Most cars emerge from a cauldron of corporate intrigue and dissolve back into a vat of recriminations and blame-shifting a few years later. But on occasion, one lone wolf inside a car company manages to shepherd his (or her) vision through the morass of bureaucratic infighting and produce something special. That was the case with the 1955 Chrysler 300.
At age 37, Robert MacGregor Rodger was a 15-year veteran of Chrysler in 1953, and a member of the team that launched the corporation's first Hemi V8 back in '51. He was also, despite his relative youth, the chief engineer of the Chrysler Division. Heading into its third year, the Hemi had only grown stronger and tasted racing success in Briggs Cunningham's C-2, C-4R and C-5R Le Mans racers. It was also starting to dominate the newly developing world of organized drag racing. Rodger was convinced that a standard 331-cubic-inch (5.4-liter) Hemi running one of Cunningham's cams with solid lifters, dual four-barrel carbs and an 8.5-to-1 compression ratio could produce 300 reliable and civilized horsepower. But for all that, Chrysler didn't really have a production car that seemed an appropriate showcase for such performance.
So Rodger proposed that Chrysler build a special car, a two-door hardtop, for the Hemi. There wasn't any budget for new sheet metal, so he bolted the top-of-the-line Imperial's nose onto a New Yorker hardtop two-door body shell with Windsor model rear quarter panels to produce the 1955 300. Chrysler's chief designer, Virgil Exner, tweaked the design by excising the Imperial's massive front bumper in favor of the less ornate one used on the base Chrysler, and the 300 went into production.
Since then, Rodger's inspiration (or at least its namesake) has gone in and out of production several times. At first, it was offered as a high-performance, well-appointed sibling to the lavishly luxurious Imperial atop Chrysler's lineup. Later, it wasn't much more than a heavily optioned Newport, and a few years after that, it was a redecorated Cordoba. Some two decades later, it became a high-performance version of the corporate front-wheel-drive LH sedan platform. Today, it's the herald of a new rear-drive future for Chrysler and the most spectacular home yet for an all-new Hemi V8. It's amazing how Chrysler came back to Bob Rodger's basic idea nearly a half century later.
Officially offered for sale on February 10, 1955, the first Chrysler 300 was athletic-looking, but it didn't have a letter at the end of its name. With 300 horsepower aboard, it was among the quickest cars of its time, getting to 60 mph in just 9.8 seconds, according to a test in Mechanix Illustrated by "Uncle Tom" McCahill, who also spurred the car up to a full 130 mph. But beyond being the most powerful production car of its time, the first Chrysler 300 was also among the best handling thanks to a heavy-duty suspension. It was also very luxurious and handsome in a bulky linebacker sort of way.
But the most prominent display of the first 300's attributes didn't come in any showroom, but on racetracks around the Southeast. Back in '55, NASCAR stock cars were in fact stock production vehicles and, except for some crude safety equipment and numbers on the doors, almost indistinguishable from the cars the public could buy. With absolutely no support from Chrysler, Mercury Outboard founder Carl Kiekhaefer campaigned a fleet of white 300s during the 1955 NASCAR Grand National season with drivers like the Flock brothers (Tim, Fonty and Bob) and Norm Nelson behind the wheel.
The Kiekhaefer 300s were spectacularly dominant and overwhelmed the factory-backed Chevrolets and Fords. Tim Flock took the driver's championship while winning 18 of the 38 races he entered and finishing in the top five an astounding 32 times. His brother, Fonty, took another three victories, while Chrysler campaigner Lee Petty took home three trophies. Suddenly, the 300 had a glorious racing heritage.
Considering the short model year for that first 300 (only 1,725 were sold at a thick $4,109 base price), it was no surprise that the 1956 300 was pretty much a carryover machine. Actually, the easiest way to tell the '56 300 from the '55 was that it now wore the name "300-B" as the tradition of labeling each subsequent model year with the next letter of the alphabet began.
Beyond that name modification and new taillights, the 300-B also featured the latest version of the Hemi V8, now displacing 354 cubic inches and making 340 hp. Plus, there was now an optional version featuring a 10.0-to-1 compression ratio that was rated at an almost unfathomable 355 hp. Success on the racetrack continued, but sales actually softened a bit to just 1,102 units.
Even by the standards of the mid-'50s, the entire Chrysler range of cars looked a little dowdy. If the 300 were to prosper, it had to get looks to match its performance.
Virgil Exner, then Chrysler's design chief, called his new styling direction that was seen on all the 1957 Chryslers "Sweptline," in reference to the upswept tailfins that adorned the cars' rear flanks. And the car that best exemplified the new look was the new 300-C. This car wasn't just gorgeous, but glamorous. From its Ferrari-like grille to the plump rear fins, the 300-C exuded sex appeal in a way no domestic car had before it. The original 300-C is still considered by many to be the most beautiful and desirable 300 of them all.
