Curbside Classic: 1962 Chrysler 300 Sport – Funny Face

(first posted 9/26/2011)    If you didn’t know, this is what a “Plucked Chicken” looks like.  No longer the wild roosters of The Forward Look, the next-to-last Chryslers that Virgil Exner doodled up are a delightfully whimsical bunch of beasts to feast your eyes upon.  And due to some name debasement, the Mighty 300 could now be had on a Windsor budget!

Chrysler didn’t always have three or four models comparable to Buick, the most direct rival of Walter P.’s namesake brand.  For a time around the introduction of the Hemi, the Saratoga took over the Super 88/Buick Century type role of having the large V8 in the smaller Windsor chassis.  It disappeared in 1953 only to return for 1957.  When it reappeared for 1957, it was more Buick Super themed: Bigger bodied and lesser trim, just a whole lot of Chrysler for your money.  This lack of identity for what was once the “sporting” Chrysler allowed it to fade away after 1960.

In 1961, a pair of crazy eyed Chryslers performed double homicide: The new Newport stabbed the DeSoto line in the back and out of existence.  Meanwhile the Windsor bumped off the Saratoga and stood into its old slot in the Chrysler hierarchy.  Which is ok, The Windsor would soon get what was coming to it.

There was one name that held a remarkable amount of brand cachet for Chrysler in the early 1960s that even the oddest styling couldn’t slander. That was the vaunted 300 “letter series” models, which proved to be some of the most fearsome cars available throughout the late 1950s through the early 1960s.  What other cars could possibly out accelerate and out handle Corvettes while having appointments that rivaled those of Cadillacs?  From the United States, the only answer to that question was with the 300.

But why didn’t the 300s sell in any significant volume?  Besides “being Chryslers” (for better and worse all at the same time), they were prohibitively expensive.  A 1960 model started at $5,411, which put it well into Cadillac DeVille or Imperial territory.  Also the Ram Induction 413s weren’t all that adept to average suburban driving and wanted to be flogged in an S&M kind of way that frightened most drivers in 1960.  Frisky behavior would soon become acceptable in Corvairs and Imports, because they were different.  But love of Sado-Masochistic Big Blocks would be about 2 years and a Beach Boy Song away.

When Chrysler saw Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick crafting bucket seat bombs in varying degrees of success with the Ventura package, Starfire and Invicta, Chrysler decided to upstage all of them in 1962 by giving those three magic numbers a wider swath of the market.

Available as a 4 Door Hardtop, a 2 Door Hardtop Coupe and a convertible (some pillared sedans may have been made as well), these “regular” 300s had most (if not all) of the trim of the 1962 Letter 300. But there were some key differences, mostly in the engine room.  For one, the base engine was the 383 with 305 Horsepower.   And the long list of standard equipment over in the letter series was optional or not available in the Sport version.  Even then, performance wasn’t anything to sneeze at, as the 383 and Torqueflite were one of the best powertrain combinations out of the United States at the time.

None of the powertrain refinement could make up for that funny face that first appeared (cockeyed) in 1961.  Although not the first American car with such a dubious headlamp arrangement (honors there go to the 1958-60 Lincoln models) there’s something whimsical, puzzling and endlessly fascinating about the face of these Chryslers.

I have a few theories on how Virgil Exner came up with this face. The more positive one is that he took the 1959 300F face and thought “How can I show how powerful that new ram induction 413 is?  Slant the headlamps around the grille so it looks like the engine is strong enough to warp the sheetmetal!”  My other theory is that he left a 1960 Styling clay in the sun too long and the front of it melted into this position and he called it a wrap.

As wild as these could be, full sized American automobile styling was going a decidedly different route by 1962. Both Ford and General Motors were ironing crisp creases in all of their offerings while Mopar decided to continue bulging at the seams. The whole Mopar family looked like a stylish 1962…in an alternate universe, otherworldly kind of way.

All of this effort gave the non-letter 300s a grand sales total of slightly over 25,000 cars.  A significant amount more than any letter 300’s production, and it bested by more than 10 times the volume of Buick’s new Wildcat coupe.  But, even with that respectable showing, it trailed the one model only debut of the Grand Prix, or the total sales of the quite pricey Starfire line for 1962.  Thus from our 20/20 vantage point, the non-letter 300’s seem like a complete failure.  When a competitor that costs nearly $1000 more than you (in 1960s Money) handily outsells you by 15,000 units, there’s got to be something wrong.

So out with the funny headlamps, and a re-appropriation of what was supposed to be the S-Series Imperial to the Chrysler line up for the “Pacesetter” 1963 300 Sports.  Decidedly less weird (and pretty handsome), they didn’t sell any better than the 1962 models, despite having the honor of being the Indianapolis 500 pace cars that year.  These cars’ poor reception speaks more to the damaged reputation Chrysler was dealing with in the early 1960s than the viability of the cars.

Although premium models, they didn’t carry the cachet of a Buick, or even an Oldsmobile.  My Great Grandmother was one of the Chrysler faithful, dutifully trading in a New Yorker every 5-7 years (depending on durability) until 1987.  My mother still reminisces in disgust how they used to cower in the back seat of her 1963 New Yorker, because it wasn’t as well regarded as the Ninety Eights, Deuce and a Quarters or even the Mercury Park Lanes the other church ladies drove to Sunday Services.  About 4 years ago, I threatened to buy a 1964 New Yorker on Craigslist just for fun. She threatened to disown me.

Which is shameful.  With few reservations these flamboyantly definned rides of a bygone era deserve more respect for marching to a different drum, quickly.