Rust & Smoke: Chrysler engineers put 331 V8 engine in racing spotlight

At Chrysler, just as with GM, it was overhead-valve V8 engines that represented the cutting edge of mechanical innovation in the immediate post-World War II years.

But the resultant Chrysler version, a 331 c.i.d.

behemoth, with its high-compression, hemispherical combustion chamber, heavy-duty crank and block, double rocker shaft and massive head, was in a league of its own.

The Cadillac V8, with the same displacement, was left in the dirt by some 20 horsepower.

The merits, at least in the realm of speed and racing, of the new Chrysler engine were soon made apparent.

Race driver Briggs Cunningham had competed at LeMans in a special-bodied Cadillac and finished a disappointing 11th place.

At some point during this period the Chrysler V8 came to his attention as a possible replacement for future racing as well as the primary power plant choice for a limited production sports car that he and his team were designing.

The result was a boost for Chrysler engineers in the realm of understanding the demands placed on an engine with regard to high-speed endurance and performance.

For the company itself this translated into a great deal of public exposure.

It was during this time when plans were initiated to open the Indianapolis facility to stock car racing.

In preparation Chrysler developed several versions of the 331 c.i.d.

V8, one of which developed 400 b.h.p.

on methanol with fuel injection.

The rules never were changed but in one test vehicle, a Kurtis equipped with the 331 c.i.d.

Hemi, a lap time of 135 mph was clocked and in 900 miles at speed there were no mechanical failures or even so much as a spark plug changed.

Another indicator of what Chrysler had wrought appeared in a Bonneville Dry Lake streamliner.

During one test this vehicle managed to reach an astounding 235 mph!

Then came the short lived Mexican Road Races of the early 1950s, a free-for-all series of stock car endurance races that were a throwback to the early days of the automobile when events such as the Cactus Derby were common place.

In 1952 a "Hemi" powered Chrysler sedan finished third overall, just 16 minutes behind the winning entry, a Ferrari.

The resultant interest in Chrysler vehicles, both domestically as well as abroad, encouraged the company to develop and offer an export package, what would become known as sport or performance options.

This included a hotter cam with roller tappets, a higher compression ratio, dual four-barrel carburetors, stiffer springs and shocks and disc brakes from the Imperial.

In spite of these advancements the competition still won out, and the following year the rugged Mexican challenge saw Lincoln take first place.

Still Chrysler persisted and for 1954 a run of special commissioned New Yorkers was built.

After extensive testing the 15 specially optioned sedans were sold to private teams, one of which went on to win that year's NASCAR Grand National Race.

The increasing number of letters the company received from the public requesting a high performance car marked the growing interest in the racing prowess of the new Chryslers.

It also reflected a trend in the industry that Chevrolet hoped to capture a piece of with the introduction of the Corvette.

Ford, of course, followed suit and introduced the Thunderbird.

The task of studying the feasibility of producing a similar car for Chrysler fell on the shoulders of chief engineer Bob Rodger.

It was soon apparent that all Chrysler really needed was something stylish in which to shoehorn its improved "Hemi" V8.

Enter Virgil Exner and the completely redesigned 1955 models.

After a few meetings with some of the companies' key men from engineering, production, accounting and styling, it was decided that the new prestige model would have to use as many on-the-shelf stock parts as possible to avoid excessive production costs.

As a result the New Yorker body shell was selected for a foundation.

The grill was from the Imperial.

Other parts, such as the rear window molding, were borrowed from the Windsor line.

Suspension came from the heavier components developed for the Mexican road races.

The emblems featured black and white checks commemorating the Cunningham contribution.

The legendary racing engine was detuned but still featured dual four-barrel carburetion and a solid lifter cam and was rated at 300 b.h.p., hence the name designation.

The first example was then run down the line to ensure that all special work could be handled with minimum changes and then the project was given the green light.

Officially designated as the C300 for 1955, it was a very limited production model with the hardtop coupe as the only available body style.

Colors were limited to red, black or white.

Options were also very limited.

As an example, wire wheels were offered, according to promotional material, to keep the brakes cooler.

However, in actuality the reason was that a large stockpile remained from when this had been an option for the Imperial.

When the supply was exhausted this option was discontinued.

The initial response to the 300 was such that Chrysler decided to continue into 1956 with but minor modifications.

The most notable of these was the introduction of a 354 c.i.d engine rated at 340 or 355 horsepower dependent on the compression ratio, 9.0 to one or 10.0 to one.

The latter, as well as transmission options (two-speed Power Flite, mid year Torque Flite or three-speed manual) and 12 different gear ratios, were offered in large part to meet the requirements of sanctioning bodies of such organizations as NASCAR.

Once again the 300 became the one to watch on the racing circuits.

By season's end several records, both official and unofficial, were established including the flying mile at 142.911 mph and a two way average of 139.549 mph.

Added publicity came with Vicki Woods, a grandmother, setting woman's speed record of 136.081 miles per hour.

James Hinckley is the Miner's automotive and travel writer.