Chrysler Corporation has a long and proud tradition of being a trendsetter in the American automobile industry. In spite of its being the smallest of America’s “Big Three,” Chrysler has repeatedly left its mark on automotive history through its engineering, styling, and marketing innovations. In keeping with this tradition, during the mid-1950s, Chrysler sought to create a stylish, full-sized luxury car that was capable of an astoundingly high level of performance. The end result of its labors was an automotive legend and one of the earliest examples of the American muscle car: the 1955 Chrysler 300.
The 1955 Chrysler 300 (officially known as the C-300) was a limited edition car that offered a combination of styling, luxury and high performance not offered by other American manufacturers during the mid-1950s. Essentially an extensively modified version of the 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, the 300 was a striking looking car for its time. It was built on the New Yorker’s chassis and rode on a 126- inch wheelbase. It was clothed by a two-door hardtop version of the New Yorker’s body styled in Chrysler’s newly introduced “Forward Look” (designed by famed American designer Virgil Exner), which featured a long hood, a short deck, and rear tailfins. Inside, the car was also given a luxuriously appointed interior, which featured genuine leather upholstery that was exclusive to the 300.
Although the 300’s rakish looks and sumptuous interior were more than enough to impress, it was its high level of performance that truly captured the imagination of the American motoring public. The 300 was fitted with a hopped-up version of Chrysler’s legendary V-8 Hemi Engine (equipped with dual four-barrel carburetors and a racing camshaft), which had a displacement of 331.5 cubic inches and developed a then-outstanding 300 horsepower, which made it the most powerful American car of its day (and also gave the car its name). This powerful engine was mated to Chrysler’s famous PowerFlite automatic transmission. Chrysler further improved its performance capabilities by giving the car a lower ride height and heavy-duty suspension. Thus equipped, the 300 was capable of a top speed well in excess of 130 miles per hour and possessed high-speed stability and road-holding capabilities that were exceptional for a large car of its time.
The 1955 300’s reputation for high performance was further advanced by its outstanding performance on the racetrack, especially on the NASCAR stock car circuit. During the 1955 NASCAR season, Chrysler backed a team of 300s campaigned by car owner Karl Kiekhafer. Led by driver Tim Flock, this team of 300s dominated the series and Flock won the driver’s championship by a handsome margin.
The 1955 Chrysler 300 was superseded by an upgraded version of the car for the 1956 model year. But it’s concept of a high performance engine in a large car lived on and became the basic formula for American muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s. Only 1,725 1955 Chrysler 300s were built and surviving examples are highly prized collectables today.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p.287-288.
Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 266-267.
The Chrysler 300: Chrysler: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 300, 1955-2000, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.