by David Zatz
The Chrysler 300 letter cars were high-end sport-luxury cars, powered by the company’s top engines, with suspension upgrades — fast, yes, but with superior handling and amenities. They were based on ordinary Chrysler cars, but were a cut above — and magazine reviewers compared them favorably with pricier European models.
The cars combined a smooth ride with “European-style” cornering; high prices kept sales volume down, but they were sold to attract people to showrooms, which would explain why exceptionally slow-selling convertible versions were sold nearly every year.
The Chrysler 300s were the cars to beat at the Daytona Beach speed trials from 1955 to 1961, winning for four years out of seven, with increasingly fast times.
The first Chrysler letter car was the 1955 C300, named after its 300-horsepower engine. With top speeds of around 130 mph, the car did 0-60 in under ten seconds. Independent drivers were impressed enough to take it to NASCAR, where it won 18 races with no factory support, and 27 races overall. At Daytona, it set the two-way flying mile clock at 127.6 miles per hour, driven by Warren Koechling.
Adorned with an Imperial grille and wire wheels, the C-300 also won NASCAR’s 1955 Grand National race at an average speed of 92 miles per hour (for over 160 miles). Based on the New Yorker, as later models would be, it had extra luxury and performance features.
The first Chrysler with the new “300-letter” name was the 300-B, launched for the 1956 model year; the main change was not in looks but in power, thanks to the new 354 cubic inch Hemi V8. That brought 340 horsepower, or 355 hp with the optional high-compression version — beating GM to a one horsepower per cubic inch rating by a full year. The base price was a stunning $4,109; it too was the top car on Daytona Beach, gaining on the C300 by nearly 12 mph (139.4 mph).
The 1957 Chrysler 300C, along with every Chrysler car, gained a full makeover, with fins and the famed 392 Hemi V8, in 375 and 390 gross horsepower forms; the 390-hp version came with a manual transmission (just three speeds) while the lesser engine had the pushbutton-activated Torqueflite automatic, generally a faster option. The price came up to almost $5,000, but it still found takers; at the equivalent of around $42,860 today, the company built 1,918 hardtops and 484 (rather more expensive) convertibles, for a total 300C production of 2,402.
If you wanted the 390 hp powerplant, you could get it — with a longer-duration cam, 10:1 compression, and solid lifters. Either came with the twin Carter four-barrel carbs. Torque on the standard 392 was 420 pound-feet. They had new dual paper-element air filters for easier breathing. With the most horsepower of any production car in America, it wasn’t surprising that the 300C won the Daytona speed trials.
The 300C was built using body-on-frame construction, as was its base car, the Chrysler New Yorker. The body was attractive to 1950s buyers, but held many surprises — not pleasant ones, either, from a shaky, strangely placed rear mirror (on the dashboard) to early rust. The 1957 cars severely damaged Chrysler’s long-held reputation for quality engineering.
There were up-sides, including new dual headlights with 75 feet more night vision (according to the company), and new 14-inch wheels that gave more room to the brakes and helped traction. The cabin had fine appointments, including tan leather, albeit without a tachometer. The TorqueFlite automatic was pushbutton operated, which some people loved and others hated. “300” badges adorned on the wheel and glove compartment.
The car came with airfoam seat cushions, clock, a cushioned dash panel, chrome license plate frame, spare tire cover, windshield washers, and a “SilentFlite” system which limited the engine fan speed to 2,500 rpm.
The symmetrical idler arm linkage steering had a three-tooth roller gear. The suspension was designed using a systems approach, including the twin parallel torsion bar front suspension (a higher-rate setup than other Chryslers) and a lower engine placement. Air conditioning, then unusual, was one option; others included an electronically tuned radio, rear-shelf radio speaker, power antenna, six-way power seat, and stone shields.
Burton Bouwkamp wrote that “The 1957s were outstanding handling cars. The torsion bar front suspension got the credit, but it was actually the low center of gravity and the placement of the rear leaf springs (with a section forward of the rear axle) 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.”
For 1958, buyers found the 300D had numerous changes to increase quality and stop rust, some of which had come during the 1957 run; twenty buyers also opted for the Bendix electronic fuel injection system, but it was well ahead of its time (and materials technologies), so these were either bought back by the company or modified to use carburetors.
The 300E (above) appeared without the fuel injection option; not surprisingly, it gained all the cosmetic changes of the normal big Chrysler, but kept the winning powertrain.
Many were upset that the Chrysler 300F had no Hemi; the company installed the cheaper, lighter 413 Wedge in its place. The Hemi head design was more efficienct, but it came with a much larger valvetrain and higher costs, and other companies were simply building larger engines. Starting in 1960, Chrysler followed; the 413 turned out exactly the same horsepower as the 392 Hemi (375 hp), though it took another 21 cubic inches to do it.
