The former Chrysler Corp.'s grandiose dream of building sexy, lightweight and low-cost plastic cars is stalled in the research phase, apparently a victim of budget cuts and changing priorities at the auto maker following its acquisition by Daimler-Benz AG in 1998.

A major research and development partnership formed to carry out the effort was dissolved at the end of last year, and a giant plastic injection molding machine that was the centerpiece of the operation is currently sitting idle as its owner tries to negotiate a new research effort with another Detroit-based OEM.

Everyone involved still is hopeful that some day it will be possible to build real cars as simply as toy plastic ones — in only a few big pieces — but right now that day seems much further off.

Chrysler's plastic car strategy was conceived in the mid-1990s and formally was announced with great fanfare in 1997, first as a means of developing a $6,000 car for emerging markets such as China, then as a strategy to produce light-weight low-cost sports cars like the Pronto Spyder and ultra high-mileage sedans like the ESX2 and ESX3.

The effort culminated in November 1999, when then-President James P. Holden announced a partnership with Canadian suppliers Husky Injection Molding Systems and Decoma International Inc., a subsidiary of Magna International Inc., to produce 4,000 to 5,000 injection molded plastic hard tops for Jeep Wranglers beginning in 2000.

The production was to take place at a new $10 million Husky Detroit Technical Center facility in Novi, MI, which housed the world's largest dual-platen injection molding machine, twice the size of anything in the industry at the time.

The machine is capable of injecting more than 100 lbs. (45 kg) of thermoplastic at one time, enough to create half of a car body in one shot with thermoplastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — the plastic used in pop bottles. That contrasts with conventional bodies made of 75 to 100 metal parts.

DaimlerChrysler excited the industry with the idea of a complete vehicle body of 6 to 12 thermoplastic pieces, 100% recyclable. The new material and process had the potential to improve fuel economy, cut vehicle body weight up to 50% and reduce body tooling costs by up to 70%. Because the plastic parts featured molded-in color, assembly plant paint shops could be eliminated, saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the groundbreaking, Chrysler officials outlined a plan to produce 50 test hardtops to gauge public reaction to its matte finish, and follow up with as many as 5,000 production hardtops for the '01 Wrangler. The technology reduced the weight of the hardtop by 23 lbs. (10.4 kg) compared to one made of traditional sheet molded composite (SMC).

“Our plan was to build Wrangler hardtops and kind of prove the thing out that way, see if we ran into any unexpected snags and see if people accepted it and then go from there,” says Bernard Robertson, Chrysler Group senior vice president-engine technologies and regulatory affairs.

Then Holden was fired in November 2000, and Daimler management took over the company. Insiders say the program's initiative, already losing momentum, was lost in the ensuing shuffle of people and budgets.

The end result is the partnership failed to live up to its production expectations and was amicably dissolved at the end of last year.

There were other problems as well. “We did run into some practical issues,” says Robertson. Husky's machine, capable of churning out a hardtop every three minutes, never made it past the test phase.

“We are not in production with the injection molding parts yet,” says Robertson, two years after the groundbreaking, in an interview with WAW.

“We had problems with the top sagging, forming what the industry calls ‘duck ponds,’” says Robertson of the phenomenon that occurs with the slightest measurement of “sink” in an otherwise flat surface.

The other disappointment is that much of the cost savings was to come from molding the color into the plastic parts, where any scratch in the surface reveals more color underneath. “We wanted to self-color the top so we didn't have to paint them,” says Robertson. It eliminates the need for a $350 million paint shop and about $50 million in emissions and regulatory costs. It means engine, stamping and assembly could conceivably all fit under one roof and it would take about 6.5 hours to build a car compared to about 19.

“We couldn't do all the colors,” he explains, saying some colors whitened when injected.

“We anticipated difficulty with that, and indeed we had some.” As a result, the hardtops continue to be made of traditional SMC. “They are sourced in Canada, and they're all painted.”

Trefor Jones, general manager of Husky's Novi tech center, admits there were technical problems related to the prototype tooling, but says they could have been overcome with new tooling if Chrysler had decided to move on to the actual production phase with the hardtops. Unfortunately, he says, the high cost of the production tooling, combined with the economic downturn, made it difficult justify taking that next step.

Jones says the research program with Chrysler ended “very amicably” and that it's business as usual at the Novi tech center, where two-thirds of the facility is devoted to general research and development work. Husky now is negotiating with another Big Three auto maker to use the one-third of the facility that was formerly leased by Chrysler and dedicated to the Wrangler hardtops, Jones says. The giant press is available for R&D or short-run production work. Despite the setback, he says there still is a case to be made for making cars lighter and less expensively with big plastic parts.

Chrysler Group's Robertson agrees: “We haven't given up on the large injection molded plastic approach that we used for the ESX (family of concept cars using recycled plastic and Chrysler's contribution to the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles program), says Robertson. And he still hopes to build a fleet of Wrangler hardtops. “But, as is so often the case, getting the thing to production feasibility with no compromises to the customer, is always a challenge.”

The Husky project has proven of value, Robertson says. It is being used to tackle problems with plastics including the need for a glossy finish, structural durability and the ability to withstand impact testing and temperature extremes without sagging or shattering.

In this endeavor, the defunct CCV project — where the technology was first shown — has proven useful. CCV stood for China Concept Vehicle when it was introduced in 1997 as an inexpensive small plastic “peoples' car” for China and other emerging markets. When it was put to bed as a product idea, it was renamed Composite Concept Car and lived on as a plastics testbed.

Chrysler followed up with the Dodge Intrepid ESX2 concept and then teased the public with the Plymouth Pronto Spyder as an affordable 2-door roadster concept.

“For quite a long time, the only molds we had to use for the Husky press were CCV molds so, as we continued to do all our development on different kinds of plastic formulation, we built CCVs,” says Robertson.

“It proved itself out; that the plastic does stand up in different temperatures, provided you use the right formulation,” he says. “We learned how to formulate the plastic so that you could injection mold it, but still have the appropriate properties.

Engineers developed the idea of an aluminum frame inside and then injection molding the plastic pieces around it and forming them in place. The plastic has proven strong enough that a traditional steel spaceframe is not necessary — federal crash test requirements can be met with miminal use of metal reinforcement, says Robertson.

The technology was honed by smashing CCVs, and the lessons learned were applied to the construction of the Dodge Intrepid ESX3, says Robertson.

Plastic bodies also have proven to be a design aid, creating crisp lines for the Spyder and the Jeep Commander concept that would not have been possible with stamped steel.

Despite the disappointment of not being able to produce the hardtops, “we have not lost interest in judicious use of plastics where we think the application makes sense,” sums up Robertson.

“Keep in mind that one of the beauties of the large injection molded approach is it wasn't high-falutin plastic. It was real cheap stuff: hundreds of pop bottles. It was the approach to injection molding that was attractive.”

The reality is, “we don't always achieve our most ambitious goals,” he says frankly. It has proven that it's not a panacea, but “we're still intrigued with the idea.”