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by John Gunnell  More from Author

The 1958 Chrysler 300 D

This is the story of the only Chrysler 300 D that ever left the factory in the unique color which still graces its high-tail-finned body today. We’ll also cover the fascinating history of the early Chrysler 300 Letter Cars, but first let’s look at the story behind this particular 300 D.

Hot Cars in Cool Colors

Many car collectors are familiar with Miller Motors, which sits in Ypsilanti, Michigan’s historic Depot Town and was preserved for years as “the Last Hudson Dealership.” Today, it operates as the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum and is one of two anchor sites for the city’s historic district. Jack Miller’s building was originally constructed in 1892 for an electric company, and it became one of the first Dodge dealerships in 1916.

This particular car was purchased new by Carl Miller, Jack’s father, who bought the dealership in 1944 and owned it until 1958. Carl Miller had been raised on a farm south of Ypsilanti. Later, his parents moved into the city and ran a taxi service and livery barn. Eventually, Carl started selling Oldsmobiles, and then, in 1933, he got his own Hudson franchise. Jack entered the auto sales business, as well.

Ironically, Miller Motors had its best sales year in 1958, but American Motors Corporation (formed in 1954 by the merger of Hudson and Nash) was pressuring dealers to upgrade their facilities. Carl wanted none of that, so AMC terminated his franchise. That same year, Carl went out and bought himself a new Chrysler 300 D hardtop. He fell in love with the car and owned it until he died in 1973. It was later sold to Jack Miller’s brother-in-law, Jack Wiltse.

As a dealer, Carl knew about the powerful Chrysler 300s that had won many stock car races, just as Hudson had done earlier in the 1950s. Since he could no longer buy a Hudson, he decided upon the Chrysler 300 D. He liked all of his cars to be the same color, and so he paid about $25 extra and special-ordered his hot-performing hardtop in a hue called Sandalwood Poly.

“Windows 58”

Carl Miller treated his Chrysler like a jewel and always kept it garaged at night in a special corner of his dealership, which had transitioned to selling used cars. The car was babied all its life, until Carl developed a bad case of emphysema and could no longer go out. At that point, his daughter took him in, and the car was brought to the house and parked in the driveway, right outside his bedroom window. “He liked to sit in bed and look out the window at the car all day,” Jack Wiltse recalls. The Chrysler remained outside for almost an entire year, until Carl passed away.

“My late wife Mar Lou [Carl’s daughter] didn’t like the car very much then and would cuss at it for always being in her way,” Wiltse remembers. “Whenever she brought grocery bags back from the store, she had to fight her way around the big Chrysler. Wiltse admits that Mar Lou later came to love the car. “She could put that Chrysler through the quarter mile pretty fast and ran the distance in 16.02 seconds at 88 mph when the Chrysler 300 Club International had one of its meets at Englishtown Raceway,” says Wiltse. “I couldn’t repeat that or beat that, because she had the accelerator timing down better than I did.”

After Carl passed on, Jack Miller kept the car in its special corner inside the Hudson dealership. Wiltse would come down about once a year to exercise it with a ride of 50 miles or so. “One day I came down and Jack said ‘You like that old Chrysler, don’t you?’” Wiltse recalls. “Then, he said that he guessed it was half mine anyhow, so did I want to buy it from him for a pretty reasonable price?” Wiltse thinks he made the purchase in 1973, the same year Carl died.

An In-Tents Situation

Jack Wiltse has owned the car ever since. It was totally untouched and unrestored, until Chrysler Corporation borrowed it one day in 2000 or 2001. The automaker was bringing out its luxurious new Chrysler 300 M and promoting the idea that the new car picked up where the 300 L had left off in 1965. Chrysler wanted 300 Letter Cars from various years to display at the introduction. The company planned to borrow Jack Wiltse’s 300 D for a week, but on that Friday night, a severe thunderstorm blew in, and the tent that the classic cars were displayed in came tumbling down.

