Something in the Heir: To drive the Chrysler 300 Hemi C is to  breathe deeply of tradition
Natalie Neff
AutoWeek (7/10/2000)

As of July 2001">

Something in the Heir: To drive the Chrysler 300 Hemi C is to  breathe deeply of tradition
Natalie Neff
AutoWeek (7/10/2000)

As of July 2001, The 300 Hemi C is back on for the 2004 model year! One can only hope Chrysler brings this concept into production. We shall see.

I am sad to report that very well-placed rumors state that DaimlerChrysler has killed the 300HemiC project. In my opinion, DaimlerChrysler is being extremely short -sighted in killing such a well-received concept car.

You'll find them all over this car, under the hood, even in its name: fingerprints. They're the fingerprints of a company keenly aware of its own history, of engineers with a respect for tradition and designers with a real passion for cars. Many of those prints belong to Joseph Dehner. The 300 Hemi C is his vision of what it means to be called a Chrysler.

 

Call it destiny, if you will, or his calling, but even as a kid, Dehner knew he wanted to work with cars. With the roar of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway minutes outside his bedroom window and lazy summer days spent at the drag strip at Indianapolis Raceway Park, the race cars of Indy big and small lured him with their V8 siren songs. Dehner got hooked. ``I kind of had it in my blood from the beginning,'' says the DaimlerChrysler senior design manager. He even had a few of his own project cars growing up, cars that he and his father, a product engineer at General Motors, would work on when he wasn't down at the strip watching other people's project cars burn rubber. Indy is as good a breeding ground for car guys as any.

It was this childhood spent around muscle cars that gave Dehner the derring-do to design a 353-hp, V8-powered, rear-drive luxury sports car for an automaker without a passenger-car V8--or rear-drive car platform--in its lineup.

 Dehner brought his car-guy credentials and a degree in automotive design to Chrysler 10 years ago, fresh out of the Cleveland Institute of Art. Today he spends most of his time in the studio working on production cars, where his team stays busy scrawling designs for everything from the Neon to the Town & Country. The designers on his team are responsible for anything that falls under Chrysler's passenger-car umbrella, even the Dodge Intrepid Winston Cup car that debuts next season. The job doesn't leave much time for project cars anymore, at least not the wrench-it-in-your-own-garage kind. They've been replaced by new ones built of pencil and paper. ``I told [then design director] Neil Walling that's the reason why I came to Chrysler: the show cars.''

Luckily for Dehner the chance to doodle comes regularly. Once a year, Chrysler puts the call out to its design studios for concept ideas. ``Everybody submits a sketch,'' says Dehner. ``It's very free-spirited. There will be like a zillion sketches. I call it a sketch-a-rama.'' Of the zillion, only a handful get the nod. Last year that nod went to Dehner. His sketches were of what he calls ``an aggressive bottom-breather with a predominant bottom grille,'' a short front overhang and long, voluptuous drop-top proportions. Much has changed in the 300 Hemi C's evolution from those original sketches to the working model, but Dehner's design won over the Chrysler higher-ups, perhaps because somewhere in those first 20-by-30-inch pencil drawings, Chrysler saw a reflection of its past--and caught a glimpse of its future.

Forty-five years ago, Virgil Exner saved Chrysler. By 1954, the automaker was in serious trouble. Its market share had slipped to 13 percent, and the company had yet to recover from the Airflow disaster 20 years prior, the last time Chrysler had taken a real styling risk. So while its cars were praised for their engineering, they looked increasingly stuffy and old-fashioned next to the modern-looking offerings from GM and Ford.

It was as much an act of courage as desperation that Exner, Chrysler's chief designer, transformed the company's entire lineup for 1955, using what he called the ``Forward Look.'' It was a design strategy meant to imbue a car with a sense of forward motion, of speed. The stodgy, upright Imperials and DeSotos of '54 took on more aggressive stances, their squared-off two-box designs making way for modern shapes full of movement. But it was Exner's magnum opus, the 300 ``Letter'' series, that redefined the automaker. Here was the first successful meshing of Chrysler engineering and world-class styling. Exner tapped the imaginations of the buying public, giving it not only good design, but design the public wanted--and design that was all Chrysler's--now with power unmatched by the automaker's rivals. The '57 300 C took Exner's Forward Look to its height, perfecting the tailfins introduced by Cadillac in a drop-top beauty that tore up the sand at Daytona Beach's Flying Mile as easily as it turned heads.

