By Keith Boonstra
I was pretty much like any other kid born lucky enough to sort out his teenage years in the 1950s. We were fascinated with automobiles, and the cars of that age were going through an amazing metamorphosis of re-design that was exciting and fantastic. Designers and engineers were collaborating to re-imagine the bulbous styling and wallowing performance of the ’40s cars and transform them in a rocket-inspired flurry that took us by surprise in year-after-year revelations.
We could hardly wait for each new year’s car designs to be unveiled at the local dealerships. And the dealers themselves did what they could to encourage this frenzy by covering up the new models every autumn as they arrived and keeping them behind whitewashed showroom windows until the official announcement date. We would literally count down the days to the new-model car introductions, and even try to peek through the shop windows of the dealerships beforehand to catch just a glimpse.
It was during this period that Chrysler built its limited edition offering — from 1955 through 1965 — of its Chrysler 300 “Letter Car” series, with the early ones being designed by the talented Virgil Exner. These cars were not actually the beginning of what later became known as muscle cars, with their big engines in in intermediate bodies; but they were the very first over-the-top high horsepower cars to be offered as stock in any manufacturer’s showrooms.
As a kid I was always fascinated by anything mechanical, so I took a few of my hard-earned paper route dollars and spent them on a subscription to Mechanix Illustrated. Tom McCahill was the magazine’s new-car tester at that time. He was a big goofy guy and he loved to throw the superlatives around in describing the looks and the handling of every car he squeezed into. I remember well that his standard of acceptability for trunk space was always whether or not he could fit into it. The bigger, the better.
Well, nothing got this teenage boy’s heart pumping (almost nothing anyway) like the May 1957 issue where Ol’ Tom test drove the ’57 Chrysler 300C. He described it as an absolutely gorgeous car, and you could just tell by its huge tailfins that it could fly. The Chrysler 300C was a factory-built hot rod that came with a 392-cid Hemi engine that Chrysler had tricked out with two Carter four-barrels, solid lifters, a race-grind cam, and a whole bunch of other neat upgrades to pound out 375 horses in stock form! People called it the “Banker’s Hot Rod.” It was big, and fancy, and fast. Tom raved about what an absolute machine it was, and claimed — with a bit of puffery — that it would do 150 mph. I knew right then that it was all I could ever want in a car!
I totally dog-eared that May issue of Mechanix Illustrated reading about the 300C over and over, and I dreamed that someday I might actually be able to buy one. As the years went by I never lost my fascination with the Chrysler “Letter Cars”. So in September of 1962 I knew a stroke of luck was just meant to be mine when I was looking to buy my first car, and I saw a used Gauguin Red 300C for sale about 25 miles from home in Grand Rapids, I couldn’t wait to drain my savings account of the $850 it took to buy it off the seller’s front lawn. That was nearly every dollar I had, but I happily agreed to trade it for the most fantastic car in the world.
On the Friday evening I picked the car up, I had planned a date with Judy, the gal who would later become my wife. What a night that was going be. A date with a gorgeous girl — and in the car of my dreams.
Well, unfortunately that thrill lasted all of 20 minutes. As I was driving my awesome, newly acquired ride to pick up my girlfriend, I stepped it down to pass another car. I had downshifted to second gear, and I swear I hadn’t even reached 75 miles an hour, when that Hemi engine — that Chrysler work of art — blew to smithereens in a humongous cloud of blue smoke.
I was devastated as I let it roll to the shoulder of the road. I got out and walked, numb in disbelief, to a nearby farmhouse to phone a buddy. I asked him to grab a tow rope, pick up my girl, and come help me out. He arrived after what seemed like an eternity, and we dragged the car to my dad’s house. Then we spent the evening on a double date in my buddy’s car with him and his girlfriend. I tried to buck up and enjoy the evening somehow, but I’m pretty sure I was lousy company.
Over the next couple of months, and with the generous help of a mechanic friend of my dad’s, we were able to literally patch the engine back together. We took 5 lbs. of parts out of the oil pan, welded a 4×4 patch over a hole in the oil pan, sleeved two cylinders, replaced two pistons and four bent valves, and reground the crankshaft. The wholesale cost of the parts alone for that Hemi was $481 — an amount that probably would have bought a Chevy 283 long-block from Sears Roebuck at the time. And for all this, the mechanic “put me on the cuff” and let me work the bill down by pumping gas for him on Saturdays for several months. You can believe I was a grateful and loyal customer of his shop for many decades after that. It’s 54 years so far.
Judy and I loved that car and we had a lot of fun dating in it for a too-short year and a half. Even back in that day it drew a lot of attention and respect on the local cruise circuit because nobody else owned one anywhere around us in west Michigan. On a deserted road it would take a legendary 409 Chevy to show us a back bumper in the quarter-mile. But if it went beyond that, the 300C was off in the sunset.
I’m still not sure whether the attraction was me or the car that tipped the deal, but my girl agreed to marry me in 1964. Unfortunately we were both still in school at the time, so that meant we could either afford to keep the Chrysler or get married, but not both. Back in those days it was not at all surprising that a seven-year-old car was ready for paint, chrome, tires, exhaust, brakes and tires — all at the same time. I loved that 10 mph Chrysler, but not as much as I loved my wife. We simply could not afford it, and the car had to go.