“It really messed up the car,” Wiltse admitted. “The hood, roof and fins were all damaged. I sent it to New York and had it redone by a body shop owner there who knows 1958 Chrysler 300s inside out. Chrysler paid for their share of the job and I kicked in some of my own money to take the work a little farther and have a complete restoration done.” The shop had to have Kodak come in and do scans to ensure an exact match of the rare paint. “We found a remaining spot of the original paint under the base of the radio antenna, and they matched it perfectly,” says Wiltse. 

Carl Miller’s car has had an exceptional existence, but all of the Chrysler 300s had something special going for them – clearly something that Carl saw from the get-go.

History of the First Four Letter Cars  

Although one of the world’s greatest future thinkers — Albert Einstein — passed away in 1955, others at that time were focused on visions of tomorrow. Walt Disney’s brand new Disneyland theme park, in Anaheim, California, was a place that encouraged visitors to ride the Monorail to Tomorrowland — an attraction based on “Imagineering” what the future would bring.

Chrysler did a little Imagineering of its own when it brought the “Forward Look” to the automotive world in 1955. That was the same year it launched the high-performance Chrysler 300, and both innovations would have a major impact on automotive history.

The Forward Look — also known as “The 100-Million Dollar Look” (after the amount of money reportedly spent on getting it to market) — transformed Chrysler’s old box-on-box image to one of a fighter jet on wheels. The rakish new styling imparted a sensation of speed even when the cars were standing still.

“THE FORWARD LOOK is an all-new style that catches your eye and holds it!” said ads. “The most graceful wrap-around windshield is swept back and fully wrapped around, not only at the bottom, but at the top, too . . . adding to the flowing lines of the car and giving you the widest eye-level visibility of the road!”

The Forward Look significantly increased Chrysler sales. “The 36.6 percent output decline suffered in 1954 was followed by prospects of a ‘golden harvest’ for 1955,” said Ward’s Automotive Yearbook. By the end of the year, the company reported an all-time high of 164,500 sales at the retail level, with record months in February (17,076 units) and April (16,793 units). While the Chrysler 300 didn’t sell in big numbers, it was a great “image” car that brought buyers into Chrysler showrooms for a look.

Introduced on February 10, 1955 at the Chicago Auto Show, the Chrysler 300 (actually C-300) was the brainchild of Bob Rodgers, a Chrysler engineer and auto enthusiast. Rodgers had watched earlier Chryslers struggle through the Mexican Road Races of the early 1950s that brought so much publicity to Oldsmobile and Lincoln. He realized that Chrysler now needed an image car to compete with the likes of Chevrolet’s Corvette and Ford’s Thunderbird. He created such a car, at very low cost, by basing the C-300 on the Chrysler New Yorker hardtop and incorporating mostly pre-existing heavy-duty parts that Chrysler had made available to the racers in Mexico.

The first 300 was given an Imperial grille, leather upholstery and a version of the Hemi V-8 fitted with dual four-barrel carburetors. The body was stripped of extraneous chrome trim for a cleaner-than-normal appearance. Special “300” badges and chrome lettering (denoting the advertised horsepower rating) were applied to the body. Nicknamed “The Beautiful Beast,” the 300 was taken to the racetrack and won the 1955 NASCAR Grand National Stock Car Racing Championship and the AAA Stock Car Racing Championship. Only 1,725 Chrysler C-300s were made, but they had an impact on sales by bringing buyers into dealerships where they purchased less expensive cars that looked almost the same.

In 1956, the high-performance coupe returned as the Chrysler 300 B, a name that gave the series its well-known “Chrysler Letter Car” tag. The 300 B again used the Imperial-type grille, instead of the standard 1956 Chrysler grille, but it did adopt the new “Flight Sweep” rear fenders.

One futuristic new feature for 1956 was a Push-button PowerFlite automatic transmission. A pod to the left of the driver had four buttons marked “N” (neutral), “D” (drive), “L” (low) and “R” (reverse). “Push that ‘D’ button and step on the gas,” said ad copywriters.

