1958 DeSoto Electrojector - World’s First Electronic Fuel Injection
In the early 1950s, there was a bustling economy as young families that began shortly after World War II were growing up. The auto industry was moving forward too, with innovative design and engines that were more powerful each year. Even De Soto was making some moderate changes, especially with its restyled Adventurer which was designed to polish the company's image. While the 1958 De Sotos were a far cry from GM's and Ford's boxy car look, there were few signals that De Soto would not exist in three short years.
Although De Soto's 1958 styling was not all that different from the vear before, except for a gold anodized grille, the Adventurer had a handsome front end with quad headlamps and massive chrome bumper with bullets. In the rear, it was adorned with Titanic-length quarter panels that swept to a point with fins. At the tips were "Christmas tree" tail fins with three individual taillamps surrounded by, what else, chrome. The cars could be ordered with a plethora of options including air conditioning and a dash-mounted record player that turned at 16 2/3 rpms. It was dampened so the arm wouldn't skip. However, there was one option very few buyers checked off, likely due to its lofty $637.20 price [editor’s note: most sources say it was $400], and that was fuel injection.
In 1958 only, De Soto offered an electronic Bendix fuel-injection system that sat atop a 361-cubic inch, 345 hp V-8 guzzling premium fuel. Considering the recession, the high price tag was a lot of money, for something that later proved a failure.
Chrysler records show only 35 cars, including Chryslers, De Sotos, Dodges and Plymouths [there might have been 15 Plymouths — see side note later in story], were built with the complex multi-port system which had two dual-point distributors (one for the ignition, one for the injectors), an electric fuel pump in the gas tank, and the brains of the system, a resistance box and modulator, mounted to the radiator support.
The system was built by Bendix Aviation in Elmira, New York, and first used on aircraft during the Korean War. Because aircraft require fuel systems that only need to work at idle or wide-open throttle, the Bendix engineers had to devise a way to make the system adapt to a car. In theory it worked, but the system proved troublesome, due mainly to the crude waxpaper-covered capacitors inside the black box, which failed often. Perhaps this is why GM's simpler, Rochester-built mechanical-type fuel-injection system proved far more usable.
The Bendix electronic fuel-injection system had many components modern fuel-injection systems employ including a fuel-pressure regulator, fuel rails, individual injectors, throttle positioning valve, an electronic cold start and warmup sensor, primary and secondary throttle bodies, manifold vacuum sensor, idle sensor, air temperature sensor, acceleration sensor and two fuel lines.
The difference between a carburetor and fuel injection is how fuel is supplied to an engine. With a conventional system, a fuel pump mounted on the engine gets fuel from the tank and forces it into the carburetor. There, the fuel is mixed with air, and that mixture passes through the intake manifold to the engine's combustion chambers. A fuel-injected engine, however, supplies fuel to the engine by an electric powered pump in the gas tank. Injectors on the intake manifold and electronic controls then determine the exact amount of fuel injected into the cylinder's intake ports.
Among the advantages to fuel injection over carburetors were faster warm ups and performance gains while the engine is cold because the proper fuel-air mixture ratios and distribution can be more easily maintained.
Here's how the Bendix system was supposed to work:
Electronically controlled and electrically actuated, the "Electrojector" had a transistor-equipped brain or modulator, about 5 inches in size. The brain took a timed electrical signal from the ignition distributor. It sensed, through tiny electronic transmitting devices located at key points on the engine, the engine's temperature, throttle position, manifold pressure and even the altitude (or density) of the air being sucked into the cylinders. The modulator integrated all of the information received and instantly translated this data into a control signal that actuated the injectors," according to an article in Bendixline, a company newsletter, dated Sept. 28, 1956.
In a 1956 Bendix newsletter, company President Malcolm P. Ferguson announced that fuel injection "will replace the carburetor and improve performance." Nearly 50 years ago, he was truly a visionary, but a trouble-free system would be years away.
Ferguson also said in that issue, "Compared to the latest four-barrel carburetor designed for high performance engines, the 'Electrojector' system provides between 10 and 20 more horsepower — achieved at lower engine rpm-throughout the whole range of speeds, boosts fuel economy, achieves quicker starts and warmups, eliminates the 'smog' problem created by unburned fuel exhausted from the engine and is a system with a minimum of moving parts."
One man who knows the ins and outs of the Bendix system is Tom White of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, who owns a 1958 Adventurer, one of only 82 convertibles built that year. There also were 350 hardtops. Today, only five 1958 Adventurer convertibles are known to exist worldwide. White owns two, there are two in Sweden and the fifth is in Wisconsin, he said. But White's car is automotive Nirvana for De Soto aficionados.
Chrysler Historical Records show White's perfectly restored gold Adventurer is the only car on the planet built with and retaining fuel injection. The president of the National De Soto Club, Dean Mullinax, agreed that White's car is probably the only fuel injected example in existence.
