When I mention the Chrysler 300, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? If you’re anywhere near as young as I am, you’ll probably immediately conjure up the model produced from 2005 onward. You know, the proverbial “poor man’s Bentley”, the one used by wannabe rappers, drug kings and pimps the world over. The popular choice of both gangsters and grandpas, the “new” 300 could be thought of as the car that saved Chrysler from a slow death due to a lack of fresh product. It was such a smash hit, that a lot of people forgot that it was merely a modern re-imagining of one of Chrysler’s greatest-ever cars.
The modern generation seems to have all but forgotten about the original 300, and I am guilty as charged. I knew that one existed, but I never really understood the impact that this legend really had on the automotive world. I always assumed that it was just another Cadillac or Lincoln; a luxo-barge that was powerful but about as quick as Internet Explorer 5.
It is that assumption, however, that is what makes this car really special.
Just look at this for a second or two. Looks like a typical car from the 1950s, right? You might even recognize the front end from an Imperial. You would think it would be about as hardcore as apple pie, or as luxurious as Corinthian leather. Yet the soft, luxury-conjuring looks belie what was, at the time, the most powerful production engine ever fitted to a car. That is, of course, the legendary 331 C.I. “Firepower” HEMI V8 engine that made 300 horsepower (hence the car’s name), and hit a top speed of 127 mph. The C-300 would hit 60 mph in around 9 seconds, which was remarkable for a car of its size at the time.
Of course, we all know that you can’t just shove a great big engine into a luxury car and call it a proper “sleeper”. Even in 1955, Chrysler knew that more work needed to be done. So they gave the 300 a heavy-duty suspension, which made it one of the best-handling luxury cars of the 1950s. To underscore how fast this thing was, it set the 1955 “Flying Mile” record at Daytona for a production car, beating the previous leader by 7 mph.
The 300B brought the original 300 into focus as one of the fastest cars of the 50s. From 1956-65, the special “Letter-Series” models differentiated themselves from the standard 300: starting with the 300B in 1956, the 300C in 1957, and so on. The 300B received an upgraded powertrain: a 354 C.I. HEMI V8 with 355 horsepower, fitted to either a manual or automatic 3-speed gearbox. In NASCAR, the 300B smoked the competition; while in the real world, its 140 mph top speed made it the fastest production car in the world.
The 1957 Chrysler 300C is perhaps the most notorious of the letter-series 300s. It featured the legendary 392 C.I. HEMI V8 (the same size as in the new Challenger SRT8), which pumped out 375 horsepower as standard, with an optional 390 horsepower available. This speedboat of sorts was capable of 145 mph, while the 0-60 time was clocked at around 8 seconds (again very impressive for the time). The massive rear fins weren’t just a design statement—they were also believed to improve high-speed stability. Once again, suspension improvements made sure that the 300C not only talked the talk, but walked the walk, too. The 300D of 1958 was similar to the 300C, while 1959’s 300E brought in a 413 C.I. Wedge V8 that offered slightly better performance than the 392 HEMI.
From 1960-1962, the most noticeable changes to the letter-series lineup were cosmetic, with the 418 C.I. V8 receiving minor power upgrades. The upgraded power version produced 400 horsepower and came with a 4-speed manual transmission, making the 300F, 300G and 300H seriously fast cars. Unibody construction was also introduced in 1960, which really improved the handling and performance. From here on, the 300 letter-series began to lose its lustre: they began to look a lot less elegant, and the performance eventually decreased once the smaller, lighter “pony cars”, such as the Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda, became more popular.
The lukewarm 300M of 1999 notwithstanding, 1965 was the last year of the letter-series until 2005. That year, Chrysler re-introduced the 300, in keeping with the theme of automakers producing retro-styled versions of new cars. In addition to a variety of pedestrian powertrain options, Chrysler wedged a 5.7L HEMI V8 into a slightly restyled version to bring back the 300C moniker. With 345 horsepower, rear-wheel drive and a 0-60 time under 6 seconds, the new 300C successfully captured the spirit of the original 300C: muscle car performance with luxury car styling.
Which is exactly what the 300 letter-series brought to us in the first place. It took the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” and applied it to the automotive world. In a day and age where performance and handling were traditionally associated with exotic Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other purpose-built sports cars, the 300 letter-series introduced the speed demons of the world to the all-American boulevard cruiser. Some would even say that the 300 was the first muscle car ever made. Either way, it was, as near as I can find, the first true example of a “sleeper” in the modern sense. It paved the way for the fast Chargers, Golf GTIs and Commodores of the world. And, for that, I believe the 300 ought to get a hell of a lot more recognition than what it does.