Classic American Cars: The Chrysler 300 Letter Series
The Chrysler 300 Letter Series automobiles were produced between 1955 and 1965. This series consisted of high-performance luxury cars, manufactured by the Chrysler Corporation in limited numbers.
The original model—the 1955 C-300—was supposed to be just that, as the company hadn’t planned on manufacturing an actual series. Each succeeding year was indicated by a letter of the alphabet. This began in 1956 with the letter “B” and ended with 1965 with the 300L. The letter “I” was not used.
Many regard the 300 Series as the forerunner of what became known as the “muscle car”. The release of the 300 Series post-WWII brought a renewed interest in high-powered performance vehicles, although this group of cars were more exclusive and pricey than the performance cars that followed. The Chrysler 300 was the first American production car whose engine had a 300hp rating. This made the Chrysler Letter Series cars the most powerful in the world, and there was nothing comparable for many years to come.
The engine design of the 300 was based on that of a 331hp race car engine, modified to be within the designated road safety standards.
The 1951 Chrysler was the first car to have the Hemi engine, originally called the Chrysler FirePower engine. With a lot of potential for improved performance, the engine was made more powerful each year. The 300 Series was designed specifically to house the Hemi V8 within a 2-door hardtop model. In order to produce this design within their budget, Chrysler used components of existing car models: a New Yorker body, a Windsor rear end and an Imperial nose, which would later be swapped out for the base Chrysler nose.
The 300 had one of the most classic auto body styles ever manufactured. Even in the base models, the interior included leather upholstery. Among the options offered were power seats and windows, tinted glass, a radio, and Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels. (The Kelsey-Hayes Corporation made stylish chrome-plated wheel covers for other cars, including Cadillac, Ford Thunderbird and Buick.)
In it’s first year, the C-300 was an “order and deliver car”, so it wasn’t on display at car lots. It sold for $4,109 base. While the car generated a lot of interest, only 1,725 were sold.
The car made a big impression at NASCAR in 1955 and was given the name “Beautiful Brute”. The C-300 was also breaking speed records at the Bonneville Slat Flats. This car was not a typical muscle car, since normally they were made as the smallest car possible to house the largest engine. This car not only had the largest engine, but the biggest body to go with it.
The 1956 Chrysler 300B was very similar in styling to the ’55, with restyling of the taillight fins and a larger engine. Both a 340 and 355hp engine were made available. Only 1,102 cars were sold that year, despite improved performance.
The 300C that was released in 1957 had all new styling and a bigger engine as well as being offered as a convertible for the first time. Sales amounted to a total of 2,251 cars. The 1958 300D was the last year the Hemi was offered. Due to an economic recession, only 809 cars were manufactured. In the 1959 300E the Hemi was replaced by a new Chrysler V8 engine called the “Golden Lion”. The new engine produced similar power output to the Hemi engine, but in combination with the recession, resulted in poor car sales of only 647 automobiles.
In both the 1960 300F and 1961 300G there was yet more restyling. The car was moving away from the “Brute” look of its past to a more lean, sleek style. The body was redone with a “unibody” construction and longer tailfins. The grill on the 1961 300G was dramatically changed with a design that appeared to be inverted from the original design. The headlights were no longer vertically aligned, but at an angle and the bumper shape was changed.
When the Chrylser stylist, Virgil Exner left the Chrysler Corporation in 1962, the tailfins were eliminated. In addition, the 300 Series lost its place in the Chrysler lineup. The 300H was now merely a designation as the top model in the line. In 1963 the 300J was released with a luxurious interior although the exterior design minus the tailfins had little in common with its predecessors. It also came with a quirky “square-ish” steering wheel design. A convertible model was not made available that year, but returned the following year in the 1964 300K. Leather interiors were no longer standard on the ’64 model. This change dropped the price tag by more than $1000, which in turn caused a big increase in sales. More 300Ks sold in 1964 than any other “letter” car in the Chrysler series had in a single year, totaling 3,022 coupes and 625 convertibles.
1965 was the last year of production of the Chrysler letter series. These cars were completely restyled. It had a very linear appearance, as did other cars in the same year. With many formerly standard features still optional, ’65 sales were strong, totally 2,845 cars.
The 300 name was resurrected in 1999 for the Chrysler 300M and in 2005 for the 300, but my heart belongs to the early Chrysler models from the letter series. My father bought a 1955 Chrysler Windsor Nassau shortly after meeting my mother. He had that car long enough that I remember riding in it and watching the road pass below through small rust holes. My brother had a passion for that car, and when he was old enough, bought a 4-door version for himself. He used to drive me to and from school in it and made me sit in the back because the car didn’t have safety belts. (It may also have been that it was very un-cool to drive your sister around as a senior in high school.) My brother still owns his first 300, in addition to a breathtaking red 1955 New Yorker St. Regis. These cars are not only special due to their rarity, but also for their incredible style and beauty.