In the fall of 1954, the American car market exploded with new power and styling advances from all three of the major automakers. Chevrolet brought out their great looking new models and equipped them with one of the best engineered V8s of all time. From Dearborn, Ford presented several new larger and more powerful versions of their new Y-block V8 which had been introduced in the previous season.
Some of the most exciting news, however, came from the folks at Chrysler. All models sported flashy new styling penned by the new head of design for the company, Virgil Exner. In addition, Plymouth received its first V8, Dodge was promoting it high-powered D-500 performance package, and Imperial was now a "stand-alone" make. But the biggest and most impressive story was a new breed of Chrysler, the C-300.
Based on the big New Yorker, the C-300 was available only as a two-door hardtop. While the entire Chrysler line-up for 1955 wore brand new sheet metal and served up stunning good looks, the C-300 took this one step further. Where most upscale models of the day wore gobs of chrome and bright stainless trim, the usually flamboyant Exner felt this model should exude the "less-is-more" approach. No fender skirts, no heavy application of shiny flash, just clean simple lines accented with the use of the new Imperial grilles up front, Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels (optional), and simple ornamentation. Exterior colors were limited to red, black or white -- the latter by far the most popular choice -- while interiors were richly appointed in leather.
Expensive to restore
While the eye-appeal for the C-300 was (and is) outstanding, it was the action under the hood that really set it apart from the rest of the crowd: a new and improved version of the Hemi-V8 that generated 300 horsepower, hence the "300" designation. The Chrysler C-300 was the most powerful stock production car in the world in 1955. The "souped-up" Hemi engine maintained the 331 cubic inch displacement as other Chryslers, but sported dual four-barrel carburetors, solid lifters, full race cam, and an 8.5:1 compression ratio. Maximum output came at 5,200 rpm.
With all this power it was only natural that the C-300 would be a force to reckon with on the track. Among the accomplishments for the year were 37 NASCAR and AAA wins of races with 100 or more miles, including the Grand National with an average speed of just over 92 miles per hour. It also won top honors for the Daytona Flying Mile, averaging an outstanding 127 miles per hour. If winning races wasn't enough, it also duly impressed the auto writers of the day. The grand-daddy of them all, Tom McCahill, said in Mechanix Illustrated after his test drive of the C-300 at Daytona Beach, "it was as solid as Grant's tomb and 130 times as fast."
Big production numbers was never a goal of the C-300. Just enough were produced to meet the demand of those willing, and able, to pony-up the hefty base $4,100 price tag. 1,725 were built in its premiere year, with 33 of these designated for export.
Returning for '56, the 300 was given a "B" suffix to its model designation and a bigger engine with more power. Maintaining its unique Imperial styled grille, limited color selection, and leather interior, it garnered even more respect from the motoring public and writers of the day.
The new Hemi V8 now displaced 354 cubic inches and generated 340 horsepower, this time from a single four barrel carburetor. The list of options grew this year, and the list of standard equipment shrunk a little. Big news was that buyers had a choice of transmissions. A standard manual three-speed shifter, or an automatic transmission controlled by push-buttons mounted on the left-hand side of the dash were offered. Most sources peg manual transmission production at only 31 cars. Early 1956 models were equipped with the Power-Flite automatic transmissions, while later in the year the new Torque-Flite was released which provided smoother, less power-robbing shifts.
While the new 354 cid Hemi V8 was equipped with only a single four-barrel carburetor, it was plenty potent enough with the high-lift cams, high-compression heads, and solid lifters. A dual four-barrel set-up was offered as an option which increased the output to 355 horses. This extra output gave the 300-B enough energy to get up to 139.9 miles per hour in the Daytona Flying Mile in pure stock form. The car also did what it was supposed to on the track, taking victory after victory.
About the only place the $4,419 300-B didn't out-perform the original version was in the sales department. Just 1,102 were produced, with 42 of these destined for foreign export.
While both cars look basically the same, there are some differences which should be considered. For those looking from the historical standpoint, the original 1955 C-300 is clearly the way to go. It was the first of the breed, and came with full power and all the toys as standard equipment. It was the pure design, unaltered with unwanted items.
There are, however, a couple of minor drawbacks to the 1955 model. One of them concerns the 6-volt positive ground electrical system, which was upgraded to 12-volts and negative ground for 1956. The 2-speed automatic transmission is also a minus here. Later '56 models with the new 3-speed Torqueflite (early '56 models also carried the 2-speed unit), and the bigger, more powerful engine, have a better performing powertrain.
As with any car that is based on another model, the C-300 and 300-B have certain cues, codes, and points of authenticity that need to be verified to make sure you're looking at the genuine article. In 1955, the C-300 was officially model C-68, and the vehicle identification number or VIN, began with the code of "3N55". For 1956, the model was designated the C-72-300, and carried the ID prefix of "3N56".
Minor styling cues, such as the automatic gear-shift lever coming out of the dashboard rather than on the steering column, is an interesting item on the 1955 models. Another interesting fact about the original model: outside rearview mirrors and backup lights were not available in an attempt to preserve the ultra clean lines. 1956 brought a pushbutton shift mechanism. 1956 models also saw a revised, sleeker, but slightly heavier-looking rear end.
Potential problems areas with these cars include rusted out floors and trunks. Make sure any repairs were done correctly. Fortunately, many body parts are interchangeable with other Chrysler models of the same vintage. The body is a New Yorker (with Windsor rear quarters!), and the dash, along with the grille, comes from the Imperial. Finding and maintaining performance parts can take time, however, and they tend to be expensive. For example, expect to pay $5,000+ for an interior. Some of the unique trim items bring big money, too.
While the "letter-car" 300s continued through 1965, the original versions are the ones most representative of what the model was intended to be. They represented style, speed, luxury, and exclusivity. Many of early 300s ended up on the track, and as a result didn't survive. Hard driving, accidents, and natural attrition further drove their numbers downward. Fortunately, by the early seventies they were recognized as a hot property and were beginning to be collected and restored. As a result of their early recognition as an historic and interesting car, many of the remaining C-300 and subsequent letter cars were not sent to the crusher as quickly as other Chryslers.
An often forgotten axiom in the the collector car hobby is that premium cars when new do not always translate into premium collector cars. The 300, however, has always been a strong performer in the market place. Like most collector cars, prices of these cars rose dramatically in the late 1980s, and then leveled off in the early 1990s and drifted down a bit. Recently, they have enjoyed a steady climb in value over the past five years as more buyers are appreciating the performance, style and the legend of the 300s.
Values can easily break the $30,000 mark for well restored and authentic editions. For 1956 a 15-20% premium should be expected for the dual-quad set-up, while a similar premium can be placed on either model with rare factory air-conditioning.
We searched our auction database of over 20,000 results and found only one 55-56 300 entry. A strong #2 car sold for $34,000 at Kruse Fall Auburn in 1998. If you are planning on purchasing one of these it appears as though going through a dealer or private party will offer the most chance of success. There are a few decent cars on the market now in the high-teens to low-twenties.
Regardless of which early 300 series Chrysler you fancy, one thing is for sure, it was the best then, and it is one of the best dollar-for-dollar collector cars on the market today. With distinctive style, strong heritage and a large following, these big cars will always have appeal.
(C) Copyright 2005- VMR International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide.