If William Durant hadn’t got involved in a heated discussion with Walter P. Chrysler,  there might never have been a Chrysler Corporation. classic Chrysler 300 carThus, there would not have been the Chrysler C-300 and this space would have been filled with the fable of  the Chevrolet Corvair or the Nash Metropolitan. But in 1920, soon after Billy Durant regained control of General Motors, Durant and Chrysler a got into a knockdown, drag-out argument that ended with Chrysler slamming the door and walking away from GM forever.

At the time,  it was a big loss to both General Motors, the company Chrysler worked as the head of the backbone Buick division, and to Chrysler himself, since he was left with no  job.  During that time, Chrysler had made a name for himself as an industry stalwart. A big, indefatigable guy, Chrysler had bought his first car, a Locomobile, in 1908 and soon after he went to work for the company that built it in Pennsylvania. Within a few years, he switched to Buick, one of the proudest names in the U.S.  car industry, as the manager of the Flint, Michigan, plant, and by 1919 he was running Buick division and pulling down some half-a-million dollars annually in income. However, despite this handsome stipend, Chrysler had words with Durant and was out on his ear.

Bounced back rapidly

He wasn’t out of the business long, though. First, he became involved in an attempt to revive the weakening Willys Corporation. That move didn’t take, but then Chrysler moved on to the Maxwell Motor Company, which was also on the skids, and with the aid of a high-compression (for the time) 6-cylinder engine, he turned that nameplate from an also-ran to a winner by the middle of the Roaring Twenties. Soon, using Maxwell as the base, he had created a slightly smaller-scale General Motors for himself with the Plymouth brand at the bottom end, De Soto and Dodge  in the middle-price ranges and the Marque he named after himself, Chrysler, at the top. This marketing and manufacturing  strategy was the key to Chrysler Corporation’s ascendancy to the “Big Three,” along with Ford and General Motors. In fact, through much of the Depression Era, Chrysler, with its multiple versions, seemed to be on the upswing while Ford, having difficulty establishing any momentum in the middle-priced stadium, appeared on the way down.

Walter P. Chrysler, who passed away in 1940, set the tone that would keep his business moving at a positive pace through the Thirties and into the World War II years. During the war, Chrysler Corporation was a bastion of democracy, turning out a wide variety of military hardware that assisted to turn the tide against the Axis powers. When hostilities ended, the company jumped right back into the automobile market with a vengeance, although some historians claim new Chrysler head K.T. Keller lacked the  foresight of his predecessor. Be that as it may, the American market was booming and starved for automobiles, and Chrysler factories churned them out as fast as they could be made.

As the Fifties dawned, Chrysler continued to do reasonably well, but many criticized the company’s engineering-driven “styling” as old hat and stodgy ; and though the economy was still  robust and the demand for cars strong, everyone knew that wouldn’t last forever. It was the perfect environment for one of the most iconoclastic auto designers of all era, Virgil Exner.

Studebaker brilliant designer

In 1909, Exner was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but instead of attending the University of Michigan in his nativeland, he decided to matriculate at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, taking a degree in art. Soon he landed an impressive job in the Pontiac design studio at General Motors, where he got first-hand experience under the tutelage of the fabled  Harley Earl. If that training wasn’t enough, he then jumped to the legendary Raymond Loewy design firm, and, back in Indiana, he helped style  most of the Studebakers of the next ten years. One of his signature designs in those years was the 1947 Studebaker Starlight coupe with its popular “which-way-is-it-going?” appearance.

In 1949,  he left Loewy’s studio to take the position as Chrysler head of advanced styling, and he quickly sought to make changes. At the time,  Chrysler was known for its engineering skill, but it had veered away from the styling excellence that had been a major part of its success in Walter P. Chrysler’s days at the helm. Exner moved  quickly to take control of design process, actually gaining approval of the die models used to build vehicles’ production tooling. He also was unafraid to look overseas for styling techniques , commissioning a series of show cars like the Dodge Firearrow that were produced by Ghia, the famous Italian design house and coachbuilder.

The show cars obviously demonstrated that Exner was unafraid to go right to the corner and sometimes drop over it. But the first series of Chrysler products that truly bore his mark, which appeared in the 1955 model year, were restrained and handsome, rather than over the top. The styling  concept for the new Chryslers was labeled the “Forward Look,” which was both a nod to the future and a reference to the car’s  “poised for action” stance.  Luckily, the ’55 model year also brought the first of the so-called “letter-series” Chrysler 300s.

Can a car be charming?

Dubbed the Chrysler C-300 (the 300 designating the car’s 300 horsepower), it was a handsome devil, debonair,  a suave, and substantial car perfect for the button-downed Fifties. Chrysler C-300 WhiteIt had a beautiful face with two round headlights flanking a substantial split chrome grille. Aside from the grille, and the big front and  rear bumpers, though, the C-300 was remarkably bereft of chrome in an era when more chrome spelled more luxury. Heaven knows there was luxury enough inside the 2-door hardtop. It rode on a 126-inch wheelbase, and it measured some 220 inches (beyond 18 feet) from prow to stern. That’s one long 2-door!

Powering this exercise in excess was one of Chrysler Corporation’s engineering wonders, its high-compression V-8 engine boasting hemispherical combustion chambers in its heads. With a displacement of a strong 331 cubic inches and topped with twin 4-barrel carburetors, this engine supplied a remarkable 300 horsepower at 5,200 rpm.  A freer-flowing exhaust and a  solid valve lifters contributed to the stellar horsepower figure.

Though 300 letter series cars are renowned as being “fast,” they were far from swift, at least as we know it today. Many recognize  the C-300 as being the first American “muscle car,” a term that describes vehicles like the Oldsmobile 442 and the Pontiac GTO, but the C-300 didn’t boast the off-the-line quickness of these cars. Instead,  its  two-speed automatic transmission and 4,300-pound mass  conspired to give it a zero-to-60-miles-per-hour time of some 10 seconds. The car ran through the quarter mile in 17.6 seconds at just 82 miles per hour, a status many of today’s economy cars could beat.

But, measured up to its contemporaries, the C-300 was fast at least as far as its top-end capabilities. In 1955,  a nearly stock version of the car whizzed through the flying mile on Daytona Beach at 127.58 miles per hour, eclipsing the prior mark by 7 miles per hour. The C-300 dominated NASCAR in 1955 during the period when “stock car” racing meant the racing cars were in fact,  similar to the cars you could buy in dealer showrooms.

Comfy vehicle at a price

Though, for all its racing successes, the C-300 was truly a “boulevardier” in the European sense-a big, fast car stuffed with creature comforts that included power windows, power seats, leather upholstery,  power radio antenna, air conditioning and a wide variety of other options. Its list price of more than $4,100 made it one of the most expensive American cars you could acquire.

The C-300 was followed by a series of closely related Chrysler convertibles and  hardtops   that extended through the 1965 model year. Beginning in 1956,  each model year was designated  a letter as a suffix to the 300, so the ’56 model was the 300B, the ’57 the 300C and so forth through the ’65 300L. Chrysler Corporation, now part of DaimlerChrysler, tried to revive the mystique of the “letter series” with the 300M it  launched in the late 1990’s, but purists decried its absence of V-8 power and its 4-door configuration. Though a nice enough car, the 300M pales in comparison to the brio of the C-300 and its direct descendents, many of which also deserved to be called the “Greatest Car”. In any case, there is no question that the Chrysler C-300 made an impact that has reverberated for decades.

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