1956 Chrysler 300B
1956 Chrysler 300B
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

When it was clear that the sports car movement was still strong following the Second World War (spawned by such marques as the English MG’s and Jaguars) Chevrolet countered the imports with the Corvette in 1953. Ford followed with the Thunderbird in 1955.

Chrysler also sorely needed a status car. Under the presidency of K.T. Keller, who had taken over from Walter P. Chrysler, the company’s styling had grown dull and stodgy. Keller insisted that a man should be able to easily enter and exit a Chrysler product while wearing a hat. Thus its cars had rooflines that were higher than the competition.

When Keller became chairman in 1950 and a new president by the name of Lester (Tex) Colbert took over, the stage was set for change. Colbert’s new models came out for 1955, with styling led by ex-Studebaker stylist Virgil Exner. They had a much more contemporary “Forward Look,” and Colbert wanted a special kind of “halo car” to draw attention to his new models.

Chrysler was smaller and less wealthy than GM and Ford, and it couldn’t afford to develop an all-new model. It resorted to the next best trick in the car builder’s shell game: it raided the parts bin.

In the engine department there was the great hemispherical combustion chamber 5.4 litre (331 cu.in.) V-8, by now nicknamed the Hemi, that had been introduced in 1951. It had development potential way beyond the original 180 horsepower.

The New Yorker contributed the two-door body. It was fitted with rear quarter mouldings from the Chrysler Windsor. Chrysler’s Imperial provided the two-piece grille.

To provide better handling, the engineers fitted a stiffer suspension. They hopped up the engine to 300 heady horsepower (hence the name) with two 4-barrel carburetors, a hotter cam and solid valve lifters. It was the highest power available at that time. The only transmission fitted was Chrysler’s new two-speed “PowerFlite” automatic. The interior of the car was dressed up with leather and an Imperial instrument panel, including an impressive 150 mph speedometer.

By cleverly mixing these easily available corporate components Chrysler had developed a super car, the 1955 Chrysler C300. It fulfilled its intended role admirably by giving Chrysler a sporty image, and enough performance to bring a look of chagrin to many a Corvette owner’s face. And it didn’t cost the corporation the bank.

The 300’s soon became the scourge of the stock car circuits, a great selling tool in an era when “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was more than just a catchy slogan.

At the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing speed week held on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, in February 1955, a C300 romped to a win in the stock production class with a two way average of 205 km/h (127.58 mph) on the hard packed sand. It beat out runner-up Cadillac by more than 11 km/h (7 mph), and in so doing won the Tom McCahill trophy, named for trials director McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated magazines’s pioneer car tester.

Chrysler knew that spectators and racing enthusiasts might not necessarily buy a 300. But the company also knew that the public loved to bask in the reflected glory of a winner; buyers were convinced they were getting the same sterling engineering qualities, and a little of the cachet, in their workaday Plymouths and Dodges.

For 1956 Chrysler raised the displacement to 5.8 litres (354 cu. in.) and changed the name to the 300B. The top horsepower available – with a 10.0:1 compression ratio – was 355, which pushed the V-8 over the then magic one horsepower per cubic inch, an achievement that Chevrolet would tout as an American “first” the following year.

Chrysler then marched annually up the alphabet to the 300L of 1965 (they missed I), earning them the name “letter cars.” In those early years the 300’s became steadily more powerful – 375 horsepower in 1957, 380 in 1958.

Nineteen-fifty-eight was the last year for the 300 Hemi (although it would be revived six years later as the Dodge “Hemicharger”), and by the early ’60’s the 300 had started to lose some of the hard edge that had distinguished the early ones.

Chrysler gradually depreciated the value of a grand nameplate by fitting it to more prosaic vehicles. And by the mid-1960s, as manufacturers were starting to install their largest engines in smaller models to create the so-called “muscle cars,” the 300 no longer held performance superiority. What could perhaps be referred to as the original muscle car, the Chrysler 300 had been defanged.

The 1965 300L was the last of the letter-cars. The plain 300 continued on until 1971, but the magic was gone. The name was revived by Chrysler in 1979 but was short-lived.

The name has been resurrected in the current 300M, but while it’s a fine car, to most enthusiasts those big, ground-pounding, pavement-ripping V-8s of the 1950s were the only “real” 300’s.

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