Bill Vance: C-300 gave Chrysler a potent sales weapon

When Kaufman T. Keller became president of the Chrysler Corporation in 1935, he was only the second person after founder Walter P. Chrysler to assume that role. Like Chrysler, Keller was a hands-on master mechanic, a skilled man of the tools.

He was also quite traditional, and under his command the company’s styling was about to take a more conservative turn. No doubt the slow sales of the daringly streamlined mid-1930s Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow models were causing him concern.

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The down-to-earth Mr. Keller insisted that a man should be able to easily enter and exit a Chrysler product while wearing a fedora. Thus its cars would tend to be less stylish, more upright, sturdy and workmanlike in appearance.

When Keller moved up to chairman in 1950 and new president Lester (Tex) Colbert took over, it set the stage for change. Colbert was an adventurous type who knew the corporation’s styling had to be bolder, but given model lead times it would take until 1955 for his ideas to come to fruition.

When they did arrive, the new ’55s brought a smarter, more modern appearance created by ex-Studebaker designer Virgil Exner and staff.

The contemporary new theme was called the “Forward Look,” and it was a significant departure. But while Colbert was happy with their fresh direction, he felt the corporation needed an even greater impact. He wanted something special; he wanted an “image car.”

But his options were limited because Chrysler’s pockets weren’t as deep as the competition’s. Since it couldn’t afford to develop an all-new model, it did the next best thing — it combined existing corporate components in an imaginative new way.

There would be no worries under the hood, because they had Chrysler’s great 180-horsepower hemispherical-combustion-chamber 5.4-litre (331 cu. in.) overhead valve V-8 nicknamed the “Hemi” that had been introduced in 1951.

Wealthy sportsman/racer/car builder Briggs Cunningham used Hemis in his Cunningham sports racing cars and had proved its development potential was way beyond the original 180 horsepower without loss of reliability.

Using the Chrysler New Yorker body as the base, the stylists started by fitting rear-quarter mouldings from the Chrysler Windsor. The rugged-looking two-piece grille from the Chrysler Imperial gave the front a sufficiently muscular appearance.

For sharper handling, the engineers stiffened the suspension. They hopped up the engine to a heady 300 horsepower (inspiration for the name) with two four-barrel carburetors, a hotter cam, solid valve lifters and low-restriction exhaust. It was the highest-powered production car of its time.

The C-300 was a hefty automobile. With a wheelbase of 3,200 millimetres and weight of 1,814 kilograms, it was a big, impressive machine.

The only transmission was Chrysler’s new two-speed “PowerFlite” automatic. The interior was dressed up with leather upholstery and an Imperial instrument panel which included an impressive 150-mph speedometer.

By cleverly mixing these readily available corporate components, Chrysler developed a supercar they called the 1955 Chrysler C-300.

It fulfilled its intended role admirably, giving Chrysler a sporty image and enough performance to win on the track and bring a frown to many a Corvette owner’s face. And it didn’t cost the corporation the bank.

C-300s, with their superior power and handling, soon became the scourge of the stock car circuits, winning 37 NASCAR and American Automobile Association races. It was a great selling tool in an era when “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was more than just a catchy slogan.

At NASCAR’s Speed Week held at Daytona Beach, Florida, in February 1955, a C-300 won the stock production class with a two-way average of 205 km/h on the hard-packed sand. It beat runner-up Cadillac by more than 11 km/h to win the Tom McCahill trophy named for trials director McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated’s pioneering car tester.

Chrysler knew that spectators would not necessarily buy a C-300 — only 1,725 were built — but they also knew the public loved to bask in a winner’s reflected glory. It drew more of them into showrooms where they bought other corporate products, convinced they were getting the C-300’s sterling cachet and engineering qualities in their workaday Plymouths and Dodges.

Chrysler wasn’t too upset that it didn’t sell that many C-300s. Customer sales were almost like a bonus, because the C-300’s real mission was to be a racing machine with all the good publicity that garnered for the company. It more than fulfilled its mission.

The C-300 was the first of a long line of the original “Letter Cars” from Chrysler. They marched up the alphabet to the 1965 300L (there was no I), the last of those first legendary “Letter Cars.”

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