That Should Fit: How Chrysler's Legendary Jeep Wrangler-Plymouth Prowler Test Car Came to Be
Yes, the Prangler really existed—and we've tracked down its story.
That Plymouth Prowler buried in an Oklahoma park may be underground for another 28 years, but you won't have to wait that long to hear more weird stuff about Plymouth's swan song. In December, The Drive reported on the existence of the bizarre and mysterious Prangler, a half-Prowler, half-Jeep Wrangler test mule that was spotted a few times during the model's development in the mid-1990s before fading into legend. Information on how or why engineers made something so ridiculous is scant at best—until a former Chrysler employee who worked in the prototype build shop at the time reached out to share some missing knowledge.
A Top Secret Mission
Just over a year after the Plymouth Prowler concept made waves at the 1993 North American International Auto Show, Chrysler completed the first pre-production vehicle, seen above. With the Prowler's official reveal coming in 1997, however, Chrysler couldn't show its hand by parading dozens of near-production cars around during early testing.
"Back then, Engineering and Vehicle Development were pretty much in charge of the plan on what was going on up until production," said former Chrysler technician David Chyz, who is known best for his role in developing the insane Dodge Tomahawk. "They would base what we were going to use on what 'production' body worked and fit best [to create a mule]. Since this was the first of its kind, it had to be unusual."
Disguising component test mules was common then as it is now, and in thinking outside the box about how to conceal the Prowler's styling, Chrysler's engineers soon ended up back inside the box—in this case, the cab of a 1986-1995 YJ Jeep Wrangler, chosen because of its relative lightness and the position of the rear wheels lined up nicely. Thus, this George Barris fever dream was born as a durability testbed for the Prowler.
Enter the Prangler
In mating two iconic vehicles on one cursed chassis, Chrysler inadvertently created something of an urban legend, documented only in a handful of blurry photos, a single VHS-quality video that survives on YouTube, and a single Motor Trend article from 1996 where they actually got to drive the thing. That story claims five Pranglers existed, but Chyz remembers the shop building more.
"I'm pretty sure they built about twenty," Chyz recalled. "That was real mule! They were something!"
Hodgepodges of this sort were business as usual for the prototype shop, but for obvious reasons, the Prangler stood out.
"We built a lot of hokey stuff, so that was nothing new, but everyone did think it was uniquely funny," Chyz said. "The main goal for the car at that level is to get some development miles on the powertrain and chassis. The body and interior really have no meaning at that point because those parts ain't available yet. So whatever you have to do to make it work, that's what you do."
Fake Body, Real Results
The Pranglers may have looked...well, they look like they do, but Chyz remembers them being not half-bad—aside from some visibility issues, being hard to get into, and panel gaps that produced incredible wind noise.
"The Jeep body fit well because the rear wheel well was positioned in the back of the body, it was light, manual windows, you know, easy to adapt and keep you out of the weather in cold testing," he said. "The Jeep-bodied cars were very crude. It was better than sitting on a milk crate, but the visibility was not that good."
Motor Trend came away from its test drive impressed the Prangler's settled ride, excellent brakes, and "crisp" handling, though it did note the cab seemed to make the car prone to body roll.
"They actually drove pretty good, but they were all a little different. You know, the chassis guys had the best-handling cars, engine development had the fastest ones... I put a supercharger on one, nitrous on another."
All Good Things Must End
Rumors have been floating around the internet for years that at least one Prangler survives out there in an unnamed retired engineer's garage, but Chyz is sure every single one was crushed per protocol. Recreating the Prangler is obviously not impossible, but it'd definitely cost more money than it's worth, as Prowlers still command high sums on the used market (and nice YJ Wranglers aren't going for peanuts anymore either).
But that's ok. Some things are better left in the past, safely ensconced in the eras and cultural milieus that birthed them. The Prangler is too unironic, too unselfconsciously weird for today's world. But crazy test mules? Bring 'em on by the dozen.
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