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In 1990, Chrysler Corporation sponsored a design project for the seniors at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The assignment was to design a vehicle for a niche market. One student had a liberal interpretation of “niche market,” arguing that Chrysler could build a new car with a hot rod look for all the enthusiasts doing their own “pro touring” restorations. He even built a 1:5 scale model. Company brass loved the vehicle so much, they brought it to market as the Plymouth Prowler. That student’s name was Chip Foose.

On Jay Leno’s Garage, Foose revealed that hot rods were less than trendy at design schools in 1990. In fact, he had written up his original proposal at home because he didnt’ want faculty and other students to see what he was working on. But when he presented to Chrysler Corporation, they loved it.

He says his original model was a coupe, just because that was easier to build. His model even had cycle fenders that were so delicate, he mailed them to Chrysler separately.

A purple Plymouth Prowler roadster in a garage full of classics
1997 Plymouth Prowler | Bring a Trailer

There were many hurdles to bringing an open-wheel hot rod to market. For example, the largest rim available on any car in 1999 was 16 inches. But the Prowler featured huge, 20-inch rear wheels. Chrysler Corporation had to convince Goodyear to design an all-new tire. But Chrysler’s VP of design was a hot rod enthusiast named Tom Gale, and he fought hard for the Prowler.

Plymouth rolled out a concept car version of the Prowler, and the wildly unique vehicle captured the automotive world’s attention. Most assumed that the Prowler wouldn’t make it to dealerships. Even Foose didn’t imagine the Prowler would go on sale. But then Plymouth began to build them. Foose said, “I was shocked. I built the model and had the idea. But I never thought it would go to production.”

The side of a purple Plymouth Prowler
1997 Plymouth Prowler | Bring a Trailer

One reason Chrysler Corporation may have let the Prowler fly was the roaring success of the Viper. Plymouth engineers focused on features such as air conditioning and power windows to make it a better daily driver than Dodge’s convertible. But after completing such a unique design, they had no budget left for a unique powertrain. As a result, every Plymouth Prowler has a “High Output” 3.5-liter V6, automatic transmission, and 7.2 seconds 0-60 time.

Foose and Leno agree that with a V8, the Prowler might have been much more successful. But Plymouth only sold 11,000. The Prowler outlived Plymouth, becoming the Chrysler Prowler for 2001 and 2002. Then it was cancelled altogether.

Bright green custom "Hemisfear" hot rod by Chip Foose.
2006 Hemisfear | Chip Foose

But there’s a happy ending here. Foose has become one of the world’s most famous hot rod builders and restoration specialist. And he was even hired to build the “Hemisfear,” a Prowler-like coupe based on his original vision, as part of a deal to license a die cast toy of the car. And yeah, it’s got a Hemi.

What’s more, the Plymouth Prowler inspired a retro car revolution and is quickly becoming a collector’s item. A 1997 Prowler with just 260 miles (pictured above) went for 441,250 on Bring a Trailer.

You can see Jay Leno and Chip Foose discuss the Prowler in the video below: