When a collection of the “best of the very best” American cars of the 1950s and 1960s went under the hammer early this month, more than $11-million and 113 pink slips changed hands on a single Saturday.
Featured among the cars and memorabilia from the Cars of Dreams Museum collection – assembled by auto dealer, entrepreneur and philanthropist John Staluppi – was a sub-collection of one of the most desirable high-performance rides of the era, Chrysler’s legendary 300 “letter cars”; also known as “the beautiful brutes.”
The auction – in North Palm Beach, Fla., the last of a record year for Ontario-based RM Auctions – presented a collection that reflected the car-desire dreams of a young Staluppi. Born into a hard-working Brooklyn family in 1947, he began his career operating service stations, then recognized the potential in an emerging Japanese brand called Honda, and wound up with 20 dealerships. Later, he just as perceptively took on Hyundai.
But while moving Asian tin might have been paying the bills, his heart had been well and truly lost to American iron. And the collection he assembled included restored examples of most of the flamboyantly-styled and powerful cars from the American industry’s golden age.
A 1956 Series 62 Cadillac convertible went for $299,750, while 1958 and 1960 Caddy Biarritz soft-tops fetched $206,250 each. A 1968 Shelby Mustang GT500-KR commanded $264,000 and a 1966 Mustang, $78,000.
Amid the museum’s sea of brilliantly hued paintwork and acres of sparkling chrome that buyers could pick and choose from, one group of vehicles stood apart: Chrysler’s original 300 letter series, created to slake Americans’ growing thirst in the 1950s for high performance, luxurious, large cars. These full-sized, two-door models were produced in limited numbers, designated alphabetically from B through L, between 1956 and 1965.
These “classic” versions aren’t to be confused with the non-letter Chrysler 300 series cars sold from the early 1960s into the 1970s. Chrysler resurrected the designation in 1999, with the Brampton, Ont.-built 300M, which was replaced for 2004, with a hemi-powered ‘C’ version topping the range.
The first of the original letter series, the C300, appeared in 1955.
Chrysler’s engineers had already developed an engine to meet the demand for higher performance in the new Firepower Hemi V-8 engine which, in its original, 331-cubic-inch form, made 180 hp. It was soon found under the hood of the New Yorker and Imperial, but also powered Chrysler sedans in the Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico and sports cars built by Briggs Cunningham that ran at Le Mans.
By 1954, Chrysler’s backroom-boys had created a handful or so of Hemi-equipped New Yorkers, which happened to find their way into the hands of some racers, who won a NASCAR race with one.
This new-found enthusiasm for performance (and its marketability) converged with a fresh styling approach for 1955 models and it was decided to highlight this with a prestige model, which would combine the best of Chrysler engineering with the best bits created by stylists.
The latter included the Imperial’s grille, the mid-section of the New Yorker and the rear quarters of the Windsor, which were neatly blended into a two-ton, two-door hardtop coupe body bracketed by simple base model bumpers. Chrome was kept to a minimum, and no side mirrors were fitted to reduce aero-drag. The only colour choices were black, white and red.
With Chrysler’s 331-cubic-inch (5.4-litre) Hemi under the hood, fitted with a solid-lifter cam and twin four-barrel carbs that helped boost output to 300 hp, 5,400 rpm and a two-speed automatic transmission, the 4,340-pound C300 could hit 60 mph in 10 seconds and had a top speed just shy of 128 mph (206 km/h).
The 300 designation related to the horsepower output – the first time that number had been offered in a North American production car – and the C stood for coupe.
It was a limited-production model – a “halo” car in today’s parlance – and only 1,725 were built in 1955, priced from $4,109. Where it proved a real winner was on the track, winning 37 major races, and getting its march to legendary status off to a good start.
The 1956 model was designated the 300B (beginning the alphabetical series) and was powered by a 355-hp, 354-cubic-inch (5.8-litre) Hemi, making it good for an astonishing 140 mph (225 km/h) – but sales dwindled to 1,102. For 1957, the now 300C wore a new look, which included a massive maw of a grille and bulbous chrome bumpers, and was offered for the first time as a convertible. The Hemi now boasted 392 cubic inches and 375 hp. Chrysler built 1,767 coupes and 484 convertibles.
A year later, the 300D, the last of the old Hemi-powered models hit 156 mph (262 km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats, but only 618 coupes and 191 convertibles were built. The Hemi was replaced by the 413-cubic-inch Golden Lion “Wedge” V-8 with the 1959 300E, of which 522 coupes and 125 convertibles were sold. The 300F of 1960 arrived with unibody construction and a new look, which bumped the build to 969 coupes and 248 convertibles.
The 300G of 1961 also sported a new look and, with the 300H of 1962, the 1950s-era fins were gone and competition arrived in the form of the non-letter 300 series. Sales dropped to 435 coupes and 135 convertibles. The 300J and 300K followed in 1963 and 1964, with the 300L of 1965 marking the end of the run for these uniquely American automobiles.
Why did Staluppi decide to sell this wonderful collection of cars? He’s apparently moving from Florida to the western United States and, rumour has it, will begin a new collection with a different focus.
“He felt he had completed what he set out to do with this collection,” says an RM Auctions spokesperson. “And, as is the case with many collectors, it’s all about the thrill of the chase.”
|Back in 1955|
|The word game Scrabble is introduced and goes on to sales of more than 150 million, in 121 countries and 29 languages. Also found on coffee tables is the first edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.|
|Bill Haley and His Comets bring teens to their feet with Rock Around The Clock, Walt Disney Studios launches Lady and The Tramp, and long-running duster Gunsmoke and singer Bo Diddley debut on CBS TV.|
|The Vietnam war starts, the United States develops nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, a bomb explodes inside a United Airlines DC-6 over Colorado, an El Al airliner is shot down by Bulgarian Migs and there are riots in Morocco and Algeria.|