Chrysler 300: A Brief History

© FCA USLetter Series
Chrysler first introduced the 300 back in 1955, and with the debut of that high-performance 4-seater some would say the idea of the muscle car was born. Over the next 10 years, Chrysler would bring to market a range of 300s now referred to as the “letter series,” starting with that first 300 and continuing on with the 300B, 300C, 300D — a new letter every year with the final 300L in 1965. These special Chryslers were among the fastest production cars on the road, equipped with the latest in luxury features. Other 300 models followed the letter series, but none would ever be as special as those first versions. Here’s a look at how the 300 evolved, from the initial run to the 300 sedan on the road today. Note: Current values are sourced from Hagerty Insurance.

© FCA US1955 Chrysler 300
Original Price: $4,100
Current Value: $62,449
The first Chrysler 300 got its name from the 331-cubic-inch 5.4-liter HEMI “Firepower” V8 that produced 300 horsepower. The HEMI engine — so-called because of its hemispherical combustion chambers that deliver better efficiency and power for their size — was teamed with Chrysler’s relatively new “Powerflite” fully automatic transmission. This much oomph was a big deal in 1955 — the 300 was the most powerful American production car on the road (the Corvette had 195 horsepower that year). It came with sport suspension, leather seats and was only available as a coupe in black, white or red.

© FCA US1955 Chrysler 300
With the new 300, Chrysler hoped to bring more excitement to the brand. Considering the car’s power, style and premium price, it was dubbed “the banker’s hot rod.” Weighing in at more than 4,000 pounds, the 300 was still able to hit 127 mph — setting the Flying Mile record in Daytona for production cars in 1955 — 7 mph faster than any competitor. This quick Chrysler began dominating the NASCAR field and would continue to do so for several years. Only 1,725 Chrysler 300s were built in 1955, but this performance coupe was just the beginning; there would be 10 more years of the 300 with something new every year.

© FCA US1956 Chrysler 300B
Original Price: $4,242
Current Value: $52,520
With the introduction of the 300B, the “letter series” was born. While the name remained “300,” the horsepower did not. The 300B was upgraded to a 354-cubic inch HEMI V8 with 355 horsepower. Instead of the 2-speed automatic in the original 300, the 300B was available with a 3-speed Torqueflite automatic or — by special order — a 3-speed manual. The 300B got a 12-volt electrical system and also saw the introduction of signature Chrysler fins.

© FCA US1956 Chrysler 300B
With its added power, the 300B set a new world record for passenger cars, hitting 139.9 mph. The 300B continued Chrysler’s enormous success at NASCAR circuits. According to Chrysler, Karl Kiekhaefer — who sponsored a very successful Mercury Outboard team of 300s — felt compelled to withdraw from the competition, fearing a backlash from race fans irritated by the team’s dominance. The 300B was only available as a 2-door coupe, and just 1,102 were sold.

© FCA US1957 Chrysler 300C
Original Price: $4,929 (hardtop), $5,359 (convertible)
Current Value: $38,150 (hardtop), $124,010 (convertible)
Designer Virgil Exner was responsible for the 300 styling, and for 1957 Exner gave it an all-new graceful look with an egg-crate grille, four headlights, cathedral-window taillights and dramatic tailfins. The 1957 model year was also the first year of the 300 convertible. With the new C designation came more power — the HEMI V8 was now displacing 392 cubic inches (6.4-liters) and producing 375 horsepower. A special order option would bump power up to 390.

© FCA US1957 Chrysler 300C
With the new power came even better performance. Sixty mph arrived in just 8 seconds — very fast for the time — and top speed exceeded 145 mph. The 300C wasn’t simply fast in a straight line; with a lower center of gravity, special suspension and front torsion bar, the car was one of the best handling vehicles of its time. The large fins — Chrysler referred to them as stabilizers —reportedly increased stability at higher speeds. The elegant performance car was nicknamed the “Beautiful Brute.” Total production of the 300C was 2,251 vehicles, 484 of which were convertibles.

© FCA US1958 Chrysler 300D
Original Price: $5,173 (hardtop), $5,603 (convertible)
Current Value: $34,600 (hardtop), $126,450 (convertible)
The next in the series — the 300D — wasn’t much of a change from the 300C. The 392-cubic-inch HEMI V8 still provided power, and there was a bit more of it. Standard horsepower was rated at 380. A Bendix fuel-injection system was offered at first, but it was ultimately removed and Chrysler went back to dual 4-barrel carburetors.

© FCA US1958 Chrysler 300D
Although dealers complained that the 300D looked the same as the 300C, Chrysler anticipated that sticking with the popular design would keep sales high. Unfortunately new-car sales were down across the country in 1958, and thus 300D sales suffered. Only 810 300Ds were sold, including 191 convertibles.