Exner couldn't have known that Forward Look would mean so much more; that decades down the road, Chrysler would embrace a new design ethic called ``Cab Forward'' that would echo Exner's Forward Look, both in name and in theory, and in doing so would rediscover Exner's flair for making good, distinctive design popular.

Or that Chrysler would become the master of the concept car, the embodiment of an automaker looking forward into its own future, searching in a model hammered out of steel and plastic for a vision of what it wants to become. At first glance, the 300 Hemi C belies its history. Under its sleek skin pulses the heart of a muscle car, and a spirit not only of those quarter-mile screamers that captured the youthful Dehner's imagination, but of Exner and his vision of popular style and true performance. It's no mistake, then, that this car's first name is 300 and its last is Hemi--yet there are those who will doubt the car's pedigree. The 300 Hemi C is striking, though it certainly doesn't look like a Letter-series car, at least not Virgil Exner's. ``It's going to draw some comparison based on the name,'' says Dehner, who concedes that some people will insist the 300 Hemi C borrows the '57 300 C's dual-headlight design, or uses an inverted version of the '57 model's grille. Others might see traces of the original '55 300 C, but Dehner says it's not deliberate, conscious mimicry. ``If it's going to touch that emotional nerve, that's what is important.'' The 300 Hemi C's face is dominated by Chrysler's signature egg-crate grille and a hood lip that dips down to define the upper edge of its scalloped headlights. Below sits a horizontal air intake and fog lamps. Thin chrome accent moldings, front brake side vents and aggressive wheel flares accentuate the car's sides, while the rear is marked by Chrysler's winged badge in the center and simple taillights that wrap around the corners. It's a clean, elegant design that depends on little aggressive body sculpting to emphasize its lines.

 

The same goes for the 300 Hemi C's interior, which meshes seamlessly with the exterior even though responsibility for its design fell to another man, Lance Wagner, senior design manager. The door panels, seats and dash are swathed in two-tone beiges in leather and vinyl, with little ornamentation save for some modest wood trim pieces and a touch of chrome here and there. Four white-faced gauges line the instrument panel, and a clock borrowed from the 300M sits above the center console. Within the console is an innovative security system that uses both a fingerprint scanner and a camera. Both the driver's fingerprint and photo must match information stored in the system before the car can be started. 

 

Overall, the 300 Hemi C looks much like Chrysler's 300M, an intentional move on the automaker's part. ``It's not very often that a show car is influenced by a production car,'' says Dehner, but it's in this fact where doubt regarding pedigree emerges. That's because the 300M, while stylish, sits on a front-drive chassis and is powered by a V6, hardly the stuff of muscle. The 300 Hemi C is all about rear-drive, Hemi V8 performance. In theory, anyway. On a recent test drive on Fisher Island in Miami, we didn't learn much about the 300 Hemi C's driving dynamics, and didn't expect to. It's a show car after all; that it drives at all is amazing considering it went from sketch to completion in 32 weeks. Its exaggerated 20-inch wheels give it a turning radius of about three city blocks. And with a speed limit of 19 mph--not 20 mph, 19--the island limited what we could feel of the engine, or even the car's Roush-fabricated four-wheel independent suspension. Still, sitting behind the wheel gave us a good taste for what driving the car could be like. As we made our way around the members-only island, a colonnade of towering palms shimmered overhead, their fronds dancing in the sweltering sky. Flamingos stood like lawn ornaments in ponds and fountains, soaking up the coolness of the water, while we, swaddled in leather, broiled in the thick Miami heat. The air conditioning controls, like most of the 300 Hemi C's controls, are dummies, but it didn't matter. It was a glorious ride, top down, sunglasses on and the growl of the engine in our ears.

Chrysler engineers looked at a lot of engines before settling on the Hemi. ``The vehicle needed something of this size,'' says John Rundels, director of concept and specialty vehicles programs at Chrysler. ``We've done other engines of that size [for concepts], including the straight-eight in the Atlantic and the V12 in the Phaeton. ``So we went out and saw what engines [powertrain] was doing. Maybe you look at a V16 for a few days, then something else for a while. Then you hear across the street that someone is working on a Hemi,'' says Rundels. The choice was made simple. ``We have this prototype that looks like it wants this engine,'' says Bill Presley, engineering specialist for concept and specialty vehicles. ``But then packaging becomes a problem, especially when you're talking about wedging a 5.7-liter engine in a car with a hood profile'' like the 300 Hemi C's. The good thing was that while packaging was difficult, it posed less of a problem than using Chrysler's production 4.7-liter V8, which the automaker briefly looked at. The 4.7, used in last year's Charger concept, never was much of a candidate with its overhead cams and the increased size associated with the layout. Presley says the 5.7 is an inch smaller in all dimensions, making the job of fitting it in the engine bay, if not easy, then easier than the 4.7.

