In 2005, the wave of retro design that is still shaping American cars first washed over Detroit. American companies, with their stale product offerings, began looking towards their rich pasts to inspire new models with the design and flair of long-gone icons. It was in 2005 that Chrysler launched a modern iteration of the famed 300.
The 300 name had actually been revived by Chrysler several years before the 2005 300's introduction as a car called the 300M, but that model was dated even when brand new and didn't evoke nostalgic memories in the same way its replacement would. The 2005 300 was a total departure from the Chrysler models immediately preceding it. The sleek, low slung, 'cab-forward' design language of the 300M and others was replaced by the new 300's brash and blocky look. The 2005 Chrysler 300 was not merely an updated version of a bygone classic, but rather a revival of Chrysler's attitude during the company's most exciting times.
The new 300 went back to a rear wheel drive platform and reintroduced the muscular proportions of America's former bad-boy sedans. Available V8 power rounded out the package and a large, upright chrome grille stood proud in grand American fashion. The 2005 Chrysler 300 was met with great fanfare and positive press. For as exciting a car as the '05 300 was, though, it could barely capture the style and spirit of the car that inspired it. The original 300 was one of the most thrilling Chryslers ever released. It was a car whose inspirational design and performance will be lauded forever and whose legend will continue to be respected by Chrysler workers, owners and admirers, as well as by the flashy new car that shares its name.
Produced without interruption from 1955 through 1971, the Chrysler 300 in its earliest form was one of the very first muscle cars. Though production extended into the early 1970's, the best-known (and best-loved) 300s were the 'letter series' cars of 1955-1965. All 300s were part of this letter series until 1962, when both letter and non-letter variants were offered through 1965. Models made from 1966 on were not part of the letter series. Each Chrysler in the letter series used the 300 designation followed by a single letter. That letter ascended alphabetically once every year, making it up to 'L.' Confusingly, the first of the series was not called the 300A but the C-300. In that one instance, the letter 'C' simply stood for coupe. Revisions on the C-300 theme created the 300B for 1956, then 300C for 1957, 300D for 1958, and so on. The only other snag in the letter series system was the use of the letter 'J' for the 1963 300, instead of the 'I' for which the car was due. Chrysler likely used the 'J' nomenclature to prevent confusion between the letter 'I' and the Roman numeral I.
The letter series 300 introduced potent performance and a fresh design to Chrysler, whose other models had grown stale. In that sense, the original 300 arrived for the same reasons as 2005's remake. The name was chosen for bragging rights. Chrysler, with its aptly named C-300, had become the first American manufacturer to develop 300hp in a production car. That power led the 1955 Chrysler to become the fastest production car in the world, reaching 127.58mph at Daytona Beach. The C-300's engine was a 331ci Chrysler V8 with hemispherical combustion chambers and two 4-barrel carburetors. The aforementioned 300hp was achieved at 5,200rpm.
There was much more to the C-300 than formidable speed. The car was large, luxurious, and packed with comfortable features. At 220 inches in length, the C-300 was huge for a two-door. A weight of 4,300lbs gave it the bulk of a personal limousine. Its two speed automatic transmission required no effort on the driver's part. The car was rolling evidence that speed and luxury were not mutually exclusive traits. The C-300 was the fastest car on the road, and it may very well have been the most comfortable.
A superb combination of performance and comfort alone would have made the Chrysler C-300 a classic. But the car's quality didn't stop there. Designed by the talented and innovative Virgil Exner, the C-300 was a triple threat of sumptuous luxury, speed and, and style.
Before moving to Chrysler, Exner had worked for GM under the guidance of Harley Earl and for Raymond Loewy's own design firm. His experience led him to be a daring designer, but the 1955 C-300 was a subdued design. It was handsome and understated, free of the garish detailing the plagued so many of its contemporaries. With its regal proportions and proud stance, the C-300 separated itself from lowlier cars that used glitz and glam as their only stylistic values. A split egg crate grille, in chrome, dominated the frontal aspect of the C-300 and had a tastefully minimal chrome bumper running beneath it. The subtle fins picked up just aft of the doors and beneath the beltline. At the rear, the vestigial fins flowed into vertical taillights. With a base price above $4,000, buyers paid dearly for a fine congregation of elegant design, comfort, and rapidity.
Even more power was made available for the 1956 300B. A 354ci V8, at first making 340hp, was available with 355hp by the middle of its run—making it the first American engine to produce 1 horsepower per cubic inch. Three transmissions were offered: PowerFlite and TorqueFlite two-speed autos, and a three-speed manual.
