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Chrysler PT Cruiser engineering development and delay

by Bob Sheaves

The PT Cruiser was a variant of the PL (Neon) platform—the next step in flex manufacturing. Chrysler's Tom Gale had developed a car that harkened back to the late 1930s and early 1940s, a pleasant diversion from the then common Ford Taurus-like jelly beans that were the mainstream direction for the industry.

The PT Cruiser was, in the same manner as the 1994 Ram, targeted as a new direction for the corporation. Its styling was to become the new shape for Plymouth, to separate it from Dodge, to provide a fun, easily obtainable, and, most importantly, family-functional group of vehicles that provided minimal disruption to manufacturing, but gave the Plymouth dealers an identity that was to be uniquely Plymouth and not Dodge.

The Prowler show car was the public introduction of this styling and the public went wild over it. Production was not yet approved, however, as this was also when the talks and "merger" were going on. The PT was ready for final production approval, but was delayed to give time to instruct Mercedes in flex manufacturing and how Chrysler intended to revitalize Plymouth. This was the hidden purpose of the war chest—saving the corporation yet again and to make it stronger by concentrating on its core product — Plymouth (which was unchanged since WPC's days).

There were shortcuts taken on the PT, in the sense that Engineering had used as much of the PL (Neon) it could, within Tom Gale's directions for the theme of the new car (the theme is the single most important item in the development of a car—bar none— which is why I am harsh on people that take one piece from this, and another piece of that, to create a hodgepodge of trash. A theme must, by definition, be consistent.) There was no attempt to make the vehicle "best in class" of anything, but the prime direction was to ensure a unified whole that performed well on all capabilities demanded by the customer, and excelled by being consistently pleasing to the customer, to ensure a repeat sale when that new purchase was worn out (I said "worn out" — this is an approach to design that had not been done since the inspiration time — the 1930s).

Mercedes people, when first viewing the PT Cruiser and its engineering, were aghast at the "sloppiness and shortcuts" (a quote I was given by one of those Chrysler people present at that design review), and the program was halted within the span of a week. Hard tooling was ready to be built to put the vehicle into production, but none of that mattered to the Germans. The car did not meet their standards and never mind the customer. "We know what the customer needs" was a favorite saying that was used to justify the decision and the opinions of the Americans were politely listened to...and promptly ignored.

The net result was that every piece of the car was scrutinized for deviation from the Mercedes Design Standards Manual (yes, a real book, just like the Chrysler Design Standards references in CATIA and in hard copy—this was the collected experience of Chrysler since the 1950s on "how to build a car and what to use.")

The same design review of the PL (Neon) itself resulted in the same end. Same with the LX. Same with the BR (Ram). All of the programs were stopped dead in their tracks and every part, no matter how close to production, was placed up for review. Crash test results were no longer to be acceptable, but rather had to be the "best" without defining what the word "best" meant. This inability, or perhaps disrespect, to the Chrysler guys’ experience, to define the term went against everything that had been instilled into every Chrysler employee since 1989, the introduction of the Quality Improvement Process headed up by Lutz and Stallkamp.

For more, see Engineering the Neon and why it can’t be done now.

[Editor’s note: This, as much as anything, explains the added weight of the PT Cruiser, and why it did not appear as a Plymouth — due to the delay in production. Had the PT Cruiser been produced when it was ready, it would have bolstered Plymouth sales dramatically and kept that division viable.]

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