The Chrysler 300 was part of the all-new Exner-styled '55 line that cost $100 million to develop, hence the "Hundred Million Dollar Look" advertising hype. But it was worth the expense, boosting model-year volume to over 150,000 units and bringing appearance up to par with performance at last. Evolved from an early-'50s series of Exner-designed, Ghia-built Chrysler "idea cars," the '55s were clean and aggressive-looking on a slightly longer 126-inch wheelbase. Windsor DeLuxe was treated to a new 301-cid Hemi with 188 bhp. New Yorker retained a 331 rated at 250 bhp.
The '56s looked even better -- rare for a period facelift -- and offered even more power. Windsors moved up to the 331 with 225 bhp standard and 250 optional. New Yorker offered 280 bhp via a bored-out 354 Hemi. That year's 300B used the same engine tweaked to 340 bhp; with a hot multicarb option it delivered 355 bhp -- making this the first Detroit V-8 to break the magic "1 hp per cu. in." barrier. Chevy would manage the trick for '57, but only with fuel injection.
Exner's work was never better than on the '57 Chryslers: longer, much lower, wider, and sleeker, with modest grilles and graceful fins. They still look good today. That year's 300C was breathtaking: big and powerful yet safe and controllable -- and offered as a convertible for the first time. A unique trapezoidal grille set it apart from other models.
Supplementing Newport hardtops for 1955-56 were the Windsor Nassau and New Yorker St. Regis, conservatively two-toned and boasting slightly ritzier interiors than standard Newports. Neither returned for '57, but the previous year's Newport hardtop sedans, a hasty answer to GM, would carry on well into the '70s. The '57 Town & Country wagons, Windsor and New Yorker, seated six, but could hold nine from 1958 on via a novel, optional rear-facing third seat.
Saratoga returned as Chrysler's midrange '57 series and promptly sold more than 37,000 copies. It again offered a performance premium in its 295-bhp, 354-cid Hemi. Windsors boasted 285 horses. New Yorkers moved up to an enlarged 392 with 325 bhp; in the 300C this engine delivered an incredible 375 or 390 bhp. Nobody ran the period "horsepower race" better than Chrysler.
The division had merely caught up in the "transmission race" with fully automatic two-speed PowerFlite, which bowed in late 1953 to replace semiautomatic "Fluid Drive." But Chrysler pulled ahead in mid-'56 by adding three-speed TorqueFlite, one of the finest automatics ever built. Also that year, both transmissions switched to the now-famous -- or infamous -- pushbutton controls, mounted in a handy pod to the left of the steering wheel. PowerFlite-equipped '55s used a slender wand to the right of the helm. Though this looked stiletto-lethal, it crumpled harmlessly on impact.
Chrysler's '57 styling was superb, but offering a second all-new design in three years led to hasty, sub-standard workmanship and a tendency to early body rust -- one reason relatively few of these cars survive today. A series of plant strikes didn't help. Even so, Chrysler moved close to 125,000 cars for the model year, down from the 128,000 of '56 but still good for 10th in industry production.
No discussion of Chrysler in the '50s is complete without mentioning "Torsion-Aire Ride," a corporate staple from 1957 until the early '80s. Packard had its excellent four-wheel "Torsion Level" system for 1955-56, so the idea wasn't really new. But Torsion-Aire was in far more driveways, and proved once and for all that American cars could be made to handle. Instead of sending road shock into the chassis or body like coil or leaf springs, torsion bars absorbed most of it by twisting against their mounts. Chrysler used them only at the front, likely more for engine-compartment space than improved geometry, but it complemented them with a conventional rear end specially calibrated to maximize the bars' effectiveness.
A deep national recession and continuing subpar quality made 1958 a terrible year for Chrysler Division. Volume plunged to less than 64,000, and the make dropped to 11th, still trailing Cadillac (as it had since '56). A mild facelift was generally not for the better except on the 300D, which was all but identical to the '57 C-model. Windsor gained a convertible, but was demoted to the 122-inch Dodge/DeSoto platform. Horsepower kept climbing. Windsors were up to 290 and Saratogas to 310, courtesy of 354-cid Hemis; New Yorkers packed 345 bhp and the 300D a rousing 380/390, all from 392s.
A more substantial restyle marked the "lion-hearted" '59s. Though arguably less graceful in appearance, they scored close to 70,000 sales in a mild Detroit recovery. The switch to wedge-head V-8s introduced a 383 with 305 bhp for Windsor and 325 for Saratoga; a bigger-bore 413 gave 350 in New Yorker and 380 bhp in the 300E. Though not as efficient as the Hemi, the wedge was much simpler and cheaper to build.
For more on the amazing Chrysler, old and new, see:
- Chrysler New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chrysler Used Car Reviews and Prices