News & Politics

The Mystery of Colin Powell’s PT Cruiser

Why did a legitimate car guy love one of civilization's worst creations?

Image via iStock.

Colin Powell was a car guy. He owned a Mercedes “Pagoda,” an indisputably gorgeous ride. He fixed up old Volvos and drove a 1966 122S “Amazon” among other beauties. He had several Corvettes, including a 2015 model he used in a race with Joe Biden.

And then there was the PT Cruiser. Powell, who died Monday at age 84, loved his 2001 blue model so much he drove it to his first day of work as Secretary of State before yielding to a chauffeur-driven limo. The best thing about leaving that gig, he said, was “I can drive myself everywhere.”

These days, however, car people view the PT Cruiser as an eyesore on the level of the Pontiac Aztek or a Nissan Cube. How could Powell have let himself be seen in one of these fuglymobiles?

What people tend to forget now was that the PT Cruiser was actually popular when it first stunk up American roads at the turn of the century. Car and Driver put it on its best list for 2001, despite noting that it shared a lot of DNA with the Neon, a car even less missed today. Its postmodern styling was then a plus, conjuring Dick Tracy and hot rods, while its spacious interior and high seating position were sells for people who might have otherwise bought SUVs or minivans. Those customers quickly became the PT Cruiser’s base—not the Gen Xers Chrysler might have imagined, but their Boomer parents. They were so hot that they sold for well over their sticker price in 2001. More than a million were sold eventually.

The PT Cruiser’s decline was equally swift. As Whet Moser writes in a good reassessment of the car, its poor safety became an issue in 2008, and Chrysler gradually let the model die as the carmaker spiraled toward bankruptcy. Now it’s generally viewed as a bigger, curvier version of Heelys, or, as Moser calls it, the “Dad Jeans of Cars.” MotorTrend diplomatically notes that it has “not yet caught on as a collectible car.” Powell seems to have caught on that he was driving the equivalent of frosted tips—press mentions of his blue PT tapered off dramatically after 2005. Now it’s a staple of ugliest-cars-ever lists, and Powell’s PT Cruiser stewardship will be among the least objectionable parts of his legacy.

Much more important: A journalist I know reports that Powell was known at DC events as someone who “drove the coolest cars and was genuinely nice to the attendants.” You don’t have to forgive him for making the bogus case for the Iraq War. But we can probably let the PT Cruiser thing go.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.