According to a Bendix manual, two Plymouth Furys, 16 Chrysler 300Ds, 12 Dodge D-500s, and the five De Sotos, were built with the two-carburetor option and taken to a De Soto plant on Warren Avenue in Detroit to have the Electrojector system installed along with a 40-amp generator, electric fuel pump and a pair of “Fuel Injection” emblems. Unlike today's cars, in which mechanics have to remove the gas tank to gain access to the fuel pump, Chrysler installed a black metal cover over a cutout in the trunk floor of the 1958 models to make access to the coffee maker-size fuel pump easier.
The history of this perfectly restored car, showing 66,671 actual miles, is as interesting as the car itself. Built December 6, 1957, it was a styling exercise and the first convertible built, said White, who has the Chrysler build sheets.
Sold new at Liberty Dormont in Pittsburgh to William Dickson, the car was issued a Pennsylvania title January 21, 1958. White has that same title tucked away in a New York City phone book-thick pile of documentation. Dickson traded it for a recreational vehicle at Huffy's RV Sales in Harrisburg in 1975. The RV dealer, still in business, never took the car out of Dickson's name and put it in a barn, where rodents got the better of it. (The base price of a 1958 Adventurer convertible was $4,369, the most expensive De Soto in history.)
White heard about the car, and in June 1998, worked out a deal and trailered it home. He stumbled onto what he believed was a fuel-injected De Soto, because attached with speed nuts on the front fenders, albeit they were broken and some pieces missing, were gold and silver "fuel-injection" emblems. Was this the car that had eluded collectors for years? Would he ever find the fuel-injection unit he needed to properly restore the car?
Lady Luck was about to pay him a visit. While at Hershey's big AACA October 2002 swap meet, White was showing a photo of the car to a friend and a felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Paul Gabauer, who overheard the conversation and said he could lead White to the original system installed on White's car. It was in nearby Harrisburg. Gabauer told White he could put him in touch with the son of the man who had stored it since it was taken off a car in 1958. White could not believe what he was hearing and contacted the man with a grungy, wrinkly brown box full of parts. That man was the son of J. Gerald Cassel, who died at 67 in 1990. Cassel was a Chrysler field representative in 1958, who removed a complete fuel-injection system, possibly the one from White's car, 44 years earlier. He put the system in his attic and told his wife to never get rid of it. His son realized how valuable that box of stuff was and White braced himself to pay the piper. He went to Harrisburg, "ready to buy." He would not divulge what he paid, but after several negotiations, it took a "five-figure sum" to acquire the Electrojector unit, even though the primary distributor which fires the ignition was missing.
This striking De Soto retains its original radiator, and White boasts, "It's even the original core." The trunk mat is “new old stock,” the only known example, as is the gold speckled carpet, found in Texas. All the original parts are still with the car, like the top well, which somehow survived the rodents in Harrisburg. The dash was repainted and re-padded. Everything on the car, including both clocks — both the dashboard clock and the Benrus watch inside the steering wheel's center-work.
Looking at this beautiful De Soto takes you back to when Ike was President and gas was less than 38 cents per gallon. No detail on this car was overlooked. The fit and finish of every component is Pebble Beach quality. Even the door and trunk jambs glisten on this car that cost Dickson more than $6,000 in 1958.
The body and paint was tackled by White's son, Tom. The car was rust-free and no panels needed replacement, so Tom bolted the car to a rotisserie and began media blasting the undercarriage. White said little scraping was needed because the car was built without undercoat. They did find "lava-like" undercoating inside the car on the floors and trunk, but left it alone because that's how it was made. The front suspension and frame also were media blasted, repainted with urethane enamel and clear coated. All removable panels, such as hood, trunk, doors and fenders were taken off, stripped to bare metal, smoothed out, then covered with six to eight coats of Ditzler PPG primer applied with a DeVilbis paint gun. Tom then used PPG Adventurer Gold and sprayed four color base coats, wet sanding between each coat, on the car. Both inside and out of the hood, trunk lid and doors were painted off the car. After that, he sprayed three coats of urethane clear, again sanding between each coat with 1,000-grade paper and finishing with 1,500-paper. After sanding, Tom power buffed the body with 3M products. The door jambs were hand buffed.
"When Tom paints a car, he paints the bottom first, then the top. There are no paint lines anywhere. He spent many hours on the paint alone. We estimate more than 2,000 hours were spent restoring this car," the elder White says.
The car's original engine was taken apart, but did not need a complete rebuild. The elder White did a valve job, installed new bearings and that was about it. Even the original camshaft was retained. His son then painted the engine and all accessories in a base coat/clear coat finish. The gold paint needed to paint the dual air cleaners took their local paint supplier about a week to match correctly. Even the air cleaner lids were wet sanded and hand polished.
