Partly based on an article by Dr. David George Briant in the WPC News (magazine of the Walter P. Chrysler Club). Burton Bouwkamp's letters are taken from that article and are used by permission. Thanks to Paul Holmgren for additional information and photos.
Related pages at allpar: 1957 Chrysler 300C model | Original Hemi | 2005 Chrysler 300C | C300 engine | 300M
On November 29, 1956, Chrysler officially launched the Chrysler 300-C, “America’s highest-performing automobile,” with an optional 375 to 390 horsepower Hemi engine — far above the 290 horsepower on the potent Plymouth Fury, much less the 132 horsepower in the corporation’s mainstay flat-head sixes.
The 390 (gross) hp powerplant had solid lifters, 10:1 compression, a longer-duration, high-speed camshaft, and was only available with a stick shift; but even the standard engine, identically sized at 392 cubic inches, had twin Carter four-barrel carburetors, with a 9.25:1 compression ratio and five main bearings. The base engine pumped out 375 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, with torque of 420 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm (torque on the optional engine was not listed).
New dual paper-element air filters, used on NASCAR 300B cars, helped breathing for both engines; an Oilite fuel filter was kept in the tank. The optional engine was only available with manual shifters and steering; the base engine had a standard TorqueFlite pushbutton automatic, with power steering. Both used a 12 volt battery, with 30 amp generator.
The third in the series of Chrysler 300 "letter cars," the 300C was big but low-slung, with excellent handling, power, comfort, and luxury. Very few of the expensive autos were made in their eleven years as premier, limited-edition cars. Each year saw a new generation with a new letter; the first was the C300 [C300 engine page], the second the 300B, and the third was the 300C. The C300 and 300B had won the 1955 and 1956 NASCAR Grand National Stock Car Championships and the Women’s National Speed Trial Championships.
Before its launch, the 300C beat the unofficial stock car record at the Chelsea Proving Grounds, averaging 145.7 mph on the oval; it later won the Flying Mile at Daytona with a top speed of 134 mph (the Chelsea figure included aerodynamic shields over the headlights and upper windshield lip, and the air cleaner and muffler removed.
Only 1,918 hardtops and 484 convertibles were made, for a total 300C production of 2,402 - making it, by far, the most popular of the 300C, 300D, and 300E. These were not mass-market vehicles, but the best Chrysler could offer, and were recognized as being able to run with the best in the world.
Unlike later Chryslers, the 300C was built using body-on-frame construction; that would last through 1959. The 300C was based on the Chrysler New Yorker, with many changes (it was beyond an "option and appearance package"). The height was just 54.7 inches; new dual headlights provided a claimed 75 feet more night vision. New 14-inch wheels were used.
The 300C had a low stance, unique grille, large windshield, front door vent windows, and a red, white, and blue emblem with the 300C logo (no hood ornament was used). Twin backup lights were perched above large tail lamps. Tail fins - or rear stabilizers, as Chrysler called them - reportedly increased stability at high speeds, resulting in 20% fewer steering corrections in cross-winds. Officially exterior colors were black, white, red, brown, and green - all monotone - but others appear to have been used based on special orders.
The cabin had the best appointments Chrysler could offer, save for a tachometer, with a pushbutton-operated TorqueFlite automatic connected to the standard 392 Hemi V8. The rear view mirror was oddly mounted to the top of the instrument panel, not the best spot for visibility. Interiors were a standard tan color, with leather standard. Door panels had silver appliques, with 300 medallians on the wheel and glove compartment.
Standard features included airfoam seat cushions, clock, cushioned dash panel, backup lights, handbrake warning, chrome license plate frame, spare tire cover, windshield washers, turn signals, and “SilentFlite” fan drive which limited the fan speed to 2,500 rpm. An optional performance group included the high compression engine, high speed cam, low back pressure exhaust, and limited slip differential. Steering was via symmetrical idler arm linakge, with three-tooth roller steering gear.
What made the 300C even more special than its predecessors was not just its Virgil Exner styling, but also its performance enhancements, keeping it the fastest and most powerful production car in America - and one of the best-handling.
The suspension was designed using a system approach, including the famous twin parallel torsion bar front suspension (a higher-rate setup than other Chryslers), lowering the engine, and extensive laboratory testing for better handling and ride.
A huge number of rear axle ratios were used, ranging from 2.92 to 6.17. Air conditioning, then unusual, was one option; many others were available (including electro touch tuner radio, rear-shelf radio speaker, power antenna, six-way power seat, and stone shields). The relatively small fourteen-inch wheels made brake improvements important; a rectangular duct underneath the headlights channeled cooling air to the front brakes.
As the Jefferson Plant's chassis and powertrain engineer, Mr. Bouwkamp was responsible for aspects of 300C production. He was kind enough to supply these notes to the WPC Club's Dr. David George Briant, which we have his (and their) permission to reproduce.
The 1957s were outstanding handling cars and the torsion bar front suspension got the credit -- but actually it was the low center of gravity and forward portion (forward of the rear axle) rear leaf springs that provided the benefit. The rear axle was held in position in jounce and rebound as if the suspension had a trailing link. It added a little to harshness but the tradeoff was worth it. Moreover, torsion bars gave us an adjustable suspension height feature. Since torsion bars were an obvious design difference they got the credit for the outstanding roadability.