More than just the sheet metal was new, as Chrysler put a whole new chassis under its cars for '57, featuring a torsion bar front suspension. And the Hemi itself had grown to 392 cubic inches (6.4 liters) and was now available in 375- and 390-hp versions. Most 300-Cs came equipped with Chrysler's TorqueFlite push-button automatic transmission, but the 390-hp version was usually paired with a three-speed manual transmission. The 300-C was also the first 300 available as a convertible.
Stuffed with more leather than ever before and wearing a new circular badge that would become a 300-series trademark, the base price of the 300-C hardtop ($4,929) was almost $700 more than that of the 300-B. But that hardly mattered, as this radically more attractive machine found 2,402 buyers — 484 of them opting for convertibles. The first two years of the 300 may have established the marque's performance credentials, but it was the 300-C that gave the car an aura of greatness.
Chrysler didn't do much to create the 1958 300-D, other than modify the '57 hardtop's windshield slightly, throw some red paint on the hubcaps and offer Bendix's electronic fuel injection system as an option. Unfortunately, electronic fuel injection wasn't a great idea in an era when vacuum tubes still ruled the electronics world, and the 16 or so cars equipped with the Bendix system were recalled and retrofitted with carburetors. The single engine that remained, a 392-cubic-inch Hemi wearing dual Carter four-barrel carbs, made 380 hp.
"Once moving, the 300's huge 9.00-by-14 nylons slap at tar strips with solid authority," wrote the Motor Trend editors about the 300-D. "The low-speed ride is rough on city streets, solid on highways up to 85 or so and just right at anything you can run over that. There's no body or chassis vibration from either engine or suspension . The entire package is an impressively engineered, confident automobile that knows it's good — and soon let's you know it, too." In spite of the accolades, production dropped to 618 hardtops and 191 convertibles that year.
And that was it for the Hemi engine in the 300 for the next 47 years.
While the 1959 300-E looked much like the 300-D (except for a new grille texture and, of course, the modified badges), Chrysler fitted it with a 413-cubic-inch (6.8-liter) "Wedge" head V8. Swapping the Hemi's hemispherical combustion chambers for the Wedge's wedge-shaped ones didn't change the 380 hp available to buyers (the induction system remained dual Carter four-barrels), but it did provide additional torque lower in the power band. Just 550 hardtop and 140 convertible 300-Es found homes that year.
What was next for the 300 was a whole new way of building Chryslers.
All the new 1960 Chryslers looked different, and they truly were as the corporation adopted unibody construction techniques for all its full-size cars. So the 300-F would be the first 300 to lack a traditional ladder frame underneath it.
The relatively elegant styling of the 300-C, -D and -E was tossed aside with the 300-F, as it adopted some of the most flamboyant styling ever seen outside the Ringling Brothers big top. The tail fins were now razor-thin and ended in a point that looked ready to impale pedestrians. The flat trunk lid between the fins featured the impression of a spare tire. And up front, there was a spectacular, yet tastefully simple, grille with just two thin chrome bars intersecting at the grille's center.
Matching the over-the-top exterior, the 300-F's interior featured four individual bucket seats with a center console running the length of the cockpit between them. The "Astradome" instrumentation put a 150-mph speedometer under a large, clear plastic dome with subordinate gauges in their own smaller domes.
But the sheer spectacle of the 300-F didn't stop there. In the engine bay, the 413 Wedge V8 now featured an exotic "Ram-Tuned" long runner intake manifold that placed each Carter carb outboard of the engine itself, feeding the opposite bank of cylinders. The throttle linkage alone had the intimidating intricacy of a Swiss watch. Power was now pegged at 375 hp in most 300-Fs, with a very few vehicles getting a higher-compression version making 400 hp. Nearly all cars were equipped with the Torqueflite three-speed automatic, but a handful (maybe four) had a French-made "Pont-A-Mousson" four-speed manual. Production rose to 964 hardtops and 248 convertibles.
Except for modified styling that included headlights stacked inside slanted housings, the 1961 300-G was very much a carryover from the 300-F. Still, production climbed to 1,280 hardtops and 337 convertibles.
Things got confusing for 1962, as the 300 was now available in two distinct series. First was the traditional "Letter Series" car now called, naturally, the 300-H, which lost the massive tail fins of previous years but was otherwise a rerun of the 300-G. Then, there was the new 300 "Sport Series," which essentially replaced the Windsor in Chrysler's lineup and included the first four-doors (hardtop and pillared sedan) to carry the 300 name. The Sport Series carried over the Letter Series grille and styling cues but used a revised version of the lower-line Newport interior. And while the 300-H still had the 413 under its hood (once again rated at 380 hp), the Sport Series packed the relatively lackluster 383-cubic-inch (6.3-liter) V8, making just 305 hp while breathing through a single two-barrel carb.
