1958 Chrysler 300D convertible
1958 Chrysler 300D convertible. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

They arrived in the mid-1950s, big, brawny and beautiful. Quickly dubbed the “letter cars,” they came from Chrysler, starting with the 1955 C-300, and went through to the 1965 300L.

The C-300 was the jewel of Chrysler’s styling renaissance, its emergence from the stodginess initiated with its post-war 1949 models that bore the conservative imprimatur of K.T. Keller, who succeeded Walter P. Chrysler as president in 1935.

When Lester (Tex) Colbert, took over as president in 1950, and ex-Studebaker stylist Virgil Exner became Chrysler’s chief stylist in 1953, the stage was set for change.

In 1952 Chrysler Corp.’s sales had slipped from the second place it took from Ford in 1936, to third behind GM and Ford. Also, Cadillac’s stunning Eldorado, Buick’s Skylark, and Oldsmobile’s Fiesta, left Chrysler desperately in need of an image car. It would be the 1955 C-300.

Unable to afford an all-new car, Chrysler used what it had. The heart of the C-300 was Chrysler’s hemispherical combustion chamber, 5.4-litre (331 cu in.) “Firepower” V8 introduced in 1951. It had quickly been dubbed the “Hemi.”

The C-300 Hemi got solid valve lifters, a hotter camshaft and twin four-barrel carburetors, pushing horsepower to 300 – hence the name – the most powerful production engine in the world.

To create the C-300’s body, stylists grafted Chrysler Windsor rear quarter panels onto a New Yorker hardtop coupe, and fitted the Imperial’s massive grille and instrument panel. The interior had leather upholstery, and a speedometer reading to a (then) breathtaking 150 mph. Chrysler stiffened the suspension for better handling.

The C-300, introduced in February 1955, quickly established itself in competition, winning 37 1955 National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and American Automobile Association races. At NASCAR’s annual Daytona Beach Speed Week a C-300 averaged 205 km/h (127.58 mph), 11 km/h (7 mph) faster than the second place Cadillac.

The 300’s racing fame gave all of the corporation’s new “Forward Look” cars a shot in the arm. approximately 1700 ’55s were sold during its short model year.

For 1956 the 300B received the corporation’s raised rear fins, and new 12-volt electrical system. Displacement went to 5.8 litres (354 cu in.) and horsepower to 340. The optional 10.0:1 compression ratio pushed horsepower to 355, just over one horsepower per cu. in. A new three-speed “TorqueFlite” automatic transmission replaced the two-speed.

The 300B continued its racing success, hitting 230 km/h (142/9 mph) at Daytona Speed Week, and Chrysler sold 1,102 300Bs in a soft car market.

In 1957 Chrysler’s “Flite Sweep” tailfins made a dramatic statement, and took styling leadership away from General Motors. For more cachet the 300C added a convertible.

Underneath, Chrysler replaced its front coil springs with longitudinal torsion bars. The 300 Hemi’s displacement went to 6.4 litres (392 cu in.), and power to 375 horsepower, or 390 with an optional higher lift camshaft. Sales of ’57s rose to 2,402.

Nineteen-fifty-eight was the last year for the famous Hemi engine in the 300 series. An economic recession cut sales of the largely carryover ’58 300D to only 809.

Road & Track magazine (4/58) tested a 300D and recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 8.4 seconds, and zero to 161 (100) in 24.4, excellent performance in that era for a 2,232 kg (4,920 lb) car. R & T estimated top speed at 217 km/h (135 mph).

Although the 1959 300E’s new wedge combustion chamber, 6.8 litre (413 cu in.) V8 weighed some 45 kg (100 lb) less than the Hemi, and produced the same 380 horsepower, some of the original magic was gone.

The 1960 300F got Chrysler’s sharper styling and higher canted fins. A fake spare tire was moulded into the trunk lid, a one-year phenomenon. Also new was the corporation’s unit construction. Inside were four bucket seats, the front ones swivelling for easier entry and exit.

Displacement stayed at 6.8 litres (413 cu in.) in the 300F, but 762 mm (30 in.) long cross-over ram intake manifolds placed the left engine bank’s carburetor next to the right fender, and vice-versa. This raised mid-range torque, pushing the 300F to 323 km/h (144 mph) at Daytona Speed Week.

The 1961 300G got canted quad headlamps. For ’62 the 300H was moved from the long New Yorker platform to the lighter Windsor’s, resulting in a 113 kg (250 lb) weight saving. The fins disappeared, and the ram manifold was no longer standard.

Chrysler then started shooting for higher sales by trading on the letter cars’ name. It introduced a 300 series (non-letter car) priced considerably below the 300H, thereby undermining the H’s sales. It was the beginning of the end for the original letter car series.

The letter cars continued through the ’63 J (there was no I), ’64 K and ’65 L, then stopped. Chrysler tried to recover the magic in 1970, and again in the early eighties, without success. The letter car returned in 1999 as the front-wheel drive 300M. Then, to hark back to the spirit of the original, it was replaced by the “real” rear-wheel drive 300C Hemi in 2004.

Clean, fast and safe as the new 300C is, to many enthusiasts nothing can recapture the allure of those first distinctive beauties, especially the early ones with the legendary Hemi engine.

Connect with Autos.ca