Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ode to a Cruiser

Driving my Chrysler PT Cruiser, it is not uncommon for me to pass another PT Cruiser going the other way and for the two of us drivers to wave to each other or nod with a smile. A silent high five; one PT Cruiser fan to another!

Obviously, I do not have a similar unspoken ritual going on when I am driving my other car, a Nissan Pulsar.

So, why the difference?

A few facts first: The PT (personal transport) Cruiser is a retro-styled compact car that was launched in 2000 by Chrysler. After 1.35 million cars sold worldwide, production of the Cruiser ended in 2010. While the 5-door hatchback was the original launch, a 2-door convertible was also launched in 2005.

Designed by Bryan Nesbitt (who was later behind the Chevrolet HHR), the car was manufactured primarily at the Toluca Assembly plant in Mexico.

The iconic design of the PT Cruiser is part of the rich heritage of unashamedly retro-styled cars like the Volkswagen Beetle and Mini Cooper. The Cruiser is specifically a modern day tribute to the bold hot rods of the American gangster era.

Some cars are personal statements of power and wealth. Some are meant to underline sophistication and class. And some others are just meant to put a smile on your face. The Cruiser does just that.

Yes, the turning radius of the Cruiser is clearly an issue and the acceleration is not something to write home about. But the individualistic, vintage look of the car made it something to aspire for (and not many compact cars are designed with that objective in mind). Affordable and contemporary, yet surrounded by an almost “collectable” aura, the Cruiser became a runaway hit when launched, spawning a number of fan clubs in many parts of the world (click here for the Australian PT Cruiser Community website). 

The first time I saw a picture of the Cruiser in a newspaper article around the time of its launch, I said to myself that I would someday own that vehicle. And years later when I did join the PT Cruiser family, it was a quiet thrill to feel a sense of indulgence without having to actually break the bank for it. It was not so much the fact that the Cruiser looks like no other car on the road. And it certainly had nothing to do with fuel efficiency or on-road performance (my Nissan Pulsar does a much better job at that). It was just the visceral feeling of driving a vehicle of amazing design that was clearly comfortable in its own vintage skin.

Perhaps, a psychologist will have a field day analysing the hidden triggers that make one a PT Cruiser fan or critic. It can be polarising. But, the one thing the car does not do is sit on the fence. By exuding an unmistakable vintage vibe, the Cruiser is either loved unconditionally or treated with derision by some. In the end, what it does is challenge our conventional pathways to establishing taste.

Quite often, we feel a need to follow every change in fashion to the point that we inevitably reach a boring sameness in our tastes. It is often a subconscious and powerful process of “mainstreaming”. But every once in a while, something comes along that is unafraid to look and feel as if from another age. And as old and naive as that age may have been, it refreshes our perspective today. A smart and simple way of turning the seemingly ‘uncool’ into something really cool!