TCS Daily

The Beautiful Brute

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 24, 2004 12:00 AM

I still remember that warm summer night back in 1955. My buddy from McKeesport had his dad's new two-tone Buick Roadmaster convertible -- the top of the line -- and we were cruising on the Lincoln Highway when a white Chrysler two-door hardtop pulled up beside us. There was an older guy behind the wheel. He was probably in his 40s but he looked really old to us.

Anyway, he looked over at us with a self-assured smile. His right arm lay across the back of the passenger side of the cream-colored leather bench seat and he was guiding the steering wheel with the palm of his left hand. We were both gaping at his car. It wasn't just a Chrysler. It was a Chrysler 300. The car had just come out in February and it was already a legend. We had read about it, heard about it, dreamed about it, but this was the first one we had seen.

And it was a brief sighting.

The guy raised the fingers of his right hand up from the seatback in a little "bye-bye" wave and hit the gas. Both carburetors went into action pouring fuel into the 331 cubic inch "Hemi" engine. The mellow roar from the tailpipes made the skin tingle on the back of my neck. We were rolling at about 65 but the Chrysler just bolted away from us. I mean it left us like we were standing still.

We caught a glimpse of the chrome figures "300" on the rear fender gas cap cover. Then the vertical "twin tower" taillights got rapidly smaller in the distant darkness. The Chrysler must have been going well over 100 miles per hour by the time we were up to 80. We wanted another glimpse of the car that had been burning up the NASCAR and AAA stock-car tracks with drivers like Tim Flock and Lee Petty at the wheel.

But the 300 had already passed a couple of cars up ahead of us so we gave up the chase. It was a long time between sightings of Chrysler 300s in those days. They came in only three colors -- red, black or white -- and they cost a then hefty $4110-plus. Only 1725 of them were made. But it was enough to create a legend. The 300 became known among automotive writers as the "Beautiful Brute."

I thought about that car and that night when I read that Daimler-Chrysler is introducing its latest iteration of the 300 this month. The new 300 C is a brawny looking four-door sedan with a striking wide-mouth eggcrate grille reminiscent of some of its distinguished predecessors, particularly the 1957 300 C.

Actually, there are several 300 models featuring V-6 engines coming into Daimler-Chrysler showrooms. But the top of the line (at $32,995) is the 300 C, powered by the 5.7 liter Hemi that has proven so popular in Dodge Ram Heavy Duty pickup trucks.

With its 340 horsepower engine, the car is a throwback to the powerful family sedans that Detroit turned out 40 and 50 years ago. It is rear wheel drive and the styling imparts to it a bit of the "slightly tamed beast" look of the 1955 original. But modern technology gives it an edge never dreamed of back then. Thanks to microprocessing, the engine employs MDS (multi-displacement system), which "seamlessly" stops fuel flow to four of its eight cylinders when the car is cruising on the highway. This should give the 300 C exceptional fuel economy for a car of such muscle and weight (around two tons).

Thanks to Dodge's funny television ads the term "Hemi" has come back into more general usage (it's always been a standard piece of motor head argot). But few people know the story behind Chrysler's pioneering engine.

The concept of hemispherical combustion chambers was not new when Chrysler engineers adopted them for its first V-8, introduced in 1951. But they took the concept to a new level. Chryslers then were rather bland, massive, unexciting cars, known for being "over-engineered" and understyled. But Chrysler rightly called its FirePower Hemi V-8 of that year "a masterpiece of engineering."

It was a complex engine, expensive to build, with many more moving parts than other engines. Its dome-shaped combustion chambers (hence the "Hemi" moniker) featured center-mounted spark plugs flanked by huge exhaust and intake valves. The shape of the chamber allowed for very high "volumetric efficiency" as the engineers called it. In other words, it burned the fuel-air mixture much more evenly and completely with each flash of the spark plug.

