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Last Gasp of the Letter Cars
Many automotive historians consider the birth of the American “Muscle-Car” to be the Hemi-V8 equipped C-300 hardtop for 1955. The large, luxurious and high-powered MoPar immediately became a legend.
After the initial success of the original C-300, subsequent years saw a succession of high-performance "Letter Cars" (as they became known). The 300-B in followed for 1956, 300-C for 1957, the 300-D for 1958, and so on. The original Hemi V8 was discontinued with the 1958 models, replaced by the equally potent “Wedge” V8 in 1959. Employing multiple carburetors, high-lift cams, tuned heads and ported exhaust, Chrysler worked hard to keep the 300 on top.
For 1961 the letter sequence had advanced to the 300-G, and the '62 model -- the one that lost its fins--logically was marketed as the "H". Raising some confusion this year was the introduction of a new, more pedestrian, 300 series. It was slotted between the lowest priced Newport and the upscale New Yorker and was offered as a 4-door sedan, 4-door hardtop, 2-door hardtop and a convertible. It lacked the high level trim and all out performance equipment of the "H".
All new sheet metal arrived for the 1963 Chryslers. Performance remained with the letter cars, designated 300-J this year, but only in hardtop form, as the convertible took a year off. Externally, there were only a few clues to this model’s linetage, such as the slightly modified cross-hair style grille and the model badge attached to the C-pillar. Limited to a production run of just 400, many 300-J’s disappeared into the world of everyday cars with little difference noted by most onlookers, save for the few hard-core enthusiasts who knew what they were underneath the skin.
The familiar 413 cid “Wedge” V8 still resided under the hood, fitted with a pair of Carter AFB four-barrel carburetors feeding the cylinders through short cross-ram intakes. It was rated at 390 hp, and came standard with a heavy-duty "torque-flite" automatic. Optionally available this year was a pair of very potent 426 cubic inch V8s, rated at 405 and 425 horses. Suspensions were still specially equipped to keep the car stable at speed. Inside, passengers were treated to full leather on the front swivel-bucket seats, and several other exclusive touches.
The all-new interior sported full instrumentation and rich appointments. Alas, the old "astro-dome" dash panel died with the '62 model. The hardtop's posted price was set at $5,260, and while still in the same range as the Series 62 Cadillac sedans, it was down a little from the previous season. br>
For 1964, the full-size Chrysler received little more than a face-lift, and these same touches applied to the new 300-K, now offered in two body styles as a two-door hardtop and a convertible. Significantly, the dual 4-bbl wedge was no longer standard equipment. In its place resided a milder 413 with a single four-barrel carb generating 360hp. The 390hp crossram engine was still available as an option. For the first time in the Chrysler’s history, a reliable four-speed manual transmission (the extremely rare French Pont-A-Mousson 4-speed was prone to failure) was available for an extra $227, and for just $52 more, you could add a posi-traction rear axle.
There was a major drop in the base price of the new 300-K hardtop, falling over 20% to $4,056, while the convertible's price tag was placed at $4,522, nearly a thousand dollars less than its last appearance in 1962. Customers responded in droves (relatively speaking), with 3,022 hardtops and 625 convertibles coming off the line, making it the most successful season ever for the 300-letter cars. Contributing to the lower list price was the powerplant change and the substitution of vinyl trim where leather had been previously used. Other minor appointments were also made optional which also lowered the production costs.
Despite the sales success of the 300-K, management saw the writing on the wall. Performance buyers were looking to a new breed of automobile, something a little smaller, nimbler and faster, for this was the dawn of the modern musclecar era.
In today’s market early Chrysler 300 letter cars are always in demand. Restored examples can bring prices well into the high five-figures, with convertibles in concours condition reaching into six-figures. With low production, and over fifty years of attrition, the number of these special cars is limited. The 300 J and K models from 1963 and 1964, however, have been largely left out of both the stature and value run-ups enjoyed by earlier versions. Many collectors do not equate the unusual body styling with the high impact designs that came before the J. Expanded production of the '64, standard equipment reductions and the backing away of an all out commitment to performance certainly don't help.
Letter cars all had unique identifiers within their VIN codes, and these should be studied and referred to when a potential purchase is being considered. Attached to the car, usually under the hood, will be a “build” or “buck” tag that also has a code for the 300 models (see chart). Even if the build tag and VIN verify the model, check out the engine to make sure it is proper for the car. The official motor number for the 413 V8 was located on a boss behind the water pump, but unfortunately, the first three letters only identify the cubic-inch displacement and not the specific use or car.
A word of caution The performance pieces specific to these are rare and expensive. The crossrams and carburetors are a given, but the exhaust manifolds are unique, too. Rust is a mortal enemy. Make sure you crawl up and down every inch of the underbody and pay close attention to all seams and mounting points. As far as we know, body parts, floors and structural bracing are not being reproduced. Replacement will likely be difficult and costly. A redo of the interior will also set you back a few thousand dollars -- several if you are using quality leather.
The moral of this story is to buy one already done! At the very least spend some time looking for as rust free an example as possible. Be prepared to travel. In the long run it will save you time, money an aggravation.
While the styling is a bit odd, the cars drive as well -- if not better -- than they ever did. Compared to a contemporary Lincoln or Cadillac they're practically a sports car, with levels of handling and control well beyond either. And yes, the base engine of the K was a notch below the performance of earlier motors but they weren't exactly toothless--and could be optioned up.
Both the 300J and K’s are considered "sleepers" in the market, as their prices have remained well below prices realized for earlier versions. Problem is, they've been considered sleepers for twenty years and haven't really broken out. Big and luxurious, these are undoubtedly one of the best bang-for-the-buck cars in the hobby. Of course, the models to get are a '63 or the K's with the multi-carb crossrams and options. A four-speed manual (about 80 produced) is an extremely rare find and will boost value at least 20%.
So if you want something really distinctive, and just can’t afford the Exner fins, you can still get the oddball Exner styling with the '63 "J"and the '64 "K". Current Values: Chrysler
P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car Market Review
This profile first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide. (C) Copyright 2003- VMR International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.