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Chrysler 300 - Letter perfect

1955 Chrysler 300. It was the first American production car to have a motor that produced 300 horsepower.

Well, Chrysler has done just that with the SRT V8 Hemi 300. The big American comes with a rich and heroic heritage stretching back through a long line of famed "letter cars" which combined high horsepower and indulgent luxury. It is this lineage which lays claim to being the first "muscle car".

In the early 1950s Chrysler in the USA had a dowdy image -well engineered cars but no pizzazz! They hired stylist Virgil Exner to inject some life into their car designs in order to compete with the increasingly more stylish Ford and General Motors (GM) products.

Exner's first effort was the `Forward Look' cars of 1955. The range topper in that year was a 'hero' car called the 300 to mark it as the first American production car to have a motor that produced 300 horsepower.

Exner's basic premise was simple. Combine attractive and distinctive styling, excellent engineering, a high level of luxury, a big motor delivering outstanding performance then sell them at a nice premium price to people with lots of money. Hence they acquired the label of the "bankers' hot rod".

Come 1957 and Exner excelled himself with a range of wide, long and low cars with towering fins. Chrysler's advertising agency came up with the slogan "Suddenly, it's 1960" and sales exploded. The 300C was the most stylish of these stylish automobiles.

It is a well document fact that Exner's 1957 cars frightened GM so much they threw out their planned 1959 models and completely restyled every car in the entire range. By 1961 the letter cars-they were now up to '300H'-contained massive 413 cubic inch engines which catapulted them to 100kmph in a little over seven seconds.

The letter cars ceased to be part of Chrysler's line up in 1965. Facing competition from Pontiac's cheaper and sexier GTO and a gang of other muscle and pony cars, the 300L was the last of the breed. Letter cars can vary in price. A couple of years ago, a rare 1960 300F went for almost half a million in the USA. A reasonable 300C fetches near $100,000.

David Burrell is the editor of www.retroautos.com.au