Tom Gale envisioned the Chrysler PT Cruiser as something retro, a vehicle to defy categorization.
So Gale, then Chrysler Corp. executive vice president of product development, put his designers to work. He also called on designers from independent studios.
But when the preliminary drawings came in, he was unimpressed with the entire lot. They were too conservative.
So Gale turned to a young, untested designer in Chrysler's product design office. He asked Bryan Nesbitt, then 27, to try.
That was near the end of 1996 and Nesbitt was only in his third year at Chrysler. He had joined Chrysler's product design office right out of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
Gale told Nesbitt: 'Let's just get rid of the inhibitions. Let's try to fully involve ourselves with a more retro feel.'
It was Nesbitt's first big design challenge. He had helped design Chrysler's Composite Concept Vehicle, a plastic-body car for developing countries. But the PT Cruiser was his first whack at a real car.
'It was a great opportunity for me because they just asked me what I thought,' Nesbitt recalled.
He finished his sketches a week later. He chose a hot-rod theme. It was a hit within the design office, and Nesbitt was elevated to principal designer on the project.
Nesbitt's vision of the PT Cruiser had big, bulging fenders connected by a flared sill, the body inset from the wheels and fenders. He drew the PT Cruiser with large wheels, a roof that rose toward the rear, and a prominent grille.
'I really pitched the hot-rod identity as an American icon that really promotes individualism,' Nesbitt said.
Gale got the retro, hot-rod attitude he was after.
'I think that's really what came through and what really emanates from the vehicle,' Gale said.
Nesbitt's design began to take on life in clay models during 1997, and then the real thing, the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, was unveiled Jan. 3 during the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It is scheduled to go on sale in early 2000 as a 2001 model.
The PT Cruiser appears to be a van without looking like a van, said Del Coates, professor of industrial design and ergonomics at San Jose State University in California.
'It's kind of funky,' Coates said. 'If it strikes a nerve; it could become endearing. I see the hand of Tom Gale in this.'
The PT Cruiser is reminiscent of the Chrysler Airflow of the mid-1930s, he said. The forward-leaning hatchback of the PT Cruiser brings to mind Ford sedans from 1935-37, Coates said.
'But with that kind of rear end, you expect to see a pointed front,' he said. 'So that is a bit disappointing to me.'
Nesbitt said that the PT Cruiser remained mostly unchanged during its journey from his drawing board to the 1999 show car.
'We really tried to execute the sketch exactly,' Nesbitt said. 'We came extremely close.'
Nesbitt, now 30, said the big fenders and wheels are the key to its exterior design.
'That holds it all together,' he said. The research indicated that the large fenders would be a hit, Nesbitt said.
'It really didn't matter what shape they were,' he said. 'People liked the large fender forms on a small vehicle.'
DaimlerChrysler plans to sell the vehicle in 40 markets around the world.
Nesbitt said he has landed exactly where he wanted to be.
'Chrysler was really the only manufacturer I wanted to work with,' he said. 'When I graduated, the (Dodge) Viper show car was there, the Dodge Ram was coming out. These guys love cars.'