Chrysler's CCV was a pioneer of the plastic age

In 1996, inspired by Citroën's beloved 2CV, Chrysler created a smart, simple car that was tailor made – or, rather, injection-moulded – for the developing world.

Category: Concept car

Introduction: 1997 Frankfurt motor show

Inspiration: Designed by Bryan Nesbitt, the CCV (Composite Concept Vehicle) was hardly the sexiest show car unveiled in 1997, but it may have been the smartest. This cheeky four-door, four-seat runabout was the progenitor of a new breed of simple car for emerging markets – specifically Asia. Tough, versatile, affordable and efficient, the CCV was to be, said François Castaing, Chrysler’s then-executive vice president, “as easy to assemble as a toy”. Stylistic and philosophical similarities to the 1948-90 Citroën 2CV were purely intentional.

Particulars: The CCV employed an air-cooled, 800cc two-cylinder engine from Briggs & Stratton, a company best known for its lawnmower engines. The V-twin unit produced 25 horsepower and 36 pound-feet of torque – modest figures, but sufficient to drive the 1,199lb front-wheel-drive car to a top speed of 70mph. From a standing start, 60mph arrived in 23.6 seconds. Overall fuel economy was exemplary, at 50mpg, and noxious emissions were slight, particularly compared with the two-stroke engines common among two- and three-wheeled vehicles in cities throughout Asia. Despite its meagre curb weight and plastic-intensive construction, the CCV proved reasonably crashworthy as well, which is more than can be claimed for, say, India’s ubiquitous auto rickshaws.

Innovations: The CCV’s body structure, assembled from four large pieces of a proprietary polyester-based injection-moulded resin (think plastic soda bottle), tipped the scales at only 210lbs. And because these pieces were held together with adhesive and attached to a simple tube-steel frame with just four bolts, assembly was simple, even by unskilled workers. Paint was unnecessary; pigment was mixed into the thermoplastic resin – which, by the way, was recyclable. As did the Citroën 2CV, the CCV featured a rollback canvas roof that expanded utility (and served as a low-tech substitute for air conditioning). Eight inches of ground clearance and generous wheel travel ensured the car could navigate unpaved rural roads.

Influence: The CCV was on a fast track for production, beginning in the Chinese market. It was designed to sell for the equivalent of about $6,000, bridging the gap between motorcycles and traditional automobiles. But technical difficulties related to fabrication of the car’s plastic body – a process that called for expensive, 8,800-tonne high-pressure injection equipment and moulds as large as city buses –  slowed the process. Then, in 1998, after the finalisation of Chrysler’s “merger of equals” with Germany’s Daimler AG, the project was quietly shelved.

Designer Nesbitt revisited the hunchback shape with DaimlerChrysler’s long-serving PT Cruiser (2000-10) and, upon defecting to General Motors, the Chevrolet HHR. And the CCV’s clever injection-moulded body panels inspired the lightweight plastic hardtop on the Jeep Wrangler. The brilliance of the CCV itself was recognised in a 1999 exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art titled Different Roads: Automobiles for the New Century.

Whereabouts: The CCV show car sits in a Chrysler warehouse.

Hindsight: Like the 2CV that inspired it, Chrysler’s CCV brimmed with ideas. Unlike the Citroën, however, the CCV’s real innovations – production simplicity and cost savings – seemed conceived more for the benefit of the manufacturer than the buyer. The car wore its cheapness on its sleeve. The similarly spartan (albeit decidedly less cheeky) Tata Nano, a subcompact introduced to the Indian market in 2008 at the alluring price of $2,000, has proven a hard sell to shoppers who would rather purchase a used example of a more luxurious car than a new one completely bereft of creature comforts.