(first posted 4/16/2012) Elwood Engel, fresh from Ford Motor Company, did not waste any time making his mark at Chrysler Corporation. His most famous design, the 1961 Lincoln Continental, set the standard for his future design themes. Virgil Exner’s questionable post-fin designs of the early Sixties, such as the 1961 Plymouth, were going to be a thing of the past. Elwood would see to it.
Virgil Exner, Chrysler’s design chief from the mid-’50s through the early ’60s, saw both hits and misses during his tenure. His ‘suddenly it’s 1960′ 1957 models were beautiful, but indifferent quality and extremely rust-prone bodies wrecked what could have been a watershed moment for Chrysler. Subsequent redesigns during the 1959-60 period, though attractive, were not sales kings, as the 1957 models’ quality issues turned off many potential buyers. In short order, the fin’s popularity rose and then fell, and a new direction was needed.
The styling of both the 1961 Plymouth, with its deep-sea creature appearance, and the 1961 Dodges, with reverse fins, fell flat. The shrunken 1962 Fury, Dart and Polara 500 did even more damage, although by now their quality was much improved from years prior. Chryslers fared much better during this period, despite quad headlights set at a 45-degree angle, which were pretty unusual. The same cars would return for ’62 sans fins, as the new look of the Sixties was trending towards lean, linear styling. In late 1961 Elwood Engel moved from Ford to Chrysler, where his influence would be felt in short order.
What would become the 1963 Chrysler started out as a design for the Imperial. However, the Imperial was selling well below what Chrysler wanted it to, so the design was appropriated for the Chrysler line instead. While an all-new Imperial would have been welcome (the 1962 and ’63 Imperials would lose their fins and become much more modern looking, despite retaining the wraparound windshield and basic underpinnings that went all the way back to 1957), it was probably a good move to give the design to a higher volume line. The 1963-64 Chryslers were much more in tune with the times, and while it had been too late to drastically alter them for 1963, he would finally get his chance to shine with the all-new 1965 models.
Elwood Engel really liked long, rectilinear designs, as his classic 1961 Continental showed. Since Chrysler had been burned–badly–by trying to be the Big Three styling leader, Engel decided to play it safe with very conservative lines. He loved squared edges, with fender peaks edged in bright chrome, and ‘fill to the corners’ design. Long, low, wide and smooth was his bailiwick, and the 1965 Chryslers showed off all those styling cues in spades. While not wearing leading-edge styling, they were nonetheless very attractive cars. In 1965 came the final ‘letter-series’ 300L; sales of the ‘banker’s hot rod’ had been steadily decreasing since the 1962 introduction of the more affordable non-letter series 300s that replaced the mid-line Windsor.
While not quite as special nor as luxurious as the traditional 300L, the new 300 series was extremely popular and, with the right options, could come very close to a letter-series 300 in terms of luxury and performance. Considered the sporty Chrysler, and priced above the Newport/Newport Custom but below the New Yorker, its competition included the Buick Wildcat and Mercury Montclair. An attractive face lift for 1966 (as shown above) included a handsome new grille and wraparound tail lights.
For 1967, 300s returned as both two- and four-door hardtops as well as a convertible. New styling featured a slightly sleeker version of Engel’s favorite design cue, the rectangle. The front end continued using a crosshatch grille and quad headlamps, but tail lamp orientation changed to vertical from horizontal. Coupes received a stylish reverse-slant C-pillar.
Much was the same for 1968, but some minor reshuffling of exterior trim made the cars even more attractive. The 300 received its own unique front-end styling that now featured concealed quad headlamps.
Tail lamps, now with round inboard back-up lamps, returned to a horizontal position. Neither tail lamps nor parking lights wrapped around the side of the car, so now-mandatory side marker lights graced the front bumper and rear quarter panel. Chrysler’s side marker design (featured on all 1968 Mopars, in fact) was very attractive, with a small round lamp set into a circular chrome bezel.
As always, the 300 was not a cheap car. Two- and four-door hardtops went for $4,209 and $4,285, respectively, and the convertible cost a princely $4,536 (slightly under $30K, in 2012 dollars). The convertible was the least-frequently seen 300 body style for ’68, with a mere 2,161 produced for the model year.
Chrysler did not scrimp on the 300’s power plant. A standard 350 hp, four-barrel 440 V8 connected to the ever-durable, three-speed Torqueflite automatic. If that wasn’t enough, you could order up an optional 440 TNT; with a dual exhaust and dual-snorkel air cleaner, it produced 375 hp with a remarkable 480 lb ft of torque. All 300s had the proven front torsion-bar suspension and rear leaf springs. A Sure-Grip differential, power front disc brakes, Magnum 500 wheels and heavy-duty suspension were also available.
The best feature, in my opinion, was the hidden headlights. Sure, they could be finicky–especially on snowy or icy days–but come on, they’re so cool looking!
Interior accommodations were also very nice. All 300s came with standard bucket seats (with a ‘buddy seat’ between them), but a traditional bench seat was available if you wanted one. You could also get an optional AM radio with 8-track or an AM/FM Multiplex stereo, with up to five speakers.
Despite their attractive styling and ample power, not too many 300s were made for 1968; only 34,621 of all types came off the assembly line that year. Muscle cars and pony cars had caused the full-size sporty car market to crater, and cars like the 300 and Impala SS would not be around much longer. For 1969, all Chryslers, including the 300, got an all new body. Those fuselage-bodied 300s continued, with minor changes, through 1971 before being discontinued.
The Brougham era was going great guns by that time, and the market for sporty full-size cars had diminished to near-zero. It was so much more impressive showing up in a broughamy ’71 New Yorker coupe with a blue brocade interior!
I found this 300 in March of 2012, at an acquaintance’s repair shop. After spotting Mike and getting the OK to take some pictures, I approached this rare Mopar. It looked pretty mean with the Keystone wheels, white-letter tires and dual chrome straight pipes on the back. I have never seen one of these in person, and it looks great. The coupes were very distinctive, thanks to that reverse-angle roofline and just the right amount of side sculpturing to keep things interesting.
The 300 was big, bold and made no apologies for what it was. That brash character Chryslers had in the Sixties would be diluted in the Seventies and eliminated with the K-cars in the Eighties, although the current 300 brings much of the 1968’s character into today. Is Chrysler on the way back? I hope so.