The Chrysler 300 could perhaps be classed as the first of the muscle cars. It was produced, in what is called the Chrysler 300 "letter series", from 1955 to 1965, and a “non-letter” series from 1962 - 1971. The model name derives from the capacity of the motor in the 1955 letter series version, a 300 hp (220 kW) V8 engine. For Chrysler, the letter series 300 was a limited edition, high-performance car, aimed initially at success in NASCAR racing, hoping that racing success would translate to sales success.
Chrysler 300 letter series history
A change in Chrysler management in the early 1950s saw Chrysler giving its cars a distinctive new look. Designer Virgil Exner was the architect of this move, dubbed the “Forward Look”. However, Chrysler did not have the fiscal resources of Ford and GM, its ‘Big Three’ competitors, so Exner could not design the 300 from the ground-up, instead he had to design and assemble the car from existing parts. The first Chrysler 300 was formed from body of the Chrysler New Yorker body was used, along with rear quarter mouldings from the Chrysler Windsor, while the grille was that of the Chrysler Imperial. The motor was the Chrysler Hemi V8 - first made in 1951, the engineers were able to ramp it up from its original 180 horsepower, to 300.
The 1955 Chrysler 300 was available as a two-door hardtop only, in a choice red, white and black, with tan upholstery. Its success in NASCAR made the car world take notice, but it sold modestly, a total of 1,725. At the time it wasn’t given the ‘letter’ appellation, but retrospectively the 1955 model is referred to as the Chrysler 300C.
For the 1956 model, the Chrysler 300D, there was a slight restyling of the exterior, but the big mover was the engine, with the Hemi V8 offered as either 340 or 355 horsepower. Another notable addition was the Highway Hi-Fi record player, which was not an entirely success implementation of in-car entertainment.
1957 saw the release of the Chrysler 300C, and again, more power was squeezed out of the Hemi V8 engine, with choices of a 392 cu in (6.4 L) with 375 hp (280 kW), or as a very limited edition 390 hp. Only 18 of the 390 hp versions were factory-built. Stylewise, the design was “bigger”. The 300C was given a bigger grille, and the rear fins were more prominent, as per the design fashion of the times. Another change for the 300C was an additional choice of body type - it was still available as a 2-door hardtop, and a 2-door convertible was added to the range. The build tally for 1957 was 1,767 hardtops, and 484 convertibles.
The 300D of 1958 retained the style of the previous year, and it kept to the tradition of adding more power to the engine, this model came standard tuned to 380 brake horsepower.
The engine was the biggest change in the next model, 1959’s 300E. Gone was the venerable Hemi, replaced by the Golden Lion wedge-head V8. It punched out 413 cu in (6.8 L). While the engine was new, the output remained the same as the 300D, at 380 bhp. This lack of advancement, along with tough economic times, saw sales dip, to 522 coupes and 125 convertibles.
In 1960, Chrysler perhaps took heed of the disappointment in the performance aspects of the 300E, and gave the 300F a power tweak. It was still 375 bhp at the top end, but through the addition of a cross-ram intake manifold, and a lighter body weight via unibody construction, the power at the low- and mid-level RPM was given a boost. There was also a special edition 400 bhp version produced, 15 in all. As did the power jump, so too did the sales - 969 coupes and 248 300Es were sold.
For 1961’s 300G there were slight changes made to the style, but in 1962, the 300H had a major change, with the removal of that design love affair of the 1950s, the rear fins. Along with the fins, however, sales also took a hit - 435 coupes and 135 convertibles sold in 1961.
1963’s 300J was the last body styles by Virgil Exner. It had a top speed of 142 mph, not bad, but it’s road speed was not matched by sales speed. Only 400 were made, and the convertible was dropped from the range this year, leaving only the 2-door coupe model.
There was something of a return to form in 1964 with the 300K, with the price dropped by $1,000, and sales soared to 3,022 coupes and 625 convertibles - yes, the convertible was again part of the range.
The 1965 Chrysler 300K was the last of the Letter Series,with a somewhat austere design in comparison to the 300’s look historically. Sales of the 300K were 2,405 coupes and 440 convertibles.
Though, is the 300K the last? There’s also the 300 Hurst to consider, released in 1970. Given the high-performance nature of the car, it certainly slots into the spirit of the Chrysler 300. Its 375 hp (280 kW) 440 cu in (7.2 L) 4-barrel TNT V8 engine took the 300 Hurst from 0-60 in a touch over 7 seconds, not too bad for a car weighing 4,100 lbs. Sales of the 300 Hurst - 501.
The 300 name was re-used by Chrysler in 1979, and again in a modern use of the name, from 2005 to the present day.
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