© FCA US1959 Chrysler 300E
Original Price: $5,319 (hardtop), $5,749 (convertible)
Current Value: $37,011 (hardtop), $128,990 (convertible)
In 1959 the iconic HEMI V8 was replaced by a new 413 cubic-inch 6.8-liter Wedge V8 that produced the same 380 horsepower as the previous-year’s HEMI. Starting with this 1959 model, the HEMI would no longer be used in the letter-series cars. A number of other changes were made for the 300E, including an updated grille and the availability of swivel bucket seats in front, which were a popular feature.

© FCA US1959 Chrysler 300E
Unfortunately the buying public was not very receptive to the new look or the new engine — even though it offered better performance than the HEMI. Sales dwindled to one of the lowest ever for the 300; a total of 690 units were sold. The 1959 model year was also the last time the 300 letter series used body-on-frame construction.

© FCA US1960 Chrysler 300F
Original Price: $5,411 (hardtop), $5,841 (convertible)
Current Value: $52,978 (hardtop), $162,165 (convertible)
After three years of the same basic look, the 1960 300 received new styling. The fins increased in size, starting at the front of the door and ending with V-shaped taillights and a faux spare on the trunk that was jokingly referred to as the “toilet seat” or “bird bath.” The 1960 model employed unibody construction for the first time, which made the car lighter and gave it a more solid feel. The interior also got a makeover that included four individual leather bucket seats, with front swivel seats now standard. A center console stretched from the instrument panel to the rear seats, and included large armrests and storage compartments.

© FCA US1960 Chrysler 300F
The 413-cubic-inch V8 received cross-ram induction, which helped boost power at lower and mid-range rpm. The standard engine had 375 horsepower; however, Chrysler also offered a 400-horsepower version matched with the French-made Pont-a-Mousson 4-speed manual transmission. A 300F equipped with this more powerful combination once again set a record at the Flying Mile in Daytona, reaching 145 mph. Sales were up in 1960, with 1,212 300Fs sold, but only a handful were equipped with the 400-horsepower option, making these highly coveted by collectors.

© FCA US1961 Chrysler 300G
Original Price: $5,411 (hardtop), $5,841 (convertible)
Current Value: $50,941 (hardtop), $113,715 (convertible)
Chrysler revised the grille of the 300 again in 1961. The headlights that had always been side by side were now stacked at an angle, giving the car a wider appearance. At the rear, taillights were removed from the fins and placed in the rear bumper. The controversial spare tire mount was eliminated. This would be the last of the letter-series cars to sport big fins as styles began changing in the early 1960s.

© FCA US1961 Chrysler 300G
The early-Sixties 300 line was still among the most powerful and luxurious cars available. The 300G added power windows as standard equipment, and was available with high-end features such as power seats, air conditioning, power antenna, rear defogger and tinted glass. Power options remained the same as the 300 — 375 horsepower standard, 400 horsepower optional — with the exception of the transmission. The 4-speed Pont-a-Mousson had a number of issues and was replaced by a more reliable Chrysler racing manual transmission. A total of 1,617 300Gs were sold.

© FCA US1962 Chrysler 300H
Original Price: $5,090 (hardtop), $5,461 (convertible)
Current Value: $34,869 (hardtop), $71,262 (convertible)
The exclusivity of the letter-series cars came down a notch in 1962 when Chrysler introduced the 300 Sport series. These cars looked basically the same — with the addition of a 4-door version — but did not carry the performance of the earlier letter-series models. Front styling remained the same as the previous year, but the fins were gone forever. The 1962 300 was also about 4 inches shorter and weighed about 200 pounds less than the previous version.

© FCA US1962 Chrysler 300H
Power in the 300H received a slight bump for 1962 — the standard 413-cubic-inch V8 put out 380 horsepower, with the upgrade option rated at 405 horses. With less weight and a bit more power, the 300H was slightly faster than the outgoing 300G. But with standard 300s looking the same as the vaunted 300H, sales dropped to their lowest level; a mere 558 300Hs were sold in 1962.

© FCA US1963 Chrysler 300J
Original Price: $5,260
Current Value: $18,988
The 300J was introduced for 1963, skipping the letter ‘I’ due to concern it would be confused with the numeral 1. Styling was updated again, with the new model looking more squared with none of the dramatic flair of the earlier 300s. Headlights were side-by-side again, and the 300J was only sold as a hardtop — a 300 Sport series convertible was also available, but not as the 300J.

© FCA US1963 Chrysler 300J
The 300J carried the most powerful standard engine in a letter-series car to date — the 413 cubic-inch V8 was pumping out 390 horsepower, which was good enough for a top speed of 142 mph and a sprint to 60 mph at around eight seconds. But despite this added power (perhaps the styling did not appeal to buyers) the 300J was the lowest selling letter-series car of all time, with a mere 400 units sold.

