Retro Rumblings – Prowlin’ in Pomona
In the 1990s, three late model vehicles from Chrysler Corporation gave Hot Rodders worldwide a jolt of high-octane energy. While Mustangs and Camaros, as well as the turbo Buick Grand Nationals and the like, offered performance enthusiasts familiar platforms, Chrysler broke through the clutter with the wicked Dodge Viper, the hot rod roadster-inspired Plymouth Prowler, and the PT Cruiser – a modern take on a ’30s-era sedan.
These popular cars had one thing in common – Chrysler’s VP of Design Tom Gale. Gale was a performance enthusiast and friend to our industry having a long fascination with both muscle cars and ’30s-era hot rods. He joined Chrysler in 1967 straight out of Michigan State University armed with an engineering degree. One of the first projects he worked on was the venerable Plymouth Barracuda. Not a bad entry to the performance car scene.
After being appointed VP of Chrysler’s Design Department in 1985, Gale and Chrysler’s Robert Lutz churned out a series of cars, the swoopy Dodge Viper being their crowning achievement. Lutz suggested to Gale they do a modern take on Carroll Shelby’s famed Cobra and what emerged from Metalcrafters Inc was a V10-powered prototype. The metal masterpiece made its first public appearance at the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit’s Cobo Hall.
The Viper went into production in 1992 as a roadster. In our opinion, however, the Viper GTS coupe, which debuted in 1996, was the ultimate American Supercar with the sexiest body lines of its era.
But the important story here today involves the ties between Goodguys, Tom Gale, and the Plymouth Prowler – a concept car married to hot rodding in every aspect. Gale was influenced by several sources in the Prowler’s formative stages, including Chip Foose. While attending ArtCenter college of design in Pasadena, Foose modeled two wedge-shaped futuristic hot rods, a coupe and a roadster, as his thesis project .
Foose’s roadster concept was a model that helped spawn the early design concepts of the Plymouth Prowler. Taking Foose’s roadster concept, Gale refined it with all of the required bells and whistles (headlights, taillights, airbags, etc.) for a prototype he could pitch for production. Like the Dodge Viper, the Prowler concept was brought to life by the team at Metalcrafters and made its first public appearance at Cobo Hall in the winter of 1993.
During the prototype phase, Goodguys founder Gary Meadors established a friendship with Gale which led to a decade-long promotional alliance with our rapidly-growing association. Gale and Chrysler were looking for ways to further promote the prototype Prowler, and what better platform than Goodguys to introduce the two-seat roadster to hot rodders!
And what better location to introduce the Prowler than Southern California? Through careful planning and promotion with Chrysler’s PR deptartment, the decision was made to have the Prowler make a grand entrance at high noon Saturday during the Goodguys Spring Nationals at Fairplex in Pomona. Instead of it being in an indoor climate-controlled show environment under lights, this time the car would be cruised down the event’s main drag under bright sunshine. Seeing it rolling on the ground was something everyone was craving after all of the hype. Would it pass the hot rodder’s eyeball test?
The scene in Pomona on reveal day was electrifying. Mobs of Chrysler people gathered around the Prowler, which was stashed out of site. The event announcer whipped everyone into a frenzy. Crowds of people gathered along the parade route, instant cameras (remember those?) clutched in their hands. With no cell phone videos or social media at the time, it was strictly a you-had-to-be-there moment.
It’s not hyperbole to insist this was one of the biggest moments in Goodguys history at the time. At high noon, Gary Goodguy and Tom Gale saddled up, strapped into the Prowler, and made their way through the heart of the event. The LA Times, local television crews, and industry media ran alongside. The crowd yelled and hollered their approval. The Prowler had arrived. I had positioned myself on top of one of the fountains at Fairplex to get the money shot of the car, the crowds, and the craziness. As you can see from the May 1993 Gazette cover, it worked out!
It would be another four years before the Prowler was put into production. It was a well-equipped car for the time, spawning a long waiting list among prospective buyers ready to cut fat checks. Motor Trend called it a Dream Machine.
The early Prowlers were available in one color: Prowler Purple. Early production models featured a powertrain from Chrysler’s LH-series, a 24-valve, 3.5-liter Chrysler SOHC V6 engine producing 214hp. For the 1999 model year, the engine was yanked for a more potent, aluminum-block 253hp version. Both engines were coupled to a four-speed Autostick transmission.
Once cars were available, our relationship with Chrysler Corporation and Gale bore fruit, especially for our members. Through their generosity, we were given a Prowler as a promotional giveaway vehicle. And that wasn’t the end of it. A year later we were given another Prowler which we “pimped” out with a modern design. Check that, we actually staged a design contest allowing members to sketch their own paint scheme design concepts. The winning design used futuristic orange flames to compliment the Prowler Purple; those licks were applied by paint legend Art Himsl. The car was won by Mike Smith of Tennessee.
The 1999 event season brought the last Goodguys Plymouth Prowler giveaway. Three years later, production ended in 2002. In all, Chrysler produced 11,702 Prowlers, some of which are pristine, low- or no-mile versions stashed away in collections across the globe.
Even after the Plymouth Prowler giveaway campaigns and factory production stopped, our relationship with the Chrysler Corporation continued on, producing favorable results for Goodguys association members. A series of giveaway trucks and vehicles from Dodge followed the Prowlers in the new millennium, including SRT Durangos, Magnums and pickups – most of which were redesigned for extra curb appeal.
These giveaway vehicles were all special in their own right, but nothing could match the hype of those early Prowler campaigns. We owe a big debt of gratitude to Tom Gale. Tom retired from Chrysler in 2000, but the legacy he left produced a repertoire that energized rodders of all generations.