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Thank God for the Cultural Touchstone That Was the Chrysler PT Cruiser

·4-min read
Photo credit: Car and Driver
Photo credit: Car and Driver

From the June 2021 issue of Car and Driver.

Each decade in the 20th century eventually developed a defined identity. And usually, a 20-year buffer provided a lens through which we gained perspective on the period. That was reflected on TV—Happy Days, The Wonder Years, and That '70s Show all debuted 20 years after the decade they depicted. You could have a '70s theme party in the '90s because life was drastically, hilariously different. That's no longer true. Sometime around the turn of the millennium, we all bought stainless-steel appliances and culture got stuck.

I recently unearthed a song buried deep in one of my playlists: Groove Armada's "Superstylin'." It sounds like something you'd hear next to a pool in Miami now. It was released in 2001. One of the top shows on Netflix last year, The Office, was conceived in 2001—which is also when Tom Brady embarked on a Super Bowl MVP season. Sound familiar? Twenty years ago, the trendiest food was cupcakes. Where I live now, one of the town's two bakeries is a cupcake place. How will we make fun of the 2000s if we keep living them? A 2001 theme party would look just like now but with worse phones and more guys with their shirts tucked in. We barely had a year or two to laugh at mom jeans before they returned to unironic popularity.

Thank God for the PT Cruiser.

If there's ever a Bill & Ted movie where they time-travel back to the early 2000s, there is no better visual shorthand for setting the scene than a PT Cruiser. And I'm not saying the PT Cruiser was bad—in fact, it was on our 2001 10Best list. But it seems ancient and dated now, which is how 20-year-old pop-culture objects are supposed to work. And cars are, by their nature, cultural touchstones. They're a highly visible part of everyday life but always subject to a product cycle that firmly places them in a defined time. Unlike clothes or music or TV, they're anchored to an era. When you see an undated photo­graph of a city streetscape, how do you figure out when it was taken? You look at the cars. If That '70s Show had an '00s spinoff, the family station wagon would be replaced by a yellow Nissan Xterra. Or maybe a Pontiac Aztek.

Certain cars are iconic in their own right, but there are also broader trends that come to signify each automotive age. Around 20 years ago, retro was hot: The Chrysler PT Cruiser, Volkswagen New Beetle, Jaguar S-type, Mini Cooper, Ford Thunderbird, and Chevrolet SSR all looked back rather than forward, accidentally time-stamping their own era in the process. Every decade needs a fad that's cool at the time but eventually runs its course, and retro was that—although the SSR, at least, seemed mildly dubious even in its own day. Back when it was new, I was attending a media drive event when another writer, his hair a mess, pulled up in an SSR with the top down. The guy next to me grumbled, "I guess we have to drive that thing once A Flock of Seagulls gets out."

But now? Chevy's strange roadster truck, which graced our April 2000 cover in concept form, is generally worth way more than a Mercedes S-class from the same period—even though it cost less than half as much when it was new. And part of the reason is because the SSR epitomizes those years when car companies would sometimes say, "Hell yeah, let's build that concept car and see what happens!" The Y2K period didn't generate crazes like disco or acid-washed jeans, but it did give us the Plymouth Prowler.

Cars dare to have a point of view, even when we might think it's misguided. The new BMW grille is going to mark an era, I tell you. Gaudy grilles and crossover "coupes"—that's today, which will seem goofy tomorrow and then cool again next week. I predict that in 2041, you'll look out the window, see a gray Audi e-tron Sportback drive past, and say "That's so '20s." Then you'll hike up your mom jeans, peel the paper off your cupcake, and go back to watching The Office.

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