Recollections of the 1957 make for painful memories. In fact, the launch can be considered a 'disaster' even though all aspects of engine, transmission, and chassis were excellent and incurred no significant field problems. Indeed, production was ordered underway before the plant was ready. Engineering and manufacturing development jobs were not finished when startup orders were issued in the summer of 1956. [Webmaster note: The impact of these problems on other cars is detailed here by Curtis Redgap.]
Problems were so severe in working with the radical new bodies that Al Fleming, Vice-President of Manufacturing convinced management to stop production for a few weeks to give everyone some time to 'band-aid' the worst of the problems, such as water leaks. Reality called for urgent responses.
Among early deliveries, cars sold for Cuban customers were reported to have insufficient air conditioning airflow to the rear seat, where most higher class car buyers rode proudly along in the society of that time and place. Chrysler response took the form of sending the person in charge of the A/C Department to Cuba. Accordingly, Mr. John Moren arrived and soon verified the cause and successfully created a field fix. Only half-jokingly, he mused later that the feeling that he might not be allowed to return to the USA inspired him.
Subsequently, a program began to correct about 40,000 air conditioning systems already in customer hands or in the distribution pipelines. Every employee who knew about a/c was ordered into the corrective effort. Assignments were made and the team went into field action to train dealer technicians as to corrective measures needed. The key change was the Moren-designed sheet-metal duct, called 'snorkels' made to a sample (no drawings) by local sheet metal fabricators. Snorkels were added below the instrument panel to bypass the inadequate size plastic ducts that had been designed and built into the new instrument panel.
As Engineering's representative, I was swept into the field fix program and volunteered to handle Minnesota. Instead, I was ordered to work in four states-Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico. Over a full month, dealer technician classes were held in all the major centers including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson and even Yuma. The first fix went into the car that Regional Service Manager Jim Ickes and I would be using.
Among the adventures encountered was with a big, tough guy employed as a Pit Boss in one of the largest Casino Hotels in Las Vegas. He gave us to believe that this was "fix it or else" as in the Moren experience in Cuba. Happily we did and were rewarded with prime seats at Louis Armstrong and Keely Smith performances.
Quite naturally, 'conquest' sales success brought on by the new styling proved quite fleeting for some time to come. The myriad body problems observed in 1956-7 was good training for my job 20 years later as Director of Body Engineering from 1979 to 1983. I resolved not to go into production with a less than fully developed product, regardless of pressure applied. At times, I was unpopular when I told Hal Sperlich (President in 1982-3) that we weren't ready for production. Hal trusted me and supported me even when I did not tell him what he wanted to hear. He then had a bigger problem than I did because he had to tell Lee (Iaccoca).
On the 300F: I was in charge of preparing and running six 300Fs at Daytona in 1960. We (Chrysler Division Engineering) built them, decided on who would buy them, prepared them for the speed run and supported them with mechanical and technical help at Daytona. Chrysler dominated the event with two way speeds on the beach from about 142.5 MPH (I think) to 144.9 MPH - placing #1 through #6.
We built about 20 Chrysler 300s with the Bendix Fuel Injection System and sold one to Carl Kiekhaefer who picked it up at the Jefferson Plant and drove it back to Fondulac, Wisconsin. It was a cold winter day when he picked it up. The next day Carl called and said he didn't want the car because he only got about 10 MPG, so I had to send Gene Carr to Wisconsin to retrieve the car. No money changed hands because Carl hadn't paid for it yet. (We had a similar experience with him on a Ghia Imperial Limousine. Carl did not know that the front seat in the Limo was not adjustable and after he got to Wisconsin he told us to pick it up because it did not have enough driver legroom).
I got to know Carl very well because Bob Rodger had designated me as Carl's technical contact at the Chrysler Division. After retiring I bought and read the book Too Much Kiekhaefer and unfortunately there is only one chapter about car racing but the book does catch the flavor of his personality. He was a talented and capable tyrant! I remember trading CK stories with NASCAR stars Buck Baker, Tim Flock and Fonty Flock. They drove for CK and saw him in the same light. He was "my most unforgettable person."
We sold another Chrysler 300 with fuel injection to Larry Elgart (Les Elgart's brother). They both were bandleaders but Les was the better known (contemporaries with Les Brown, Benny Goodman et al). Larry was so dissatisfied with the way that the engine ran that he told us that he was going to drive the car right through the showroom window of the Chrysler Manhattan Company in New York - that is, if he could get it running well enough and get enough speed to do it. At owner request we converted these fuel injected cars to carburetion and refunded the premium they paid for fuel injection. The other divisions built some Bendix fuel injection cars but I don't know how many. I know they had trouble too, especially in cold weather. [Read more of Burton Bouwkamp’s stories]
The front styling of the 1957 300C is a clear influence on the 2005 300C - though the early Valiants may have been even more influential. Turn the grille upside down, chrome the bumper, and put the headlights into their own pods, and the resemblance becomes much stronger - right down to the straight waterline.
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