This Chrysler concept showed nostalgia isn't what it used to be

By topgear, 18 June 2021

What is this strange retro machine? 

Believe it or not – and it would probably make for a happier life not to – this is the Chrysler California Cruiser concept, unveiled at the 2002 Paris motor show. The natural choice. It was supposed to float the idea of adding more lifestyle oriented models to the PT Cruiser’s portfolio.


Oh no, were they planning more PT Cruisers?

Strangely, it seems they were. In 2002 the DaimlerChrysler megafirm was at the height of its hubristic powers, with big boss Dieter Zetsche about ready to take over the world. The Thirties-inspired PT Cruiser was trying to capitalise on the recent success of the retro-tastic BMW Mini and VW’s New Beetle. Of course, those cars were based on models that people were still alive to remember.

What did they do to the side of the car?

The California Cruiser was a two-door lifestyle wagon that built on the PT Cruiser’s Thirties styling by adding a spot of Fifties cladding. The concept was described by Chrysler at the time as “drop dead gorgeous”. The prosecution rests. 

What's the California Cruiser like inside?

No wait, the prosecution has five pictures to go. According to the press release that went out with the car’s launch, the California Cruiser enjoys “ample space and comfort for four people, every imaginable extreme sports toy, and even the ability to convert to a hotel room for two”, although that does leave us wondering what the other two passengers are supposed to get up to. Fetch the room service, perhaps? The functionally fashionable interior has a full-length opening sunroof and an opening window in the rear tailgate for the ultimate in summer fun. The seats fold completely flat, so you’ve got space to stash your surfboard.

What's under the bonnet?

This is what we love about American cars – just ram in the biggest engine you can find that will fit. In this case, it’s a 2.4-litre turbocharged inline 4cyl with 212bhp. That engine saw service in the 2003 PT Cruiser Turbo. The 19-inch billet wheels and chrome-tipped dual exhausts would ensure that the car looked and sounded the part, even if it handled as much like a Thirties Airflow model as it looked. 

Are there any crazy concept touches?

As much as Chrysler waxed lyrical about the California Cruiser’s integrated bumpers at the Paris show, our favourite feature on the concept car is the integrated stereo system in the boot – presumably so those Malibu surfing types can jump into the water with the boot wide open and hear their banging tunes from half a mile away.

Why didn't the California Cruiser concept go into production?

Some of the elements of the California Cruiser’s proportions were incorporated into the 2005 PT Cruiser convertible, the engine was shovelled into the 2003 PT Cruiser Turbo – we’re not saying that the California Cruiser was a parts bin model loosely based on the PT Cruiser’s upcoming 2005 facelift and intended to try and boost interest in the car, but it’s certainly a possibility. Chrysler might have sold over a million PT Cruisers between 2001 and 2010, but it wasn’t quite the nostalgic runaway hit that the Mini, Beetle and eventual Fiat 500 turned into.

So what do surfers drive instead?

Literally anything they can fit a surfboard in, really. Probably some ratty diesel van they found on Gumtree and lined with plywood. At some point carmakers will realise that ‘lifestyle’ is what happens outside of the car, not in it. Unless you’re a taxi driver.