Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Ron Knoll figured if he made a make in buying his 1963 Chrysler 300, he had a built-in excuse. He could just blame his grand kids.
“I bought this car back in 2001 when I was taking my granddaughters out for their birthday,” chuckles Knoll, of his dandy 1963 Indy Pace Setter. “They saw it parked on the side of the road and said ‘Grandpa, is that like your car?' I have a ’63 Sport Fury, and I said ‘No but it’s the same year.’ They thought I should buy it.
“So I went back the next day, called the guy and took it for a ride. He said, 'Do you like it?' I said 'Yeah, but it’s got some problems.’ He said. ‘Do you want to buy it? I said, 'I do.’”
The Alonquin, Ill., resident had a price in mind, and when the seller agreed to the figure the deal was quickly made and Knoll had a running mate to his Sport Fury. And it’s a unique and collectible one at that. Knoll’s Chrysler is one of 33 that were used for actual track duty at the 1963 race. After the race track was done with it, the car was sold to a real estate developer from Arizona, and from there the ragtop bounced around to a series of owners. Knoll wound up buying the car from a youth minister in Illinois, and he’s been the happy caretaker for the past 15 years.
“I’m the eighth owner, and I’ve able to trace it all the way back. I’ve wanted to make up a sign for it and fill in all the names I know,” Knolls says.
Knoll bought the Chrysler to be a fun summertime driver and weekend show car more than a garage dweller, and he has stayed true to his plan. The convertible has more than 92,000 miles on the clock and most of them have come from Knoll, who has driven the car all over the country.
“At the time my ‘63 Sport Fury was being torn apart — by me — as a project and I thought, ‘I want to go to car shows.’ I could swing the money this time, so why not get it? I’ve driven it from coast to coast. It’s not a trailer queen… It’s been up and down the West Coast. We’ve been all over.”
He believes the Pace Setter had been mostly restored once by a previous owner in Arizona, but Knoll has also had some work done. “I have a mechanic that’s very good with the old cars in Crystal Lake, Ill. Had a new top on it,” he says. “I had it repainted, and these graphics just went on [this week]. My neighbor is a printer and he printed them up for me from a picture. “
“It had been painted once before. It was painted kind of poorly, actually, but my body shop guy in Algonquin took the car all winter … and he did a real nice job.”
Knoll still has the Chrysler 300’s original 383-cid V-8, but it’s not in the car. Knoll did an engine swap between his two 1963 Chryslers. He estimates the Pace Setter has a little over 56,000 on the current engine.
“The engine that came with it was leaking pretty bad around the main seals,” he says. “However, my younger brother, who was a mechanic, built a 383 for my Sport Fury: TRW cam and pistons and everything, and that was sitting on a motor stand. Then he was killed in a plane accident, unfortunately. [Eventually] my mechanic said, ‘Ron we have to pull that motor out this winter.’ I said when you have the motor out lets get the body guy over here and paint the engine compartment … then I have an engine for it.’ So we put that engine my brother built in and it fired right up instantly. He said, ‘Ron, your brother did a great job with this engine!’”
Born for the Brickyard
The 1963 Chrysler 300 Sport Series continued with the same body types as used in 1962. A later addition to the 300 lineup was the Pace Setter Series, introduced to commemorate the use of a 300 as the Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500 mile race. Pace Setter editions were identified by special interiors and a small checkered flag placed below the front fender 300 emblem. They had a special square-shaped steering wheel, as opposed to the round steering wheel used in other Sport 300s. Full leather was optional in cars with a bucket seat interior.
A total of 1,861 pace car convertible replicas and 306 hardtops were produced for Chrysler dealers at a base price of $4,129 for the ragtops and $3,769 for the coupes, which was $339 more than the standard versions. The cars shared the same 300 stable as the hardtop coupe, four-door sedan and four-door hardtop.
The Pace Setters carried the 383-cid/205-hp V-8s mated to a push-button Torqueflite automatic transmission. The cars were painted a turquoise that Chrysler called “Pace Car Blue.” “A friend of mine showed me a video of the cars pulling off the track and there was a white one and a maroon one, too,” Knoll noted. “The actual pace car they used and the backup were special because they put the 413-cubic inch Cross-Ram in them. The pace car was given to Parnelli Jones, and then it was stolen. They found the body a few years later and the drive train was missing. The backup car was given to the museum at the track.”
Back to fighting shape
Despite passing through a long list of owners, Knoll’s Chrysler 300 had never been driven steadily and at one point was off the road for a long stretch. The car never seemed to find an owner who wanted to spend a lot of time behind the wheel. “It sat in a barn for many years, I guess,” Knoll said. “Back in ‘63 — and then in the 1960s and ‘70s — people were not fired up about these cars. They weren’t really collector cars or cars that people desired.”
In addition to the paint, convertible top and engine swap, Knoll added a few more touches to his luxurious convertible. He took some of the loose play out of the power steering and added an electronic ignition, “but you can’t tell. I have no more points to worry about, and it’s very reliable.”
The freshly minted decals on Knoll’s car are removable, but he says they will always be on when he shows the car. “It probably needs some suspension work on the rubber and stuff, but on the open road I travel 70 no problem,” he said. “It’s a great cruising car.
“It doesn’t have a rough spot in it . I keep it clean and get it serviced regularly. I’m 74 now and I’m done doing oil changes and changing spark plugs. I’ve earned that now.” [laughs]
“I tell everybody that this is my kids’ inheritance and I’m just driving it for a while.”
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