The countdown to oblivion has begun for the iconic Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Chrysler Group LLC declines comment, but numerous sources tell Ward’s the C-segment hatchback is scheduled for build-out July 9.

“It’s a little bit bittersweet,” says Tom Gale, retired Chrysler design chief who helped develop the vehicle. “That car still looks good to me on the road.”

Cleverly crafted as a light truck, which afforded Chrysler an advantage in the face of corporate average fuel economy requirements, the PT Cruiser has been deemed out of step with the product plans that have evolved from the auto maker’s bankruptcy-induced alliance with Fiat Automobiles SpA.

A convertible derivative, classified as a car, was killed in 2007 during the regime of then-owner Cerberus Capital Management LP.

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has said the auto maker could introduce a new C-segment vehicle for its core brand by fourth-quarter 2011, several weeks earlier than the originally scheduled 2012 debut.

And when that day comes, it will mark the end of a product program that confounded critics, charmed consumers, entrenched the word “retro” in the industry lexicon, introduced a new face to the design world, spawned a controversial copy and accounted for more than 1.2 million sales worldwide since its launch in 2000, according to Ward’s data.

While Chrysler executives and industry observers have marveled at the PT Cruiser’s longevity, Gale is not surprised. “I can remember the marketing guys telling us – a lot of them are good friends and I don’t mean to discredit them – we were only going to sell 25,000 units.”

Chrysler delivered 106,829 PT Cruisers the first year in North American, Ward’s data shows. The next year saw sales peak at 160,382. The sales tally did not fall below 100,000 units until 2008, driven by more than a dozen limited-edition models that played up the PT’s street-rod flair.

But the key to its success was inside, Gale says. “The interior was huge,” he tells Ward’s. “That was the payoff for accepting the (exterior) design.”

The original Cruiser’s cargo area featured an adjustable shelf, and its seats not only folded flat but could be removed. “I doubt many people did it,” Gale says with a laugh. “Everyplace someone looked (in the interior), it was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it had that.’”

The PT Cruiser demands an appealing interior because its retro-styled exterior is “polarizing,” says Geoff Wardle, director-advanced mobility research at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA.

First impressions evoked contempt or ardor, he says, predicting the PT Cruiser likely will not be considered a milestone in automotive design. “PT Cruiser neither set design back, nor advanced it. It was more a product of a time when the car industry was feeling fairly whimsical and buoyant.”

The vehicle certainly made dealers giddy. “It was always a good seller for us,” John Scott, general manager-Snethkamp Chrysler Jeep in Redford, MI, tells Ward’s. “We rode the wave on the PT Cruiser for a long time. That car was hot.”

While Gale says the vehicle was the product of many “champions,” from engineers to then-Chrysler Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, he acknowledges Bryan Nesbitt as the designer who penned the seminal sketch.

The car’s notoriety propelled Nesbitt to celebrity status in the industry, which led him to accept an elevated position at the former General Motors Corp. where he went on to design the Chevrolet HHR – considered a PT Cruiser knockoff by critics.

Lutz, who also had moved on to GM, famously denied the copycat accusation, saying the HHR, which launched in 2005 and has outsold the Cruiser the last three years, was inspired by the ’49 Chevy Suburban.

Says Gale: “That’s pure unadulterated…whatever.”

Chrysler had 4,576 PT Cruisers in its inventory through May, for a 119 days’ supply.

– with Tom Murphy

emayne@wardsauto.com