The Hemi could burn regular fuel when most rival V-8s of the time required high octane. And yet, it delivered far greater power. Chryslers looked stodgy and they were heavy, but with the Hemi they could run away from just about every other car. And hot rodders were quick to grasp the engine's incredible capacity for increased output. Tinker with the camshaft, tune the exhaust, slap on dual carburetors and amazing things happened. Some early Hemi dragsters were tweaked up to a staggering 1000 horsepower.

In 1955, Chrysler styling began to catch up with its engine. That was the year of the "100 million-dollar look," or the "Forward Look," depending on which Chrysler ad you were reading. Styled by Virgil Exner, the new Chrysler line was lower and wider with noticeably more "road value" thanks to bright new paint schemes and chrome highlights.

Aware that Chrysler Hemis had been the talk of the stock-car circuit, the company's chief engineer, Bob Rodger, came up with the idea of increasing the engine's horsepower and showcasing it in a special car. Detroit was really into racing at that time, even though many NASCAR tracks were still dirt and fans came out after church on Sundays to fill improvised bleachers or throw blankets down on hillsides.

Chrysler executives liked the idea of a racy Chrysler but insisted that, after spending 100 million bucks on its '55 line, the thing should be achieved without blowing any more cash on styling. Exner came up with a brilliant solution. He took a New Yorker two-door hardtop body and incorporated rear fenders from the bottom-of-the-line Windsor and the beautiful cast eggcrate grille from the top-of-the-line Imperial. The result was a memorably understated muscle car. Indeed a good case can be made that this was the first muscle car.

The muscle came from an inspired modification of the Hemi along the lines followed by hot rodders over the past four years. The engine kept the same 331 cubic inch displacement it had been introduced with in 1951. But it was given twin four-barrel carburetors, a different "hotter" cam and solid rather than hydraulic valve lifters.

Boom! The 300 won 37 stock car races of 100 miles or more that year, set a Daytona record for its class in the flying mile (127 mph), and finally gave Chrysler enthusiasts something to talk about in circles where the Oldsmobile "Rocket" V-8 and Chevrolet's new V-8 had been dominant. And, get this; the Chrysler came only with automatic transmission!

In succeeding years, the 300 grew in engine output. Chrysler began boring out the big Hemi block for more displacement. One of the best remembered of these later models was the 1957 300 C, the direct namesake of the car now coming out. It was the first to come not only as a hardtop but also as a convertible.

A collector's item today (see picture here), it incorporated a distinctive trapezoidal eggcrate grille, pleasing chrome-framed "nacelles" for the headlights and soaring tailfins. The car looked brawny, businesslike, but ready to beat the crap out of anything on wheels. The engine had been bored out to 392 cubes and with options it could produce 390 horsepower.

Answering the pleas of enthusiasts, Chrysler offered the car with an optional three-speed stick shift. But even the best stick drivers were hard put to outrun a 300 C equipped with Chrysler's extraordinary new "TorqueFlite" three-speed automatic. It used odd pushbutton controls (on the left side dash) instead of a wheel mounted shift lever, but it shifted fast and flawlessly. This transmission was so good Chrysler used it up into the '90s.

Despite its weight (well north of two tons) the car had incredible handling thanks to an ingenious front suspension that featured long torsion bars and an anti-roll bar. Unfortunately, the build quality of these cars was not all that great. In fact the whole Chrysler line, recovering from strikes and labor disputes, saw a severe drop off in body quality at that time.

The few surviving '57s (only 1918 hardtops and 484 convertibles were made) are definite collectors items that will give a good account of themselves against many of today's fast cars. But it is the original '55, with its subtle look of intelligence and raw power -- the Beautiful Brute -- that carries the most cachet with collectors.

Daimler-Chrysler is making an expensive bet that its new 300 C will score big against what it sees as bland, "copycat" Japanese cars. If they can overcome quality and reliability reservations from the past, they may just have a winner -- a car that recalls some of the excitement American cars seemed to routinely generate in years long gone by.

Ralph Kinney Bennet recently wrote for TCS about "Car Bombs vs. Human Beings."


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