Courtesy of Bonhams
  • Virgil Exner styling
  • 331-ci Hemi V8
  • 300 hp at 4,400 rpm
  • Dual Carter AFB carburetors
  • PowerFlite automatic transmission
  • Platinum White exterior
  • Beige leather interior
  • 12-volt electrics

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1955 Chrysler C-300
Years Produced:1955
Number Produced:1,725
Original List Price:$4,109
SCM Valuation:$56,000
Tune Up Cost:$250
Chassis Number Location:Left side door post
Engine Number Location:Left front side of engine block
Alternatives:1955 Buick Roadmaster convertible, 1956 Lincoln Premiere convertible, 1957 Chrysler 300C 2-door hard top
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot 80, sold for $36,960, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Carmel, CA, auction on August 15, 2019.

What was the first American muscle car? If we define a muscle car as a sporty 2-door hard top with big overhead-valve V8, then identifying the first one is as easy as tracing the OHV V8 back to its roots. Sorry, Pontiac guys — that means no 1964 GTO here. The beginning of American muscle really started in ’55, and strictly speaking, with the Hemi-powered Chrysler C-300.

Fast on the beach

Thanks to the interest and support of Mercury Marine engine builder Carl Kiekhaefer, the early Chrysler “letter cars” were record-setters on the sands of Daytona Beach. That’s where a C-300 turned in a flying mile at nearly 130 mph while also earning a ’55 NASCAR championship for Kiekhaefer and driver Tim Flock. This is where serious performance and style met.

However, one look at the 18.3-foot-long C-300 next to a 1955 MG TF or Corvette, and it would have been obvious that the Chrysler wasn’t going to win any road races against true sports cars of the time. That left Chrysler, lacking a sports car of its own manufacture, to brand its letter cars as “gentlemen’s expresses.” And so went the advertising, promising such virtues as a “100-Million-Dollar Look,” “flashing performance” and the “throaty roar of 300 hp.”

What Chrysler ended up with was a sporty car with seating for five and big power. That kicked off a movement that set the tone for American performance in the years that followed — and all the way into the modern world, with cars like the 707-hp Challenger SRT Hellcat still flying this same flag.

Overlooked, not outclassed

In my opinion, Chrysler is significantly overlooked in the collector world. As the top end of the Mopar family (Imperial included), Chrysler got the top engineering produced by the corporation, most famously including the Hemi V8, cross-ram intake manifolds, torsion-bar front suspension, electroluminescent instrumentation, and Sure-Grip limited-slip differentials. And the division’s commitment to racing in NASCAR and setting speed records on the sand of Daytona Beach did not escape notice by performance enthusiasts.

Was a 1955 Ferrari 375 MM with its SOHC V12 engine a superior performance car in the day? You bet. But only a handful were built compared with C-300s. And try driving through the snow to Grandmother’s house in the Ferrari.

To this auction lot in particular: One of only 1,725 C-300s built for the 1955 model year, it represents the first in a 10-year series of letter cars that Chrysler offered as high-horsepower, high-content drivers’ cars.

First and best?

The lot sold by Bonhams had pretty much all the right stuff. As stated above, it’s the first of Chrysler’s letter cars, decisively the first muscle car (based as it was on the relatively compact Windsor of the day and set up to win in NASCAR), is high in style, content and performance for its era, and is in short supply compared to the similarly image-leading Thunderbirds and Corvettes from FoMoCo and GM.

It’s true that international markets — including global trade, securities values and productivity — were chaotic during the 2019 Monterey Car Week, partly resulting in auction houses turning in subpar aggregate results.

Case in point: The C-300 has a current median valuation of $56,000 in the ACC Pocket Price Guide, but this car offered by Bonhams in Monterey sold just shy of $37k all-in. That’s a heck of a deal considering this car’s rarity, style and performance, the useful upgrade of front disc brakes, and two sets of wheels — the wire wheels shown and a spare set of steel wheels.

Overall, the car presented well, as reported by ACC Auction Analyst Mike Leven. The paint had some thin spots and chipping in places, but the car looked evenly worn. “Nice enough to stand out at most show ’n’ shine/Cars & Coffee events, but not so nice that you’d be afraid of driving it there. … Where’s a bidder’s paddle when you need one?” he said.

A forward look

Boomers are getting older now, and it’s true that their kids better connect with cars from the ’80s and ’90s than with Grandpa’s sleds of the ’50s.

But while an SRT Viper is an exciting proposition, the C-300 is where cars like it originally came from, and any buyer with a bit of “old soul” in them will be able to see past the Viper’s long hood and the esses at Road Atlanta and appreciate Exner’s exquisite Forward Look, a Hemi engine, and an imagined 130-mph thrill ride on the sands of Daytona Beach. Truly, it’s Mopar’s current performance soul, dressed in chrome, and this one was well worth the money spent in Monterey. Very well bought. 

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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