(first posted 11/17/2016) We all know what a sport sedan is, from the ur-BMW 5 series to the legions it spawned. But there was an earlier, American era of the sport sedan, on its last legs when this Chrysler rolled off the line at the sprawling Jefferson Avenue plant sometime in 1967. The times, they were a changing, to quote a recent Nobel Laureate.
The premise of the American sport sedan was simple: Take the body of your smaller, lighter entry-level upper-medium-priced car and put in the engine from your larger, heavier more luxurious model. That was Harlow Curtice’s idea in 1936 when his Buick division launched the Century, a Buick Special’s body with the Roadmaster’s 320ci straight eight.
It was a winning formula. The Century was one of the fastest cars on the market, outperforming many luxury cars at a much lower price, all disguised as a sensible sedan. The Century was the prototypical “Q-ship”, even before people knew what a Q-ship was. Instead, they called it the banker’s hot rod- exactly what BMW became in the 80s.
In truth, it was a move only Buick could pull off. Of the medium priced cars, it alone had the magic combination of two different body shells, and both series using straight 8 engines. The other players all used a single body shell, in straight 6 and 8 cylinder versions. The only difference was a longer front end to accommodate the longer straight 8s. Put an 8 in a Chrysler Windsor and you get a New Yorker.
But the switch to V-8s in the early 50s gave new life to the formula. In 1951, Chrysler was able to fit the new 331 cubic inch Hemi V-8 into the shorter front clip of the 6 cylinder Windsor, and the Sport sedan got a new lease on life. It, along with the trim but powerful Lincolns were kings on the tracks but both petered out as V-8 power spread and luxury began its ascent (or descent) across the market.
Still the sport sedan lingered on. Buick brought back the Century in 1955, with the Super’s 3-ventiport body housing the Roadmaster’s V-8, packaged as a sporty step up. Century begat Invicta which begat Wildcat, but the idea was the same. Chrysler reintroduced the Saratoga from 57 through 61, then switched to our featured model line, the un-lettered Chrysler 300 Sport Series, which ran from 1962 to 1971, a year after Buick put the Wildcat in the stable.
While the 300s lacked the raw performance of their lettered brethren (and the price) they were fast, capable cars, especially before Chrysler began softening its class-leading handling. In truth they were a bit of a pose. They offered a smaller wheelbase with a larger, but no longer the largest, V-8. They were great cruising on highways and gently winding roads, but as the 60s wore on their styling became increasingly conservative, only to flame out in fuselage glory.
But by 1967, the end was near. The full-size American sport sedan was being done in by a perfect storm of cultural changes. First, John DeLorean took the Century/Chrysler formula and dropped it down a notch to even lighter and more affordable intermediates with the GTO. By the late sixties, muscle – and pony – cars were what people drove when they wanted to drive fast. Second, the large car market shifted from wanting sporty to demanding luxury as they moved up the ladder. Speed was out and vinyl tops were in.
And lastly, the growing number of European, and especially German luxury sedans were learning that it was possible to combine decent power, excellent handling and well-finished interiors in a compact body, paving the way for the banker’s hot rods of today.
In the arc of sport sedan history, this 300, spotted in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn a while back, is nearer the end than the beginning. It’s an echo, not a roar. The styling is as conservative as a Brooks Brothers suit – with the exception of the more whimsical-than-sporty taillight and bumper treatment, which probably looked a lot better on paper. Oh it’s got the 300 badge, for sure, but by 1967, that’s all it was – a badge, not a symbol.