Stuck between the Letter Car’s grille halves was a distinctive “300” emblem, and under the hood was a “Firepower” Hemi V-8 bored out to 354 cubic inches. In the 300 B, a 340-hp version with a 9.0:1 compression ratio and two four-barrel carburetors was standard. An optional Hemi with a 10.0:1 compression ratio was available. It produced 355 hp at 5200 rpm – more than one horsepower per cubic inch. However, this engine was limited to stock car racers or special buyers.

Chrysler didn’t advertise its 1956 horsepower ratings, probably due to pressure from the Automobile Manufacturers Association, which was trying to downplay the horsepower race going on at this time. The company did, however, make it clear that it had some of the most powerful cars on the American highway. The 1956 models were promoted as “PowerStyle Chryslers,” and the Hemi engine was often referred to in advertisements as “the airplane-type V-8.” The 300 was priced at $4,242, and only 1,102 were made

In 1957, the mighty Chrysler 300 took the Forward Look one step further with its towering tail fins and new “Flight Sweep” styling. The appearance was totally different from 1956. In addition to the fins, there was a massive new bumper grille with wide, horizontal parking lights under wraparound bumper wings. Dual headlights were optionally available, but only allowed in a few states. The 300 looked longer, lower and wider, but the wheelbase was unchanged, and overall length was actually slightly reduced.

“Torsion-Aire Ride” was Chrysler’s name for a new front suspension system employing torsion bars instead of springs. This system was said to do a better job of absorbing road shocks and providing more level stops, starts and turns. Chrysler claimed improved handling. A new Torque-Flite automatic transmission was also standard in 300s. This three-speed transmission was again operated by push buttons placed in a pod to the driver’s left. Torque-Flite was said to be smoother and quieter than PowerFlite, giving better on-the-road performance in every gear range.

Labeled the 300 C, the third Chrysler 300 had a unique trapezoid-shaped grille. A chrome molding on the rear quarters “speared” a circular medallion carrying a red, white and blue 300 badge. Functional brake-cooling vents were incorporated below the headlights. New this year was the Chrysler 300 convertible, priced at a hefty $5,294.

The Hemi V-8 used in the 300 had a high-lift camshaft, extra-stiff valve springs and two four-barrel carburetors. It delivered 375 hp at 520 rpm. A special 390-hp version with solid valve lifters was made available on a limited basis for racing. It had a 10.0:1 compression ratio and four-bolt cast-iron exhaust headers with a 2-1/2-inch, low-back-pressure exhaust system. A Dodge three-speed manual transmission was used in cars fitted with this engine. Chrysler built only 1,918 Chrysler 300 C hardtops and 484 convertibles.  

Appearance-wise, the 1958 300 D had new front end styling with a rectangular grid facing above the center horizontal grille bar and a full-width air scoop below. Dual headlights were standard on all Chryslers this season. The Chrysler Letter Car had an overall cleaner look than other Mopars, with its trapezoid grille and only one straight rear fender molding that intersected a large, round red, white and blue “300 D” badge. This series offered a two-door hardtop for $5,173 and a convertible for $5,603. Chrysler built just 618 of the 1958 sport coupes and 191 ragtops.

All of the low-production, high-performance 300 Ds — including Jack Wiltse’s car — had a compression ratio boost. The Letter Car power plant was a hopped-up 380-hp Hemi, again with dual four-barrel carbs. A rare fuel-injected version with 390 hp was released, but this option was later recalled, and only a few cars were not converted back to standard 380-hp specifications.

Jack Wiltse brought the 300 to the Spring 2008 Meet of the Chrysler 300 Club International in Eagle River, Wisconsin, but he’s not sure he’ll make the 2009 Spring Meet in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After tipping over a rolling mechanic’s stool in his garage, Jack started having knee pain and wound up undergoing knee replacement surgery. “The medical stuff went very well, but the only problem is that my knee still hurts when I do one thing — push down on the accelerator.” Since 300 Letter Cars beg to be driven pedal-to-the metal style, Jack can’t guarantee the car will be at Lancaster, but he is going to try it. “After all, the club members really enjoy seeing a ’58 that’s been special since the day it was made,” he says.

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