If pizzas or golf clubs were made the way Plymouth is building the Prowler, their CEOs would be munching happy pills at bankruptcy hearings.

Chrysler spent $75 million, a pittance these days, to develop and produce a handful of prototypes. But only 3,000 Prowlers will be sold next year for $35,000 apiece. You do the math.

Prowler is a growler, a two-seater toy, a throwback of a '40 shot rod with motorcycle front fenders, window sills at ear level and a huge bum.

It comes only in papal purple. There's enough trunk room for one change of ZZ Top T-shirt, because original rods weren't driven farther than the nearest drag strip. The market for such an outrageous set of wheels is seven pinpoints smaller than infinitesimal.

Yet dollars, says Tom Gale, executive vice president and design overboss for parent Chrysler, was never the sense of Prowler. Third party credibility, he says, was the programmed profit. That meant crapshooting with products of high shock value, leaving no brazen concept unturned if younger images were to be earned by stuffy old companies.

And after adoring cover stories in a gazillion auto magazines, after Chrysler logged 90,000 inquiries concerning the statute of limitations on self-indulgence, Prowler seems ordained to tug Plymouth from its past as a cobbler of cheapos with the driving thrills of a hearse. Or have we blanked out Plymouth Valiants?

The first duet of almost-ready-for-prime-time Prowlers rumbled around here this month as part of Chrysler's hands- and feets-on media introduction of its James Dean Special. The roadsters--conceived and drawn at Chrysler Pacifica Design Center in nearby Carlsbad--added an urchin's zip to the old money elegance of Rancho Valencia Resort.

For the rest of the region, from Del Mar through eucalyptic Torrey Pines to downtown San Diego, they formed a 10-frame clip from "American Graffiti" and a cause for more high signs, hubba-hubbas andoh-babys than Bob Dole's arrival at the convention.

Prowler's tractor look--huge, broad, 20-inch Goodyear Eagles at the driving end, dwarfing 17-inch rubber at the steering end--displays a genuine understanding of hot rod geometry and that intensely romantic era when three little words sometimes meant Manny, Moe and Jack.

Original touches are huge. An open front suspension shows naked arms and tie rods. Side mirrors come close to being streamlined jug ears. And surely that tachometer staring through the steering wheel is one of thousands of originals found in crates at an abandoned speed shop in Bakersfield.

It all seems as authentic as back shop makeshift, suggesting any driver of this hot rod was the builder who created it all.

The Prowler concept was basic: Build a street-legal production hot rod made driver-friendly by modern technology.

But pandering to buyers wanting to relive their past--or re-create moments they weren't old enough t o enjoy first time around--wasn't sufficient justification. So Prowler is a rolling test bed of technology for the next millennium.

That's why almost a half-ton of aluminum is used in the car, with panels bonded, not welded or riveted. One magnesium brace crosses the width of the car and replaces a structure once formed from 20 pieces of steel.

Most things about the interior are more whispers from the past. Oh, not the '90s air bags, AutoStick transmission, air conditioning and, by the beard of Boyd Coddington, a mug holder. But the seemingly tucked and rolled leather upholstery, white-faced instruments and embossed carpets smack so much of yesterday's craftsmanship.

Performance is more fun than exciting. Prowler is quick, but no Kawasaki Ninja from a stoplight. Flat out, you'd better respect the glimpse in your mirrors of anything else in the same price range.

Yet able brakes and suspension allow some flashy maneuvering. On the other hand, withh ge gum balls for rear tires and only 214 horsepower, one has to be doing really dumb things for anything to come unstuck back there.

But those prone to say, yup, this here Prowler is the closest thing to their ol' Deuce have probably inhaled too much brake fluid.

In the '40s, only the aristocracy of street rods took off like scalded McClarens. The rest made much noise but only unimpressive progress. Changing direction was attempted only after consulting with a personal injury attorney.

Blessedly, the competent Prowler is miles ahead of hot rod history. It will appeal to women and to the weaker sex. It is very cool. And you will want to be seen and envied in it because, 'fess up, showing off is part of the passion. Or we'd still be driving Valiants.

This is Chrysler's second shot at leading with clever ideas in search of automotive Americana.

It did it with the Dodge Viper, commemorating primal pavement pounding of Cobra sports cars of the '60s. An all-American.

Now the Prowler replicating the '40s. Another all-American.

There's a third project but Gale isn't saying much.

"I'll give you a hint," he teases. "Walk around Pebble Beach and see what's inspirational."

This month's Pebble Beach Concours is where the automotive monarchy gathers. It's a festival of Dual Cowl Packards and Duesenbergs. Of all-American excess.

Which suggests a third retrospective: something large, definitely Chrysler and filling a niche empty since grand, purring all-American, V-12 marques went away in the '30s.

1997 Plymouth Prowler

The Good: Careful, impressive replication of hot rod era. Destined to cross all gender, income and age categories. Huge, clever dare from Chrysler, following Dodge Viper's successful passage.

The Bad: No fair getting picky with prototypes.

The Ugly: Floating front bumpers that could double as CHP nudge bars.

Cost Base, andas tested: $35,000, estimated. (Includes dual air bags, AutoStick transmission, power windows and mirrors, leather seats, climate control, monster wheels and tires, cruise control and CD sound system.)

Engine 3.5-liter, single overhead cam, 24-valve V-6 developing 214 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, rear-drive, retro hot rod roadster.

Performance 0-60 mph, estimated, 8 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 130 mph Fuel consumption, city and highway combined, estimated 25 mpg

Curb Weight 2,800 pounds.