If nothing else, the addition of the Sport Series confused the public, and sales of the 300-H plummeted to just 435 hardtops and 123 convertibles. However, that was offset by the 25,578 Sport Series 300s that were sold.
A major restyling came to all Chryslers for 1963, and the Letter Series 300 was no exception. However, the company decided to skip over the letter "I" and named this car the 300-J. And it was available only as a two-door hardtop with a 390-hp version of the 413 Wedge under its hood. Sales shrank to a total of just 400 300-Js. At the same time, 24,665 300 Sport Series models were shipped — including 2,167 replicas of the 300 convertible that paced that year's Indianapolis 500.
The convertible returned to the Letter Series for 1964, but the 300-K was otherwise identical to the 300-J. Still, Letter Series sales rebounded to 3,022 hardtops and 625 convertibles, while 26,887 Sport Series cars found homes.
For 1965, the 300s got a sleeker body. For the first time, dual carbs weren't available and output of the 413 dropped to 360 hp on the 300-L. There were only barely discernable differences between the 300-L and lesser 300s. It was obvious — the Letter Series was doomed even though 2,405 hardtops and 440 convertibles were sold that year.
With the Letter Series terminated for 1966, the 300 became, well, merely an ordinary Chrysler. The 1966 300 was available in four different body styles: two-door hardtop, four-door hardtop, convertible and four-door sedan. All were built on the same 124-inch wheelbase of other Chryslers and shared the same basic styling. The standard engine in the 300 was the 383 V8 with a single four-barrel carburetor making a relatively modest 325 hp. A 365-hp version of the same engine was optional.
A new roof and pointed grille distinguished the 1967 300 from the '66 model, and the four-door sedan was gone from the lineup. But the biggest change was a move up to Chrysler's 440-cubic-inch (7.2-liter) V8 which, inhaling through a single four-barrel, was rated at 350 hp. For just $79, buyers could have the "TNT" version of the 440 making 375 hp.
Hidden headlamps were added to the 1968 300's bag of styling tricks to create a unique look similar to the 300-X show car Chrysler had displayed in 1966. But there really wasn't much else changed, and a total of 34,621 300s were built with 2,161 of those being convertibles.
The 300 had always been a big car, but in 1969 it grew even larger with a new slab-sided body it shared with the lower-line Newport and luxury-leader Imperial. The available engines and body styles stayed the same, and sales dipped slightly to 32,472 cars.
Nothing was new about the 1970 300, except for revised taillights. But the Hurst Corporation took matters into its own hands when it made 501 special Chrysler 300-Hurst models during the year. Featuring a special white and gold paint scheme and a Hurst shifter controlling the three-speed Torqueflite automatic, power for the Hurst model came from the 375-hp TNT 440. While this model is not generally considered part of the 300 letter car series, it is considered collectible.
The 300 would limp into 1971 shorn of its convertible model and selling just 13,939 units. There was no 1972 Chrysler 300, and practically no one mourned its passing.
By 1979, Chrysler's midsize personal luxury car, the Cordoba, was four years old and beginning to fade in the marketplace. So midway through the model year Chrysler decided to redecorate the Cordoba using white paint, some phony front fender vents and red, white and blue pinstriping, and called it the "300." That sounds bad, but it gets worse. The only engine offered was a 195-hp, 360-cubic-inch (5.9-liter) V8 which, when combined with the three-speed automatic transmission, produced less than thrilling performance.
No wonder that the 300 went into a 20-year hibernation after that.
Every 300 produced between '55 and '79 had a V8 engine, rear-wheel drive and at least one two-door body style in common. The all-new 1999 300M was an altogether different beast: a four-door sedan with a V6 engine in its nose driving the front wheels. Yet by most measures it was the best 300 yet.
Before its introduction, Marty Levine, then general manager for Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep-Eagle, promised The Detroit News, "This is not going to be another European wannabe sport sedan. We've never done a letter car that was as exclusively American as this." So, of course that meant the new car would be built in Canada.
Based on the second-generation of Chrysler's "cab forward" LH platform, the 300M used a 3.5-liter, SOHC, 24-valve V6 making a commendable 253 hp (that's net horsepower, a far more conservative standard than the "gross" rating used in the '50s and '60s) and mounted longitudinally in the engine bay. It drove a four-speed automatic transaxle that featured "AutoStick" manual shifting using the floor-mounted lever. Much of what one would expect on a "Letter Car" was in fact standard, including leather seating surfaces, power seats, power everything else and, for the first time on a 300, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.
