but Bryan had done this sketch, and when I saw it, I said, “That’s it!”

Because it wasn’t just retro, but it was a hotrod look to it, and that was the key.

We had it blown up to full-size and so when we walked after the clays, we had it set up so that when we walked out, everybody had to walk past this full-size blowup of Bryan’s sketch.

And everyone said, “That’s what we’ve got to do!”

Get the reaction, eh?

A lot of people still didn’t believe it at the time. People were whispering to me it’ll never translate into the clay. It’s not going to look like that. It won’t work. Eaton didn’t like it, but I liked it. Francois and Lutz loved it.

I did my own little research test - what I call ink blot test. I’d go around to – I knew we could get, you know, the retro side, the 40-somethings, but I wanted to get the youth market which we called the “Peter Pans” - the young kids starting to have a family, needing something more practical but didn’t want to admit it. They wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan.

So the idea was, you know, candy-coated medicine. It’s good for you on the inside and flexible to meet their needs, but it’s desirable on the outside. So I took Bryan’s sketches, on 8 ½ by 11, and I’d walk up to 30-year-olds and say okay, just tell me the first thing that comes to your mind when you see this. Invariably I’d show them the sketch, flip it up to them and they’d go “cool.” That’s when I knew, for sure, that we had a hit.

pt cruiser generations

We had a hard time getting that program approved. Eaton didn’t want to do it. Lutz and Castaing and I did. Most of the design guys were against it because they didn’t want to do retro. And that’s their job: to push the state of the art. Engineers don’t want to do retro either. Engineers want to push technology forward. Designers don’t want to go backwards, but…

This is after Prowler happened.

Right. Well, the whole idea was Prowler was supposed to be the spark to rekindle interest in the Plymouth brand, and the PT Cruiser was then to follow on as a Plymouth. It was not to be a Chrysler.

prowler

Then we were going to do a whole line of unique Plymouths. In fact, there was a committee that was formed and the whole idea of Plymouth was to become – how do we save the brand was to become the “Peter Pan” brand. It was going to be the youthful brand, kind of what became a latter-day Scion is now - it was supposed to attract the youth, and always just stay as a car for youth. Never grow up, if you will.

Which it kind of did a lot. You know, it’s kind of known for it.

PT Cruiser was supposed to be the first of that whole series of products that we had planned for. Well, Tom Sidlik was godfather of Small Car. He liked it and Lutz wanted it, but we still couldn’t get it approved. Finally, Tom said. “Look, let me have a private session with Eaton.”

He went and he said: “They really believe in this thing. We don’t make money on small cars. This thing is not a lot of money - investment was $400 million I think - and it should be profitable. It’s classified as a truck so it’ll help our CAFE. Let them have a crack at it.”

1995 and 2002 Dodge NeonFinally Eaton acquiesced and we took off and did the PT Cruiser. The sketch went to a clay in eight weeks - record time. Truth be told though, we had to change a lot on the Neon platform.

We did all the feasibility and we did the stamping simulations. They said there’s no way you can stamp that aperture - the quarter panel. We did 13 different simulations and we finally proved that you could stamp it with all the shape that’s there.

So we did that, all that feasibility and in record time, again from a cross-functional team. We used to have sunrise meetings. We’d meet at the studio at 6 or 7 in the morning, the engineers, the clay modelers and the manufacturing guys and just work out the feasibility as the clay was being made.

We had to redesign the platform to have a flat floor in the back to get it classified as a truck, and have the folding takeout seats. I had to fight with the guys for the rear suspension. I wanted to do a Watts link rear suspension. The guys didn’t want to do it. And finally, the whole car required different packaging because it looks like a rear-wheel drive car but it was front-wheel drive.

What we had to do was put a lot of components in places where people weren’t used to. We used to have package meetings after those sunrise meetings. We’d have package meetings and I’d ask the engineers to rethink where all their priorities. We did this every morning until we had a plan.

So PT wasn’t really based on the Neon as much.

The only piece that’s really, really common was the front floor pan. Basically everything else was all new, and powertrains of course were semi-common although we went to four-speed transaxle from the three-speed in the Neon and a lot of other stuff. It was a great project.

francois castaingIt was an unloved project to tell you the truth. A lot of people – like I said, Eaton didn’t like the car, Design didn’t like the car. Sales and marketing said they could only sell 30,000 PTs, because it was a niche product.

Francois had moved on to International at the time and he said he’d take 50,000 units for the rest of the world. That made the business case work and that’s how we got the program approved. Of course Sales and Marketing ultimately came around. Over 1.2 million PTs were sold.

I couldn’t wait to take the PT to Research. Normally I like to go to clinics just to see customer reactions and read their minds, because people can interpret the data in whatever way they want.

I couldn’t wait, and in fact I insisted, because we’d already made up our mind to do the PT Cruiser. I couldn’t wait to get that car to Research to reaffirm my gut. The people just went crazy at the clinic. If you remember when we did the Ram truck — that one came about while we were sitting around a lunch table at Jeep Truck. I can’t remember who was there. I know Craig Winn was there, I was there, I think Trevor Creed was there and maybe Lutz or Castaing were there. Chrysler already had a new Ram on the drawing board, but it looked just like a Chevy or a Ford.

Someone said, “Wouldn’t it be neat if you saw a pickup truck in your rearview mirror and it looked like a Mack truck was about to run you over?” And that’s where the Ram idea came from.

2001 dodge ram 2500 SLT 4x4

That went to research, and the thing was, 18% of the people loved it but 30% of the people hated it. And marketing said, “That’s terrible.” Lutz said what the hell are you talking about? We’ve got 8% market share with the Ram. You’ve got 18% that love it head and shoulders above everything else. Let’s do it.

And of course immediately after the Ram was launched, it went straight to 18% market share.

When the PT Cruiser went to research, it was about 30% love and only 8% hate.

We had two sets of research going on, and I remember going outside for a little break from watching all the clinics and I met a guy sitting in the parking lot that had been in the clinic. I introduced myself, because he fell in love with it. I asked why he was still here? He said his wife was in the other clinic and he wanted to take her to see the PT. She’s got to see this car. The interesting thing is we got both the youth market, the 30-somethings as well as the 40-somethings.

Because of the nostalgia part of it.

Plymouth logoAnd it started out that way. When we launched the PT Cruiser I had already left the company, but the youth were buying it and the boomers were buying it. But then they miss-positioned the marketing and lost the youth market. We had a whole plan for keeping the youth market engaged. By that time PT had changed to being a Chrysler because the Plymouth brand had been killed before it got to market. That’s the PT story.

[Later, via email:] The code name for the 2000 Neon was PL, and the plan called for a "tall" version of the PL, so its code name was PT [P Tall]. I'm not sure where the “Cruiser” came from, but I think it may have been on Brian Nesbitt's original sketch. Some people tried to add meaning to the PT, after the fact, for “Personal Transport,” but that never stuck. Finally, remember that it was supposed to be a Plymouth PT Cruiser!

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