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C-300 changed stodgy Chrysler image

July 28, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNNWheelbase Communications

Had it not been for Virgil Exner, the Chrysler C-300 might have gone virtually unnoticed. Instead, Chrysler's chief stylist fashioned a beautiful showpiece that highlighted the company's contemporary product lineup.

The C-300 was meant to be something very special. The plan was to build a low-volume automobile that would represent the pinnacle of Chrysler styling and performance and convince the public that the automaker was with, if not ahead of, the times. Given the company's history, this adjustment in attitudes would be a challenge.

In 1953, after years of making frumpy, slow-selling Dodges, Plymouths, DeSotos and Chryslers, the 44-year-old Exner was tasked with creating a completely new vision. The goal was to bring Chrysler more in step with the times by replacing designs that pre-dated the Second World War. He was also given less than two years to complete this enormous project.

The final result was dubbed "The Forward Look" by Chrysler's advertising agency and it was more than mere hyperbole. The '55s were arguably the best-looking domestic cars on the road and made Exner the toast of Detroit. They were longer, lower and wider than their predecessors and featured an assortment of dazzling multi-tone paint jobs, something buyers loved, but Exner despised.

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Along with the fresh lineup came more power - in some cases a lot more power - than Chrysler had ever previously installed. Supplementing the base 1930s-era L-head six-cylinder engine were a number of new V-8s that became available for the first time on all brands. On the top rung was Chrysler's famed 331-cubic-inch FirePower Hemi V-8 that originally appeared in 1951. It was retuned to produce an impressive 250 horsepower, 70 more than the original. Expensive to produce, the Hemi remained the exclusive domain of the high-end Chrysler and DeSoto brands as well as the newly formed Imperial division.

Physically, the basis for the C-300 was the Chrysler New Yorker St. Regis two-door hardtop, an imposing car featuring a low-slung roofline and a modest pair of chrome-tipped fins. To give the car a unique look, the grille from the more expensive Imperial was substituted while a modest trim strip from the base Windsor model ran across its expansive flanks. Only three solid-tone color choices could be picked: Tango Red; Platinum; or Black.

But what really separated the C-300 from the rest of Chrysler's herd was its exclusive Hemi motor that cranked out 300 horsepower (the origin of the car's C-300 name), 50 more than the standard version. Torque was rated at 345 lb.-ft. at 3,200 r.p.m. A full-race high-lift camshaft, solid valve lifters, two four-barrel Carter carburetors and dual exhausts all contributed to its extra strength.

The mighty Hemi (so named because of its domed hemispherical combustion chambers) was connected to a two-speed automatic transmission. A manual gearbox was not offered.

Equally important were the heavy-duty springs and shocks that converted a normally cushiony-soft Chrysler into a firm-riding road car with impressive (for the time) handling qualities.

For a base price of slightly more than $4,100, around $500 more than a base St. Regis hardtop, C-300 buyers wound up with a 4,000-pound leather-trimmed luxury car that was more than 18 feet long. It could travel from 0-to-60 mph in less than 10 seconds and reach a top speed of 127 mph as measured on the sands of Daytona Beach, Fla. That was 7 mph faster than its closest rivals.

A host of extras were available including wire wheels, power steering, power windows, four-way power front seat, tinted windshield, AM radio, heater and a clock. A lack of space under the hood kept air conditioning off the option sheet and a driver's-side outside mirror was not offered because it added wind resistance.

The February, 1955 arrival of the C-300 in Chrysler showrooms created lots of curiosity among the public along with the fledgling fraternity of professional stock-car drivers who salivated over the car's prodigious power. By the end of the '55 competition season, factory-sponsored C-300 teams had scored victories in 37 sanctioned events, including half of the 40 races in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) series, handily beating their Ford and General Motors rivals.

Although Chrysler lost money on every one of the 1,725 C-300s made, the big coupe's fastest-car-around cachet and on-track potency helped establish the corporation's new-found image. By year's end, Chrysler's overall share of the passenger-car market had increased to a healthy 17 percent, up from the previous year's 11 percent. The Chrysler division alone experienced an incredible 73 percent jump in sales.

The success of the C-300 as a beacon of high performance led to an unbroken succession of "letter" cars that ended with the 1965 300L. However, recognizing the still-powerful legacy of these models, the appellation was restored as the 300M in 1999 and a Hemi-powered 300C will be launched in 2004. Its arrival will mark the first Chrysler to feature that type of V-8 since the 1958 300D.

It appears that Virgil Exner's amazing C-300 will not be forgotten anytime soon.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.

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