DETROIT — A decade ago, the PT Cruiser roared onto the road with trendsetting looks and Al Capone swagger. In a sea of bland sedans, it was a retro hit. Chrysler could barely keep up with demand.
On Friday morning, the last Cruiser rolled off the assembly line in Mexico, finally killed off after years of declining popularity. Chrysler sold just 18,000 last year, compared with nearly 145,000 in 2001.
What happened in between is symbolic of the larger problems that helped drive Chrysler into bankruptcy — and a cautionary tale for its new owners, who are planning to release a similarly styled car later this year.
Love it or hate it, the Cruiser was a head-turner. With flared fenders, a sloping hood and tall doors, the Cruiser was a cross between an old-time milk truck and luxurious sedans of the 1930s. Its looks were different from anything on the road.
It spawned imitators like the retro Chevrolet HHR, and appreciation for the historical American design embodied by cars like the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro.
"I remember the first time I saw one at an auto show. It was jaw-dropping," said John McEleney, an Iowa car dealer who sold Chryslers at the time.
The Cruiser was a demographic-buster: It appealed to everyone from retirees to customizers to young people looking for something spacious and inexpensive, said Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive who owned a turbocharged PT Cruiser GT.
But Chrysler failed to invest in the car or think of ways to expand its appeal beyond new paint colors or a convertible top. Although fans clamored for two-door and panel van versions, Chrysler never made a significant update.
While Chrysler's new owner, Fiat Group SpA, plans to revamp most of its lineup, and new vehicles like the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee have gotten positive reviews, Chrysler still isn't updating models as quickly as its competitors are.
Between 2011 and 2014, the average Chrysler model won't change significantly for 3.1 years, compared with an industry average of 2.5 years, or Honda's 1.9 years, said Merrill Lynch analyst John Murphy.
That means Chrysler will have to fight harder to get noticed.
Because Chrysler made so many Cruisers, the car is unlikely to attract collectors, so its price will probably depreciate just like most other cars, said Dave Kinney, publisher of Hagerty's Cars That Matter, a guidebook of classic car prices.
When first introduced, the roomy Cruisers were in high demand, but recently they became common in rental car fleets and were used widely to deliver pizzas and office supplies, Kinney said.
"They went from being the cool kids to everybody on the block," he said.
The Fiat 500, which is smaller than the Cruiser, is the company's next hope, with better fuel economy and a European look. Jack Nerad, editorial director of Kelley Blue Book, said it has the potential to be a new head-turner for Chrysler.
But Chrysler has to be careful not to let the 500 become another one-hit wonder. When the PT Cruiser first came out, it was so desirable that dealers were fetching well over the sticker price, Nerad said. Chrysler responded by producing as many as it could, quickly turning the car into a commodity.
"It became yesterday's Nehru jacket," he said. "It's a testimony to its style that it endured as long as it did."