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Chrysler C-300

Chrysler C-300

By Jack Nerad

Chrysler C-300 If William Durant hadn't got involved in a heated argument with Walter P. Chrysler there might never have been a Chrysler Corporation. Thus, there would not have been the Chrysler C-300 and this space would have been filled with the tale of the Nash Metropolitan or the Chevrolet Corvair. But in 1920, soon after Billy Durant regained control of General Motors, Chrysler and Durant got into a knockdown, drag-out argument that ended with Chrysler slamming the door and walking away from GM forever.

At the time it was a big loss to both General Motors, the company Chrysler served as the head of the backbone Buick division, and to Chrysler himself, since he was left without a job. By that time, Chrysler had made a name for himself as an industry stalwart. A big, indefatigable man, Chrysler had purchased his first car, a Locomobile, in 1908 and soon after he went to work for the company that built it in Pennsylvania. Within a few years he switched to Buick, one of the proudest names in the U.S. auto industry, as the manager of the Flint, Michigan, plant, and by 1919 he was running Buick division and pulling down some half-a-million dollars a year in income. Despite this handsome stipend, however, Chrysler had words with Durant and was out on his ear.

He wasn't out of the industry long, though. First, he became involved in an effort to revive the faltering Willys Corporation. That move didn't take, but then Chrysler moved on to the Maxwell Motor Company, which was also on the skids, and with the help of a high-compression (for the time) six-cylinder engine, he turned that nameplate from an also-ran to a winner by the middle of the Roaring Twenties. Soon, using Maxwell as the base, he had built a slightly smaller-scale General Motors for himself with the Plymouth brand at the bottom end, Dodge and De Soto in the middle-price ranges and the Marque he named after himself, Chrysler, at the top. This marketing and manufacturing scheme was the key to Chrysler Corporation's ascendancy to the "Big Three," along with General Motors and Ford. In fact, through much of the Depression Era, Chrysler with its multiple brands seemed to be on the upswing while Ford, having difficulty establishing any momentum in the middle-priced arena, appeared on the way down.

Walter P. Chrysler, who died in 1940, set the tone that would keep his company moving at a positive pace through the Thirties and into the World War II years. During the war, Chrysler Corporation was a bastion of democracy, turning out a wide variety of military hardware that helped turn the tide against the Axis powers. When hostilities ended, the company leaped right back into the automobile market with a vengeance, although some historians claim new Chrysler head K.T. Keller lacked the vision of his predecessor. Be that as it may, the American market was booming and starved for cars, and Chrysler factories churned them out as fast as they could be made.

As the Fifties dawned, Chrysler continued to do reasonably well, but many criticized the company's engineering-driven "styling" as stodgy and old hat; and though the economy was still strong and the demand for cars robust, everyone knew that wouldn't last forever. It was the perfect environment for one of the most iconoclastic auto designers of all time, Virgil Exner.

Exner was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1909, but instead of attending the University of Michigan in his hometown, he decided to matriculate at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, taking a degree in art. Soon he landed a plum job in the Pontiac design studio at General Motors, where he got first-hand experience under the tutelage of the legendary Harley Earl. If that training wasn't enough, he then jumped to the legendary Raymond Loewy design firm, and, back in Indiana, he helped fashion most of the Studebakers of the next 10 years. One of his signature designs in those years was the 1947 Studebaker Starlight coupe with its famous "which-way-is-it-going?" look.

In 1949 he left Loewy's studio to take the position as Chrysler head of advanced styling, and he immediately sought to make changes. At the time Chrysler was known for its engineering skill, but it had veered away from the styling excellence that had been a key part of its success in Walter P. Chrysler's days at the helm. Exner moved swiftly to take control of design process, actually gaining approval of the die models used to create vehicles' production tooling. He also was unafraid to look overseas for styling ideas, commissioning a series of show cars like the Dodge Firearrow that were built by Ghia, the famous Italian design house and coachbuilder.

Chrysler C300 The show cars clearly demonstrated that Exner was unafraid to go right to the edge and sometimes drop over it. But the first series of Chrysler products that truly bore his mark, which appeared in the 1955 model year, were handsome and restrained, rather than over the top. The styling theme for the new Chryslers was labeled the "Forward Look," which was both a nod to the future and a reference to the vehicles' "poised for action" stance. Happily, the '55 model year also brought the first of the so-called "letter-series" Chrysler 300s.

Called the Chrysler C-300 (the 300 designating the car's 300 horsepower), it was a handsome devil, a suave, debonair and substantial car perfect for the button-downed Fifties. It had an attractive face with two round headlights flanking a substantial split chrome grille. Aside from the big front and rear bumpers and the grille, though, the C-300 was remarkably bereft of chrome in an era when more chrome spelled more luxury. Heaven knows there was luxury enough inside the two-door hardtop. It rode on a 126-inch wheelbase, and it measured some 220 inches (more than 18 feet) from prow to stern. That's one long two-door!

Powering this exercise in excess was one of Chrysler Corporation's engineering marvels, its high-compression V-8 engine boasting hemispherical combustion chambers in its heads. With a displacement of a robust 331 cubic inches and topped with twin four-barrel carburetors, this engine produced a remarkable 300 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. Solid valve lifters and a freer-flowing exhaust contributed to the stellar horsepower figure.

Though 300 letter series cars are renowned as being "fast," they were far from quick, at least as we know it today. Many credit the C-300 as being the first American "muscle car," a term that describes vehicles like the Pontiac GTO and the Oldsmobile 442, but the C-300 didn't boast the off-the-line quickness of these cars. Instead its 4,300-pound mass and two-speed automatic transmission conspired to give it a zero-to-60-miles-per-hour time of some 10 seconds. The car ran through the quarter mile in 17.6 seconds at just 82 miles per hour, a mark many of today's economy cars could beat.

But, compared to its contemporaries, the C-300 was fast as least as far as its top-end capabilities. In 1955 a nearly stock version of the car whizzed through the flying mile on Daytona Beach at 127.58 miles per hour, eclipsing the previous mark by seven miles per hour. The C-300 dominated NASCAR in 1955 during the era when "stock car" racing meant the racing cars were actually similar to the cars you could buy in dealer showrooms.

For all its racing successes, though, the C-300 was truly a "boulevardier" in the European sense-a big, fast car stuffed with creature comforts that included leather upholstery, power seats, power windows, power radio antenna, air conditioning and a wide variety of other options. Its list price of more than $4,100 made it one of the most expensive American cars you could buy.

The C-300 was followed by a series of closely related Chrysler hardtops and convertibles that extended through the 1965 model year. Starting with 1956 each model year was assigned a letter as a suffix to the 300, so the '56 model was the 300B, the '57 the 300C and so forth through the '65 300L. Chrysler Corporation, now part of DaimlerChrysler, tried to revive the mystique of the "letter series" with the 300M it introduced in the late 1990's, but purists decried its lack of V-8 power and its four-door configuration. Though a nice enough vehicle, the 300M pales in comparison to the brio of the C-300 and its direct descendents, many of which are also worthy of the "Greatest Car" designation. In any case, there is no doubt that the Chrysler C-300 made an impact that has reverberated for decades.
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