The 413 also started generating serious horsepower at lower revs; but the “cross-ram” manifold setup, as good as it was at boosting midrange power, was both beautiful and impractical. Like the 392, it was hooked up to a three-speed automatic.
The normal 375-hp engine had 30-inch intake tubes, with each carburetor feeding the opposite side of the engine; it was tuned to boost power in the 1800-3600 rpm range, where drivers spent much of their time, by up to 10%. Torque was strong, as one would expect, at 495 lb-ft (2,800 rpm). Maintenance was aided by hydraulic lifters. Despite slow sales, no fewer than six axle ratios were available — the standard 3.31 and options ranging from 2.93 to 3.73 — no doubt because they were shared with other Chryslers, not to mention Dodges and Plymouths.
The company also sold a 400 horsepower version (465 lb-ft at 3,600 rpm), tuned for higher power and using 15-inch intake tubes which sacrificed that low-end boost. It had solid lifters, as well. Both had twin four-barrel carburetors. Buyers had to take it with a four-speed synchronized manual, supplied by Pont-á-Mousson, and only for that year.
The result of all this power was that the Chrysler 300F swept the 1960 speed tests, taking the first through sixth places overall. First place was taken to Gregg Ziegler, who ran up and down the beach, hitting 144.9 miles per hour in the “flying mile.” Every Chrysler 300F beat 140 mph — and the next car, #7, only reached 126.6.
Styling changes followed the normal Chryslers (as was the 300’s tradition, the 300F had the Chrysler New Yorker body, existing engines, and a similar but differently tuned suspension). The interior was redesigned from the 1959 cars, its predecessor, with four tan “semi-bucket” perforated leather seats; the front seats swivelled when the doors opened, a feature that did not stay long. Seat foam was up to four inches thick.
The company made over a thousand of them — 964 hardtops and 248 convertibles. The similar 300G was luckier, with 1,280 hardtops and 337 convertibles, but they were still unusual cars to see. The 300G, incidentally, was still tops in Daytona Beach testing — running at 143 miles per hour.
The 300F was the first letter car to have unibody construction; the car still weighed 4,300 pounds, but was stiffer and handled better. (The 1957 300C had weighed in at 4,235 pounds.)
For 1962, Chrysler chose to apply the rarified 300 name to a variety of other cars, but still made the “letter cars,” not to be confused with the cheaper “just 300s.” Sales of the top car, the 300H, fell to half of the 300G — 435 hardtops and 123 convertibles, for roughly the same price the 300C had been.
Chrysler skipped the 300I, unsurprisingly, and went to the 300J for 1963; Virgil Exner’s body influence was gone now, along with the tail fins, and the result was a more muscular looking if not quite a sleek car. The convertible was dropped for this one year (in which 400 hardtops were made). The 413 was boosted to 390 horsepower, the most the 392 Hemi had produced; buyers rewarded the 300K with sales of 3,022 hardtops and 625 convertibles.
Following the poor sales of 1963, the company restored the convertible and dropped the price. The Chrysler 300K was much more affordable, costing a thousand dollars less, but only because the cross-ram Wedge was made into an extra-cost option, and a single carburetor (Carter AFB 3614-S) took the place of two (on the base engine). It still generated 360 horsepower, and most buyers likely felt the sacrifice was worth it, between the cash savings and the far easier tune-ups.
The interior was also not as ornate, with leather now an option, but Chrysler still sold 3,022 hardtops and 625 convertibles.
Sacrificing the dual-carb setup had worked well for sales, so Chrysler dropped it entirely for the 1965 Chrysler 300L. Sales of this final “true letter car” were 2,405 hardtops and 440 convertibles. Much of the luster was off the name now, between the “normal” 300, the cost saving decisions, and the rise of cheaper muscle cars, but the 300L was still a highly regarded car and remains a prized classic.
There were other cars with similar names, the 300M and later 300C, but these were not true letter cars. True, the 300M likely generated 300 gross horsepower (it was rated at 250 net), but it didn’t run with the best the Germans, Americans, and Japanese had to offer — nor was it priced that way. At around $30,000, the 300M was a fine value and a fine car, but it wasn’t embarassing BMW’s M5 or Mercedes’ AMG cars on the road or track, and couldn’t turn in a “world class” top speed.
The later 300C SRT8 came close, but it was lacking on the luxury side, and the stock 300C was far more pedestrian; the Hemi V8 helped it to dominate its price class, but the original “letter cars” fought in all price classes. (We won’t even get into two versus four doors). The 300 letter cars were made in a different world — but not one which, we suspect, ever generated profits for Chrysler Corporation. They were a way to get Chrysler’s name out there, and to buy respect for its engineering, power, and agility; and along the way, a few thousand lucky owners reaped the benefits.
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