PT Cruiser Weekend

Here is an article I wrote for the LA Times -- in the year 2000! It was part of their “First Person” series, and I wrote it when the PT Cruiser first came out.

To surprise my wife Robin for her birthday I rented a Chrysler PT Cruiser for the weekend -- and in 48 hours we experienced all the thrills and horrors of instant fame. 

She drives a fragile '87 Jaguar and wants a new car, so when she saw the Cruiser at the LA Auto Show in January she thought she'd found a car with as much style as her English baby.

But when she called dealerships she discovered that no one gives test drives -- because they don't need to. One dealer has 250 cars on order and has delivered only 50 so far -- or so he said over the phone.

Then I found Advantage Car Rental in Van Nuys, where I rented a red PT Cruiser for 90 dollars a day. With full insurance, unlimited mileage and a pre-paid tank of gas, the tag came to $239 for two days. That seemed steep, but it was the same as renting a hot sports car for the weekend -- and right now the PT Cruiser is the cooler car to drive.

"We classify it as a specialty vehicle," explained Andy Gantner, the Advantage area manager, "but we'll probably reevaluate that price as time goes on."

The star of my birthday production drove up front. I was briefly disappointed -- she was smaller in real life than I'd expected from her pictures.But that feeling quickly passed as our first fan appeared before I'd even driven away. It was the start of a weekend of fan bombardment -- but that's what you get when you hang out in public with a celebrity.

Our admirers fell into three categories: polite fans who pretend they aren't looking but sneak glances at you...loud fans who insist on being your friend...and brazen stalkers who say nothing but follow you too closely.

The first guy, a bearded man in his fifties, turned out to be a stalker. He slowly circled me as I transferred dry-cleaning, bags and cassette tapes from my car to the Cruiser. He peered over my shoulder as I lowered the seats in back, then examined the side mirrors as I got behind the wheel. He finally stood right in front of the car and wouldn't move -- even after I'd started the engine. I was afraid to honk. When I finally tooted the horn he looked me in the eye and just stared. Thankfully he stepped back on the curb and I made my getaway. My first celebrity lesson: don't upset the stalkers.

Robin was thrilled with her birthday gift, once I convinced her I hadn't bought it. She grabbed the keys and after months of waiting finally slid behind the wheel. We hit the town in style.  She likes the car because the design reminds her of a London cab or a classic DeSoto. I like it because it reminds me of those same cars souped up into Rat Fink Hot Rods from the 70's.

The interior has the same gray plastic moulding as most standard cars but they've added some flourishes. The speedometer and signals are round and recessed into a retro dashboard coated with red fiberglass that matches the exterior of the car. It's not the metal and wood dashboard of my dreams, but hey, for a mass-produced American car it was good enough.

When you're with a star, errands take longer. It was midday by now and everybody was slowing down to look at us in our hot red car in the bright July sun. As we walked out of a coffee shop one woman insisted on taking our picture.

She took one as we posed by the car, another as we pulled out from the parking space, and another waving at her with the windows down. She walked over. "You should really meet my son, he loves old cars and would love one of these!" she said, searching through her purse for a pen and paper.

The cars behind us started honking and we thankfully had an excuse to drive away. You can't talk to everybody no matter how nice they are, so soon we were acting like celebrities ourselves. We donned dark sunglasses, just smiled and nodded, and made no sudden movements.

Parking lots were tough, but the crowd eventually parted if we moved slowly enough. Robin did mention, however, that it'd be nice if the company provided bodyguards along with the car rental.

We needed a break from all the attention, so Sunday we headed north to Santa Barbara to visit friends for the day. A guy in a convertible Mustang pulled alongside and honked, and he and his blonde girlfriend flashed us the "thumbs up."

We waved, all smiles, suddenly accepted by the beautiful people. But soon it was impossible to change lanes because there was always a car full of rubberneckers alongside checking us out. If we accelerated, so would they. If we slowed down, they'd do the same.

Dealing with fans in a parking lot was easy compared to speeding with them down a highway. We missed three exits because we were boxed in by fans cheering us on.

The car was fun to drive, but doesn't have a lot of power -- it gets passed going uphill no matter how cool it looks. It was the most fun at the beach with all the windows down. The hatchback makes it easy to throw junk in the back, and it's small enough to get in and out of any space.

The weekend was a blast, but after 48 hours we were glad to abandon our celebrity status and slip back into the anonymity of our comfortable used cars. When there are thousands of PT Cruisers on the road and the flush of excitement wears off,

Robin will go back and try the relationship again. She hopes by then it'll come in British racing green.

Ian BullComment