Edmund.com's first encounter with the 300M was a positive one. "[The] 300M was designed to offer a taut suspension and consistent steering as well as a strong motor," we wrote. "Two different suspension settings are available for the 300M: the standard one for more of a touring taste, and an optional Performance Handling Group which includes a tighter suspension. The performance suspension is standard fare for exported 300Ms, but because Americans seem to prefer interstate cruising to negotiating switchbacks, we have to settle for a slightly softer ride. Or you can pay an extra $255 for the 'Performance' suspension, tighter steering, 16-inch performance tires, high-performance ABS and a less restrictive governor on the top speed. Consider it money well spent." With a price starting at $28,700, the new 300M was an instant hit for Chrysler.
Unlike previous Letter Cars that got a new letter designation every year, the 300M made it into the year 2000 with its original name intact. In fact, virtually the entire car was a carryover from '99, and the '00 model finished fourth in Edmunds.com's comparison of eight entry-level luxury cars. "Everything about the 300M," we then wrote, "from its monstrous size to its guttural engine roar, exuded classic American iron. Even the gauges feature an old-world font. With their 'Timex Indiglo' lighting and polished chrome rings, it was easy to see the original Chrysler 300's bloodline in this latest 300M sedan . Chrysler is to be commended for doing more than just rebadging a Concorde and calling it a 300 (an approach taken by certain American carmakers all too often). The 300M gets its own sheet metal, suspension and the aforementioned classic gauge cluster."
However, the car did garner criticism for featuring mere 16-inch wheels in a class where 17s were becoming the standard, for the raucous nature of its 3.5-liter V6 and for its lackluster braking performance. "Think of the 300M as Chrysler's first serious attempt at a world car," we concluded. "The shortened length (compared to an LHS sedan) widens its appeal to European buyers, and the suspension offers handling that few comparably sized sedans can match. As a true world car, it needs improved brakes and much higher build-quality standards. As a people mover for full-size hot-rod enthusiasts, it hits the mark."
Changes were scant to the 300M for 2001, but a hot-rodded "Special" model arrived for 2002 with a firmer suspension, an upgrade brake system, increased-effort steering, 18-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot tires and mild cosmetic touches inside and out.
We revisited the car, as a 300M Special took part of a five-car, entry-level luxury sedan comparison test. It finished fourth again this time behind the Infiniti I35, Lexus ES 300, Saab 9-5 and Volkswagen Passat W8. Road Test Editor Erin Riches wrote, "The 300M Special has a controlled yet taut ride and tire rumble makes the cabin noisy on the highway. Of course the very attributes that make the 300M less compliant than its peers also make it a rewarding companion for any driver who turns onto a winding two-lane highway — the Chrysler was the only full-size car in this group, but it exhibited the least body roll and the most grip when pushed around curves, and maintained the highest speed through the 600-foot slalom (63.6 mph). Stability control is not available for the 300M; standard traction control prevents the front wheels from spinning excessively on slippery surfaces . Our test vehicle had much the same build quality issues as the earlier 300M Special we tested — various interior rattles, a slightly loose center console, front doors that rubbed against the firewall pads whenever they were opened or closed and misaligned exterior body panels.
"Compared with the ES 300, I35 and Passat W8, the 300M Special seemed too rough around the edges for an entry-level luxury sedan. While its roomy interior and surprising performance thresholds could justify a test-drive for some, it's not a car that we would recommend to most buyers shopping in this segment."
The 300M would finish out its life in 2003 and 2004 with the open secret of the imminent return of a rear-drive, V8-powered 300 haunting it. The anticipation for what came next was almost overwhelming.
The current Chrysler 300 is nothing short of sensational. Except for the fact that it's built in the same plant and can be had with the same 3.5-liter V6 engine in lower-end models (there's also a base model with a 2.7-liter V6), the new 300 shares practically nothing with the outgoing 300M. The new unibody structure mounts a rear-drive drivetrain and incorporates suspension components originally developed for the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The styling is aggressively American with more than a taste of gangster influence. The best news, of course, is sitting up at the top of the range, the new 300C model powered by the new 5.7-liter "Hemi" V8 engine making 340 hp. After getting our first taste of the 300C, we wrote, "Chrysler has reintroduced the idea of rear-wheel drive and V8 power to buyers shopping for a premium family sedan and/or entry-level luxury car. Will the 300 be the car that sends Toyota back to the drawing board and forces BMW to slash prices? Maybe not, but with just $32,000 standing between you and a stylish, well-equipped 340-hp sedan, it has never been a better time to be a power-hungry weekend enthusiast."
It's still too early to call the new 300 a classic, but it's obviously an exciting development in the nameplate's history. And with a lengthy list of safety features and optional all-wheel drive (for those who face harsh winters), in addition to its stunning performance and styling, we don't see any reason to be anything but optimistic about its future.