(first posted 9/2/2015) From the very first Chrysler C-300 in 1955, the Chrysler 300 was something special. From a land that begat lots of mighty cars, the Letter Series 300 may have been the mightiest of all. The last few years of the series were, however, a bit of a letdown – if not in the car’s hard specs, at least in the way it seemed to stand not quite as tall as it’s predecessors. This 300K was the next-to-last of the series, but remained something special – in its unique way.
Ever since stumbling on the first Letter Series Chrysler 300 I have seen in eons, I have wanted to write about this car. There is an ever-dwindling amount of unexplored territory here at CC, and the Letter Series 300 is in that category. My problem was finding a theme. It is not the first (1955 C-300) or the last (1965 300L) of this very special breed. It is not the most fearsome (1958 300D or 1960 300F). It is not the lowest production (1963 300J). It does have the distinction of being the highest production (3022 coupes, 625 convertibles) of the series, but with a Roger Maris-style asterisk in that the car’s base price had been reduced by about $1,000 from 1963. So what, this is the Letter Series 300 favored by non-conformists and oddballs? I’m still not sure, so I’m just going to start writing and see where this winds up.
Back when the common law used more latin, there was the legal concept of sui generis. The term was applied to something that was of it’s own kind, or unique. This term seems to fit the Letter Series Chrysler 300.
The original 300 (technically C-300) of 1955 was a fascinating mash-up. It was basically a leather-trimmed New Yorker hardtop with the bold, brash Imperial grille. Oh yes, there was also that engine. This was the first American production car that could boast 300 horsepower, right out of the showroom. The 331 cid (5.4 L) Chrysler Firepower V8 had come out in 1951 with a rating of 180 horses, so a sixty percent jump in output was not insignificant. Add in suspension and brakes of nearly competition-quality, and you had one genuinely special Chrysler.
This first 300 set the template for what the model would remain: a car that was big, expensive, beautiful, and a brutal performer. You could find two, or perhaps three, of those attributes in other cars, but nothing else gave you all four of them. And about that name, I am not sure anyone has ever nailed down whether it is “300” or “Three Hundred”. Both of those names appear on the cars over the years. However, given the prominent use of the digit-version in promoting the early cars, let’s go with that one, shall we?
When it came time for a 1956 model, Chrysler called it the 300B and thus began the nomenclature of the most sought-after poswar Chryslers, with each succeeding year given another letter from the alphabet to identify it. And with each advancing letter came advances in power and performance. The 300B’s Hemi was enlarged to 354 cid (5.8L) for 340-355 horsepower, and was followed by the 300C’s legendary 392 cubes (6.4L) that were good for 375-390 stallions. Today, when most people think of the late 1950s, they think of sock hops, rock and roll and ’57 Bel Airs. But there was another 1950s – the one for adults. That was the era of martinis, a Frank Sinatra album on the hi-fi and cars like the Chrysler 300.
When the 1959 300E was the first without the legendary Hemi, some were afraid that the beast had lost it’s fangs and it’s fire. However, Chrysler’s engineering team was able to coax the same horsepower out of the new 413 Golden Lion V8 as from the late, great 392 Hemi, and with an increase in torque to go along with it. Even the shorter wheelbase of the 1962 300H brought with it the silver lining of the highest power to weight ratio of any 300 ever made.
But 1963 was seeing the winds of change. The car carried new styling that was perhaps less appealing to the aggressive yet luxurious bit of the market that the car had staked out. Also, Chrysler was under new management, and the old guard that had seemed particularly immune to cost pressures was gone. The 1963 300J lost it’s convertible, and sold a mere 400 units (each one costing about $300 less than a Cadillac convertible). To be fair, Chrysler sold an additional 1,864 Pacesetter convertibles that could kinda sorta be made to pass for a 300J, even if they were actually not.
By 1964, it was becoming clear that the always teeny part of the market that these cars occupied was beginning to vanish. The performance car was going downmarket, with Plymouth and Dodge now offering the hottest corporate powerplant in the new 426 Max Wedge, and in lighter cars, besides. Even worse, Chrysler itself began to cash in on the Letter cars’ cred with the Sport Series 300 that came out in 1962, which had all of the Letter car’s looks and a good deal of it’s performance, but at a much lower price. The part about the looks is up for discussion too, as the 1963-64 body never looked quite as good in two-door form as either earlier or later generations.
Still, this K car was no shrinking violet, equipped with a 4 bbl 413 wedge rated at 360 horsepower, and available with the twin 4 bbl cross ram that was good for another thirty horses. The car was available with either Chrysler’s excellent Torqueflite automatic, or even a 4 speed. The automatic is a fascinating bit of trivia, in that for the K, the shifter was a console-mounted lever, making this the only Chrysler passenger car automatic between 1956 and 1964 that did not shift with pushbuttons.
At $4056 for the hardtop and $4522 for the convertible, the 300K, though cheaper, was still not an inexpensive car. However, that price reduction was made possible by things like leather interiors no longer being standard equipment. Little by little, the magic was starting to seep out of the storied Chrysler 300, even it it’s performance still remained pretty much intact. The 300 would be back for a final edition, the “L”, in 1965, but by then there was really very little to distinguish it from the lesser models. The Letter cars of 1963-65 have never been able to command the respect (or the prices) of the earlier cars.
I did discover one interesting thing, in that this appears to be an example of the Silver Series that was available beginning in the spring of 1964. This trim package consisted of silver paint, black interior and a black canopy vinyl roof with a bright molding. Was this a Lynn Townsend move-the-metal kind of move? Hard to say. To Townsend, the low-volume 300 must have seemed like an anachronism from the Old Guard and not the kind of thing that would generate the volumes that any new model should be responsible to attain. Sadly, he was probably right, especially given that the 300’s niche was disappearing. Or did its niche disappear because it suffered from managerial neglect under the new regime? Probably some of both.
As much as I hate to admit it, the Letter Cars’ era was over by 1964. The market was taking each of the 300’s hallmarks (strong, big, expensive and beautiful) and splitting it off into it’s own model. A Max Wedge Belvedere, an Imperial LeBaron or even a Thunderbird? Take your pick, but nobody wanted to combine them into the same car anymore, not that many ever really did, given the Letter Cars’ annual production numbers. 1960s modernity was here to stay, and the decade would belong to Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, not Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.
Speaking of Gable, this car sort of reminds me of his character in his final film, 1960’s The Misfits. In it, Gable plays an old-school cowboy who doesn’t recognize what the world has become. It is a depressing movie that makes you feel for the old guy who no longer belongs. The last couple of years of the Chrysler 300 Letter cars suffered in the same way.
The 1960s would bring some fearsome cars from Detroit, many of them built by Chrysler Corporation. But none of them, impressive as they may have been, was anything like the Letter Series 300. In this spirit, I can appreciate that this 1964 model, and hope that this one can eventually be brought back to it’s former glory. If nothing else, we could say that there was still something special about the number 300 with a letter for a chaser. That, and that this is the final Letter Car before things really went to L.