Chrysler30071964 Chrysler 300K
Original Price: $4,056 (hardtop), $4,522 (convertible)
Current Value: $17,810 (hardtop), $31,674 (convertible)
The price dropped dramatically for the 300K compared to the previous year, although it cost less because the car was heavily de-contented. Leather upholstery was no longer standard, and the automatic transmission was shifted via a lever on the floor instead of the dash-mounted pushbuttons that had been in use since 1956. The convertible made a return to the lineup.

© FCA US1964 Chrysler 300K
It may seem minor, but the speedometer on the 1964 300 only went up to 120 mph instead of 150 mph on previous models. This coincided with a reduction in standard power — the big V8 was rated at 360 horsepower, with the optional upgrade to 390. Apparently consumers were more interested in saving money then the high-end features and power — the 300K was the best-selling model of the letter series, with a total of 3,647 units sold.

© FCA US1965 Chrysler 300L
Original Price: $4,090 (hardtop), $4,545 (convertible)
Current Value: $14,640 (hardtop), $29,767 (convertible)
The L was the last of the letter-series 300s, and by this time the original ideals of the letter-series had been watered down considerably — the cars were no longer as special as they once were. The 1965 model had a completely new design with long, straight lines and a fresh looking front end. But every feature on the 300L could be added as an option to a regular 300, making the badging the only feature unique to the 300L.

© FCA US1965 Chrysler 300L
No longer offering a power upgrade, the only engine available on the 1965 300L was the same 413 cubic-inch V8 putting out 360 horsepower. A 4-speed manual was still available, as was the 3-speed automatic. The glory days of this high-performance Chrysler had come to an end — at least for about 40 years.

© FCA US1999-2004 Chrysler 300M
Current Price Range (KBB.com): $2,720‒$4,381
Chrysler introduced an entirely new architecture in 1998, referred to as the LH platform. A number of new models were introduced across all of the Chrysler Corp. brands, one of which was the 300M. Chrysler deliberately named its all-new front-wheel-drive premium sedan 300M — the logical next letter from where the company left off in 1965. Built from 1998 to 2004, the 300M was connected in name only to those original letter-series cars.

© FCA US1999-2004 Chrysler 300M
Only one engine was available for the 300M: a 3.5-liter V6 putting out 253 horsepower — quite shy of the expected 300 horses based on the name and its namesake, but still decently powerful for the time. And with a zero-to-60 mph time of 7.5 seconds, the 300M was actually faster than most of those legendary 300s from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The 300M was also nicely equipped with luxury amenities including leather and wood trim, 17-inch aluminum wheels and a classic analog clock in the center dash. The 300M was built until the 2004 model year.

© FCA US2005-2015 Chrysler 300
The introduction of the 2005 Chrysler 300 was a welcome addition to the lineup, and the new cars had a much closer connection to the original 300 letter-series models. Although most passenger cars had moved to front-wheel drive (like the 300M), this new model featured bold styling and rear-wheel drive. More importantly, the top-of-the-line 300C was powered by a 345-horsepower HEMI V8. Like the earlier letter series, this 300C is fully loaded with luxury and performance features.

© FCA US2005-2015 Chrysler 300
In its latter years, the 300 earned a number of awards and saw the styling evolve into what it is today. While the SRT8 with its wicked 470-hp 6.4-liter has been discontinued for 2015, the 300 carries along with V6 and HEMI V8 powertrain options.

© FCA USOld vs. New
Although it’s unlikely that the market will every support a limited-edition letter-series of the 300 sedan similar to those built 60 years ago, it is great to see Chrysler building on its storied heritage, giving today’s consumers a taste of Chrysler style, performance and power — just like it did with the original 300 in 1955.

Sources: Hagerty, Chrysler LLC, Allpar.com

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3 Comments

  1. Fred Erenfeld

    My Dad bought one of the first 300’s in 1955, only about 1,700 made. It roared like a lion when you stepped down on the throttle and took off like a rocket.You could almost see the gas guage dropping at 100mph +/ I ran it once (based on the speedometer) at 130mph in North Dakota where we lived.. Went from Minot to Bismarck in 1hr 10 min. 120 miles. That was quite a car for the times, broke the Daytona record flying mile for stock production cars…

  2. Chuck Heinitz

    I bought a brand new 300C convert. at Ennis Motors in Mil. WI. in 1957. In the 70’s bought a 57 C HT for $750 and restored it. Drove it to the Nationals in Reno in 77, got a trophy for driven daily. Started the “Lower Puget Sound 300 Club” along with others. Bought 2 300 E’s, and a 300L, never restored them. In 1979 bought a brand new 1979 300. Sold them all, and today have a 300 M and a Dodge Magnum and belong to Mopars Unlimited, and Modern Mopars of Snohomish County. Also belonged to WPC club at one time.

  3. Baba M

    I especially liked the old vs. new picture with the similarities and differences. Both the old and the new are beautiful cars. M

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