The cardboard box of fuel-injection parts was left to the elder White. "These systems were quite complex, as I learned while taking it apart. To a mechanic in 1958, this was nearly impossible to fix. It took me six weeks to figure it out. I determined the failure was in the electronic modulator. It was interesting, like an old 1940s radio," White said. "Once the system was operating, it was upgraded with new polyester capacitors and modern transistors, as the originals were wax-paper dipped and not reliable even when new."
Being an electrical engineer made the task at hand easier for White to figure out. He reverse engineered the unit, found the faults and got the electrical portion to work. Before he could determine whether the system would pump fuel, he had to machine some parts on his lathe. Using factory photos, to replace the missing primary distributor, White shortened a stock distributor from a Chrysler 413 engine and re-worked the keyway. "The keyway shaft into the distributor is round with a tab sticking out. I had to enlarge it and re-machine it. It was a lot of hand work as the key way is threaded both internally and externally," White said.
He also had to fabricate a coupler from scratch and attach it to the secondary or "trigger" distributor, which controls fuel flow. Not wanting to mess up his concours-prepared engine compartment, he then bench tested the unit with air pressure and a power drill, hooked up to turn a distributor and create a driving environment without fuel. With everything working as it should, the system was completely detailed then placed atop the original engine. White received invaluable help from a Bosch employee, Jim Bartuska, who has been trying to track down an elusive Bendix system for 36 years.
Once mounted to the engine, the car ran terribly. Starving for fuel, it would not accelerate properly. White went over the entire system again and determined the trouble was in the altitude sensor.
With the engine completed, White had a friend overhaul the transmission. Turning to the interior, he was able to find NOS seat cover material. After someone else made the gold and white vinyl and gold cloth brocade seat covers, White installed them and also made door panels from original material. All the gauges, oil, amp, temperature, fuel and 150 mph speedometer, were detailed and re-installed. All replacement parts are NOS, such as the correct date-coded 1958 spark plug wires and windshield washer bag.
This car is restored with all NOS parts, because there are no reproduction parts available, White said. The hardest parts to find, other than the fuel-injection unit, were four correct spinner wheel covers, which were missing, and an original steering wheel. To find one, White bought a complete 1958 Adventurer hardtop, which he still owns.
White's Adventurer convertible was built with the 361-cu.in. V-8, power steering, power brakes, power windows, power seat, triad horns, bumper guards, remote driver mirror and matching passenger mirror, dual antennas, clock, steering wheel watch, and Prismatic rear view mirror, Sure Grip differential and Highway Hi-Fi Record Player, which White played during our drive in this quite powerful car. By the way, the record player is NOS.
The NOS fuel injection emblems, the only ones known to exist, were "liberated" from a Chrysler building by an employee and found by White. He also has all factory manuals, fuel-injection schematics and service bulletins, about 200 pages in all, related to the car. "Funny thing is, I didn't find this car, it found me. The crazy part is, I restored this car knowing it would probably never, ever be restored to fuel injection. There just are no parts out there," White said.
Our ride through the eastern Massachusetts countryside showed the 4,185-pound car pulls strongly, with no hesitation. As White mashed the accelerator pedal to the floor while going up a hill, the car was somewhat loud, with most of the roar coming from the dual gold colored air cleaners. The TorqueFlite automatic transmission shifts with some authority, and the car stops fairly quickly despite having a four-wheel, unvented, 12-inch drum brake system and 8.50 by 14-inch bias-belted tires: This De Soto, as with most cars of 1958, has a soft ride and doesn't take corners with any authority. The front bench seat is comfortable to a point, but you would find yourself moving about after a few miles.
Since its completion in March 2003, judges have taken note. The nine awards so far include Best in Class at the Meadow Brook Concours d'Elegance and Most Distinguished Chrysler presented by Daimler Chrysler at the Greenwich Concours. And at the AACA's Grand National meet in Buffalo, New York, this past July, it earned the highly coveted Senior Award. No doubt an accurately awarded honor for an accurately restored automobile.
Jim Benjaminson wrote:
I can confirm the two 1958 Plymouths, as I've corresponded with the owner of one of the cars - a man who drove it nearly 100,000 miles. He was kind enough to send me a copy of the service manual (two illustrations from it are shown below). He says the other car was wrecked shortly after delivery and never repaired....
Samuel C. Morgan wrote:
I was looking through your historical articles and came across the section about the handful of 300s (I was told 18) that were equipped with the Bendix fuel-injected 392; I met a man who told me that all of them had been recalled and reverted to a carb setup, but that he had a 300 which had been originally optioned with fuel injection, and he had documentation to prove it. It was in rough shape, as the owners previous had crashed it several times and it had been left outside for the better part of forever. He was collecting parts to restore it, and by the look of the 1958 Fury he had just restored it was in for a good restoration. He was a very nice guy and very knowledgeable and was nice enough to let me snap a few pictures, which are shown below.