AUTO HERITAGE

Chrysler’s iconic 300

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WORK OF ART
The 1957 Chrysler 300-C is considered one of the most glamorous American cars ever built.

NOT many car models survive for 62 years, but not many cars are the Chrysler 300.

Produced in 36 of those 62 years, the 300 is Chrysler’s most enduring product, and a monument to decades of cutting-edge technology and design. Undergoing several iterations over the years, the Chrysler 300 today has returned to its original concept: A rear-wheel drive luxury car with a mountain of power under the hood.

The 300 was the brainchild of Chrysler’s youthful (he was 37 at the time) chief engineer Robert MacGregor Rodger, who had been part of the development team for Chrysler’s first Hemi V8 (for the uninitiated, the name comes from the fact that the cylinder heads have hemispherical combustion chambers), which was introduced in 1951.

Frankenstein car
In 1953, Rodger tinkered with the design of Chrysler’s standard 331-cubic inch (5.4-liter) Hemi V8, adding Briggs Cunningham cams with solid lifters, dual four-barrel carburetors, and adjusting the compression ratio to 8.5:1 to extract 300 horsepower from the package. Only trouble was, Chrysler really didn’t have a car suitable for the new engine, nor did it have the budget to design one from the ground up.


Rodger’s preference was for a two-door hardtop, but without new components, he had to use his imagination to cobble one together from what was available. Using the front clip of Chrysler’s high-end Imperial with the body shell of a two-door New Yorker and quarter panels from the Windsor, Rodger created a car; to soften the design, Chrysler’s chief designer Virgil Exner swapped the Imperial’s big front bumper for the smaller, plainer base Chrysler version. The result would go into production as the 1955 300, the name inspired, of course, by Rodger’s original objective to build a 300-hp engine.

Ruler of the oval
First offered for sale on February 10, 1955, the 300 was among the fastest production cars of the time, reaching 60 mph (96 kph) in just under 10 seconds and topping out at a blistering 130 mph (208 kph). Thanks to a heavy-duty suspension, it was a reasonably well-behaved car, one that Hemings once described as “very luxurious and handsome, in a bulky linebacker sort of way.”

But the most prominent display of the first 300’s attributes wasn’t on America’s roads, but on racetracks around the Southeast. In those early days of NASCAR, “stock cars” were precisely that, ordinary production vehicles with a bit of basic safety equipment and numbers on the doors. So without any backing or endorsement from Chrysler, the founder of the Mercury Outboard company, Carl Kiekhaefer, put four white 300s into the 1955 NASCAR Grand National campaign.

The 300 absolutely dominated its Ford and Chevrolet competition. Kiekhaefer driver Tim Flock won an astonishing 18 of 38 races, and finished in the top five 32 times to take the driver’s championship. His brother and team-mate Fonty won three races, while Lee Petty, driving for a late-to-the-party Chrysler team, also scored three wins.

Despite its growing renown, the 300 only had 1,725 sales in a short model year, and was probably also hurt by a rather steep $4,109 base price. For the next model year, now denoted with a “B” (a Chrysler naming convention), and powered up with a new 354-cubic inch Hemi V8 developing 340 hp (with an optional 355-hp version), racing success continued, but sales continued to disappoint, with only 1,102 of the 1956 300B units finding customers.

The 300 of 300s
Chrysler decided what the 300 needed was a facelift, and called on Virgil Exner to make the car as attractive as it was powerful. The 1957 300-C is still considered a work of American automotive art. Adding fat, upswept rear fins and a grill faintly reminiscent of a Ferrari, Exner created a car that was more than eye-catching.

A whole new chassis was underneath the 300-C’s sexy exterior as well, featuring a torsion bar front suspension, Chrysler’s Torque Flite push-button automatic transmission, and another tweak of the Hemi, now swelled to 392 cubic inches (6.4 liters) and offered in 375-hp and 390-hp versions. Breaking away from the hardtop standard, Chrysler also offered the 300-C in a convertible version, of which nearly 500 were built.

The 1958 “D” model was much the same as the “C,” but marked the end of the Hemi in the 300 for the next 47 years. 1959’s 300-E was fitted with a 413-cubic inch (6.8-liter) “wedge” V8 (with wedge-shaped combustion chambers), a fairly strong 380-hp package, but the 300 seemed to be losing its luster; just 550 hardtop and 140 convertible 300-Es found homes that year.

Endless experiments
The next 20 years would see various attempts to recapture the charm of the 1955 and 1957 models, and in a certain respect, the 300 remained a stalwart of the Chrysler line, with sales of the various model year offerings just enough to keep the car on the roster.

One of the most interesting variations of the 300 was the 1962 Sport Series, one of which the author owned for a while (and still remembers the way one remembers a first girlfriend). The 1962 Sport was a massive two-door – it tipped the scales with a curb weight of more than 6,700 pounds – powered by the relatively lackluster 383-cubic inch (6.3-liter) V8 B engine, which with its standard single two-barrel carb managed only 305 hp (a shortcoming the author solved in his own 1962 by swapping it out for the biggest Holley four-barrel that would fit the intake manifold).

Lacking the fins as well as the letter designation of the earlier 300s, the 1962 Sport earned the slightly dubious nickname “plucked chicken,” but still proved popular, selling almost 26,000 units that year.

Although production – in various guises, with and without the letter designation – continued until 1971, the 300 gradually faded from the public’s eye and Chrysler’s consciousness. In 1972, there was no 300 produced, and almost no one noticed; except for an ill-advised attempt to dress up the mid-sized Cordoba and call it a 300 in 1979, it would be 28 years before the badge would be part of the Chrysler line-up.

The 300 returns
In 1999, with much fanfare, Chrysler unveiled the modern version of the 300, called the 300M. A radical departure from what the 300 used to be – a V8-powered, rear-wheel drive car with at least one two-door configuration available – the 300M was a V6-powered, front-wheel drive sedan, its only connection to its ancestor, apart from the 300 designation, being the squarish grill.

Despite having nothing at all in common with the classic 300, the 300M was an instant hit, and became one of Chrysler’s best-sellers for its entire production run, which lasted until the 2004 model year, when it was supplanted by the current tenth-generation 300.

More than half a century after it was introduced, the 300 has returned to what it once was, a big, powerful, stylish car with Hemi V8 power driving the rear wheels, although V6 and all-wheel drive variants have also been built. Given the appeal of Chrysler’s latest versions, it is not inconceivable that the 300 plate might be seen on its cars for another 60 years.

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