Besides, it's a Hemi. Those four little letters conjure up a whirlwind of history, of Daytona wins and sky-high wings, of banishment from motorsports for too much power. And all of that history is Chrysler's.

That growl comes from an all-new 5.7-liter Hemi V8, not the 331-cid engine of the original '55 300 C or the famed 426 Hemi of the '60s. The iron-block, aluminum-head prototype mill uses a pushrod design like the originals, as well as true hemispherical combustion chambers. It displaces 353 cubic inches, and in true muscle-car fashion, pumps out an estimated 1 horsepower per cubic inch. Chrysler estimates torque tops out at 353 lb-ft, thanks in large part to its two-valve layout and pushrod design.

The 300 Hemi C just the flavor Chrysler was after, the engine does employ a couple of modern touches, including its use of cylinder deactivation and dual sparks. Similar to the system found in the Mercedes S-Class, the engine deactivates valve actuation for up to four cylinders during cruising conditions. The twin sparks provide more complete combustion. Working together, both systems ensure the Hemi turns out reasonable fuel economy and emissions numbers. Poor economy spelled the eventual demise of Chrysler's last Hemi during the fuel crunch of the '70s. The 5.7, however, is still a prototype, and Chrysler won't divulge any more details of the engine. While some believe it will replace the aging 5.9-liter V8 truck motor, Chrysler insists that the 5.9 has a lot of life left with the company. Don't be surprised, however, if the engine makes it into production before the 300 Hemi C, most likely in the Ram. Whether Chrysler will indeed produce the car--or the similarly rear-wheel-driven Dodge Charger--is the center of much debate. The buzz says both cars could arrive on the same platform in the 2003/2004 time frame, but that leaves time enough for plans to change. 

There are at least two factors involved in the decision-making process. First, Chrysler doesn't have a rear-drive car platform in its portfolio beyond the specially built Prowler and Viper. Platform-sharing would allow the automaker to spread the costs of development over more cars, and starting from scratch in designing would incur a great deal more cost than just building another front-drive car. Second, and perhaps more significant, is whether Chrysler's German executives would allow it to build a car that encroaches on Mercedes' territory. Mercedes sees itself as the company's luxury rear-drive representative. Some fear competition from Chrysler in the form of the 300 Hemi C could cannibalize sales of Mercedes' own luxury convertibles such as the CLK Cabrio. Others suggest that Chrysler plays in a league different from Mercedes, that a production 300 Hemi C would be priced too far below a CLK to court the same buyers. And many consumers still view Chrysler more as a maker of minivans and Neons than of luxury cars. Still, the rear-drive luxury image is one that Mercedes folks jealously guard. So even if Chrysler wanted to give the 300 Hemi C the go-ahead, Stuttgart might have the final say.

 

 

Despite all the hurdles, if Chrysler manages to build the 300 Hemi C, it wouldn't necessarily surprise consumers. In the last decade, Chrysler has forged a new tradition of turning concepts into reality, first with the Viper, followed shortly by the Prowler and now the PT Cruiser. Other concepts foretold the styling of such cars as the Intrepid, but with these three, in particular, the production versions held very true to the original concepts. And in all three cases, they taught us something about how Chrysler sees itself and what we should expect from it in the future. Viper made us believe in Dodge's sportiness; Prowler in Plymouth's funkiness; and PT Cruiser in Chrysler's classic stylishness. And there's more to attach the 300 Hemi C to Chrysler's own history than a name. It fulfills the spirit in which Exner first envisioned the Letter series, both in Dehner's original idea and Chrysler's execution. That bodes well for its success, certainly, if it's ever built. Again, that's a big if. No concept has been approved for production since the merger between Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. Regardless, Chrysler believes in the value of a concept car for its own sake. ``A show car is the quickest way of showing people inside and out of the company what the future of the brand is,'' says Dehner. If the Hemi C is looking forward, Chrysler's future looks bright.

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