I advertised the 300C in Hot Rod magazine in the spring of ’64, and a fellow by the name of Fred Luther from Muskegon came to see the car and bought it from me for $650. When he came to pick it up a couple of days later, it surprised me that he arrived in a rusted-out and raggedy white ’57 300C, and just for chuckles he let me thrash that car for a few miles out in the pucklebrush before he and his son drove off with my Gauguin Red car back to his home in Muskegon. The vivid memory of that bittersweet day has never left me.
We bought a Valiant, got married, had kids, changed jobs a few times, moved around, and life was wonderful; but we never forgot the fantastic 300C we had dated in. I never even saw one on the road in the following years, but I did often dream that we might be able to buy one some day again — maybe even in Gauguin Red like our old one was. So I joined the Chrysler 300 Club International in the late ’70s with the hope that someone there could help me find one.
Then in 1981 something strange happened. An acquaintance of mine by the name of Bill mentioned that he had a good friend, Dave, who was really into these Chrysler 300 Letter Cars and owned at least a dozen of them. He doubted Dave had my old car, but thought he might be able to help me find one. I immediately called Dave and chatted for a while about his collection of 300s. Then he said he had heard of me before, and also of Fred Luther in Muskegon. Then Dave dropped this bombshell — as far as he knew Fred still had the very car he had bought from me some 17 years earlier! Wow!
After thanking Dave profusely for coming up with Fred’s name and information about our very own 300C after all these years, I could hardly wait to phone Fred in the hope that I could persuade him to sell it back to me. As luck would have it, Fred was still in the phone book and I called him. He remembered buying the car from me, and we talked for about 20 minutes about what a great car that was. He told me that he had scrapped out the raggedy white 300C, and that he had swapped its engine into my Gaugin Red car instead of the patch job engine it had.
Now it was time for me to move in with my pitch. I said that I could tell that he probably loved that car too much to part with it, but it would sure mean a lot to me if I could just drive up and visit it for old times’ sake. “Well,” he said, “I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. I don’t have the car anymore. I sold it just three months ago to a young fellow near Cleveland by the name of Vic.”
Three months? I missed it by three lousy months? Aw, man, after all this my good luck had finally run its course, and I had barely missed getting our dating car back. Well, at least Fred offered the phone number for Vic, and I called him. “Vic,” I said, “You have my old dating car, and I absolutely have to have it back. Name your price.” “Sorry,” said Vic, “I love the car and I’ll never sell it under any condition. So find yourself another one.” I was convinced he meant it.
So over the next couple of years I kept looking for another 300C, but I would also phone Vic every few months to ask him to sell me “my car”. The answer was always the same. “I told you I am keeping it, so you might as well quit bothering me. Go find another one.” But on an October afternoon in 1983, I got a strange call from the Chrysler 300 Club president. He said Vic had just called an ad in to the club publication to sell our car. And didn’t I want it?
Within moments I was on the phone with Vic. He apologized for not calling me first, and gave me the price he was asking. I told him the deal was sealed at his price, and then I asked him what so suddenly changed his mind. He said he was getting divorced and his wife had a pretty mean streak in her. “Last week she took a shot at me with a .45”, he said, “but she missed. This week she told me she is going to burn down the garage with the Chrysler in it, and I believe she will. So if you really want that car, you’d better get here tomorrow before she torches it.”
I grabbed a flight to Cleveland the very next next morning, and Vic picked me up at the airport at 8 am. We quickly drove out to where he kept the 300C, and we wasted no time barreling out of that planned demolition site. Then we went over to Vic’s house where we traded cash for title, and I hit the highway for home in west Michigan. The day was drizzly and overcast for the entire drive home, but it was one of the proudest, most beautiful days in memory to me. And what a thrill it was to pull into our driveway 5 hours later and show it off to my wife and two teenagers!
Over the next 26 years we would occasionally get the car out for a car show or a local parade, but mostly it was just mothballed and waiting for me to give it the full restoration it needed so badly. Finally, in 2009 I lifted the hood one day and thought, “I’ll bet it would look better under here if I spent maybe $40 and painted the inner fenders.” I could tell you the whole story of what happened from there, but it would be all too familiar.
With the help of a body shop, we burrowed down until we ran out of bad stuff to fix. We didn’t stop until all that was left was a rolling frame. Then I built the car back up, piece by meticulously restored piece, until the whole car was fresh and essentially brand new. Nearly two years after we started I worked right through an entire night to finish it up for the deadline of entering it in a car show at a.m.. Five hours later it took home a blue ribbon. It’s looking and driving better now than any day since it rode off the Chrysler Jefferson Avenue plant production line.
Since then we’ve put on several thousand miles driving to Chrysler 300 Club meets, and other car shows and cruises, and it thrills us every time. We know we are one of very few couples who have the privilege of owning the very same car they dated in after so many years.
This spring (May 18-22) Judy and I are going to host the Chrysler 300 Club International meet right here in Holland, Mich. We hope to have about three dozen of the Chrysler 300 Letter Cars — the “Beautiful Brutes” — rumbling into town for socializing, cruises, and sightseeing in one of the most attractive and friendly places in the country. Needless to say, our 300C will be the featured car.
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