Performance improvements in the 1956 300B were complemented by the availability of an even more comfortable interior. Air conditioning was offered as well as a clock in the steering wheel for the particularly punctual. And, of course, if the clock wasn't distracting enough, a record player could also be ordered.
The styling of the 300B featured a revised rear treatment, but the car was largely the same as 1955's C-300. For the 1957 300C, though, Exner thoroughly revamped the 300's shape. The new design was more brash but still tasteful and clean. It featured more pronounced fins and a quad headlight face with a large, one-piece egg crate grille. From the side, the 300C looked particularly good. Its long and low proportions were readily revealed from that angle. Also easily noticeable from the side, the 300C had a forward tilt to its front end that was mirrored by a rearward tilt to its fins. The balanced look was an Exner hallmark that worked wonderfully on the 300C. A convertible version was offered whose absence of a roofline emphasized the trapezoidal side profile of the 300C's body. A top speed of 150mph could be reached by the 300C.
For 1958, a 300D was introduced. It looked very similar to the 300C, but big improvements were still made. Fuel injection became an available option and power brakes were standard. With 380hp, the 300D could be propelled to 156mph. The 300E of 1959 offered similar styling but with a very different engine. The hemi-head V8 was replaced by a 413ci wedge-head V8.
The 300F brought major styling changes for 1960. While other companies toned down their use of fins for the 1960's, Chrysler gave its 300F a wild, one-year-only rear treatment with razor sharp fins. Ralph Nader, in his book Unsafe at and Speed that most famously criticized the Chevrolet Corvair's poor handling, called the 300F's fins 'potentially lethal.' Automotive writer Quentin Willson offered good reason for Nader's concern in his own work titled The Ultimate Classic Car Book, pointing to a 1963 traffic accident in which an unfortunate motorcyclist became impaled by one of the fins of a 300F.
With a front end that looked slightly awkward compared to the noses of its predecessors and a heavily criticized faux spare tire cover incorporated into the rear deck lid, the 300F's overall look lacked the thoroughly clean appearance of earlier models. But from the side at least the 300F still looked good, and performance and comfort were as impressive as ever. Up to 400hp could be had from the 413ci engine. A beautifully finished interior continued a tradition of comfortable motoring. The interior was so inviting that the seats literally offered themselves to driver and front passenger, automatically swiveling to allow easy access whenever a door was opened.
The 300G was brought out for 1961 and was the last finned 300. The front end retained four headlights, but they were now stacked two per side in tilted columns. Standard power windows and cruise control further enhanced an already excellent list of convenience features, and performance options remained similar to those of the 300F. The 300H used the following year was similar in most respects to the 300G, but had a fresh tail design with a smooth, tapering deck where once stood fins. Production of the 300H was unusually low even for the exclusive letter series, but sales were bolstered by the introduction of a more affordable non-letter series variant, named simply the '300.'
For 1963, the letter 'I' was skipped and the 300J was introduced alongside a revamped standard 300. The 1963 models were plainer, with square styling that belied their still capable performance. The 1964 300K and 1965 300L were the last two models of the letter series. By 1965, the plain styling of the 300L and the narrow performance gap between it and the base 300 had created an uninspired package. After 1965, the letter series was discontinued.
The garden variety 300 soldiered on until 1971, losing sales and substance as it went along. Chrysler couldn't have picked a better time to pull the plug on the aging model, as allowing it to last any longer would have exposed it to stringent emissions regulations that instantly would have robbed the car of the only virtue it really had left—power. Even the very last 300 had a 440ci V8 that had a tremendous output compared to any American offering of the mid-1970's.
History has ignored any shortcomings of the largely average 300 produced from 1966-1971, focusing on the raw power and suave personality of the early letter series. Few American cars before or since have been able to offer so much speed and luxury wrapped in a shell of aesthetic excellence. From 1955 through 1959, the 300s were the uncompromised rulers of the American automotive kingdom—even the 1960-1965 models were superbly executed. Inspiring the successful 2005 Chrysler 300, the early letter series cars have shown that sometimes history is worth repeating. Sources:
'History of the Chrysler Three Hundred Series.' The Chrysler 300 Site Web.28 Jul 2009. http://www.chrysler300site.com/cgibin/history.cgi.
Nerad, Jack. 'Great Classic Cars: Chrysler C-300.' AntiqueCar.com Web.28 Jul 2009. http://www.antiquecar.com/gc_chrysler_c300.php.
Willson, Quentin. The Ultimate Classic Car Book. First. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1995. Print.By Evan Acuña