Inside Chrysler: Losing DeSoto, 1957-1960

I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years. — Curtis Redgap

The 1957 DeSoto Firesweep was, in essence, a Dodge. Marketed as a low-priced alternative to the larger DeSoto, it rode on the 122 inch Dodge wheelbase, and was powered by a Dodge 325 V-8. Even though it had DeSoto styling, it shared just about everything else with Dodge.

1959 DeSoto Shopper wagons

My father was most concerned with the price spread. He had every Chrysler Corporation line in his dealership for comparison. Let’s look at some 1957 model four-door sedans, the bread and butter cars of Detroit. All of them are shown with power brakes, power steering, radio, heater/defroster, carpet, light kit, and Torqueflite automatic.

Model Position
Wheelbase Features/Options Price
Chrysler Windsor low 122” 285 hp 354 Hemi $3,180
Chrysler Saratoga mid 126” 295 hp 354 Hemi $3,714
DeSoto Firesweep low 122” 245 hp 325 Poly $2,775
DeSoto Fireflite mid 126” 270 hp 341 Hemi $3,487
Dodge Coronet low 122” 138-hp 230 six $2,683
Dodge Royal mid 122” 285 hp Poly 325 $3,091

The price ranges began to merge together. With cars that even looked similar, it was difficult to explain the price difference, and it was hard when a person wanted the bigger car at the same price as the cheaper car. It was easier when the person stepped up to pay the extra price from the less expensive car to get into the bigger car.

Name recognition and prestige still play a big role in today's market, but the main barrier was that $500 difference. Even today, $500 is a lot of money. People balked when you get into that range. Mostly, you can get people to agree, after a little selling, to step up a couple hundred dollars. But, trying to get them over that $500 barrier was like pulling hen's teeth!

Chrysler marketing forgot all about that, and the situation worsened in 1959.

1959 DeSoto Fireflite

Here I am, Mr. Potential Customer, looking at a nice DeSoto Fireflite. It has all the equipment on it that I want. The sticker price is $3,754.

1959 ChryslerIn the next row back, however, there is a real pretty Chrysler in the special blue color that my wife likes. I look at the window sticker — wait a minute, same car, same engine, wheelbase, same everything. And it’s a Chrysler! It’s only $275 more at $4,029! Man, I must be the luckiest guy on the lot to spot this mistake!

DeSoto was getting clobbered from both sides. Same customer, same lot, looking at DeSoto Firesweeps, to move up from a Plymouth, spots a nice 4 door sedan, the V-8, automatic, and all, $3,254. Then he looks up and spots a four-door car in the next row. It has that beautiful hardtop look. Hey, wait a minute, look at the sticker, and not only that, it has the hotter 361 four-barrel with duals too. It is a Dodge Custom Royal Lancer, the absolute top of the line... and hey... look at that sticker price... I don't believe it... $3,279! That is only $25 more, and I get the big Dodge. I must be the luckiest guy on the lot to spot this mistake!

1959 Dodge Royal Lancer

Nope, not a mistake. Just Chrysler in chaos... and DeSoto in decline.

Chrysler Jefferson Assembly PlantMore troubling news came out of Highland Park at the end of the 1959 model run. After 22 years of operating its own headquarters and producing cars in its own factory, DeSoto was being moved to the Jefferson Avenue Plant to be manufactured besides Chrysler. DeSoto as a unique division also died in the summer of 1959.

The division even lost its 126” wheelbase cars starting with the 1960 model year. The 1960 Fireflite was a replacement for the 1959 Firesweep, and the 1960 Adventurer replaced the 1959 Firedome; in 1960, the Adventurer was a sport model no more.

It could have been an excellent cost cutting move, which could have saved the line, if the Board had put the investment into DeSoto to set it apart from Chrysler. The spectrum of medium priced cars was getting tight, but if General Motors kept Oldsmobile alive, then Chrysler should have followed their lead in developing DeSoto as a direct competitor. It would have given the marque a goal and helped it hang on until further development was put into the marketing scheme. However, I think Chrysler, like everyone in the industry, was keeping their eye on Ford's Edsel and holding their breath.

Edsel sales were dismal. It was obvious by the end of 1959 that Edsel was a flop of tremendous proportions. Ford lost millions on that car. Down in his heart, my father saw the same thing happening with DeSoto. Even his own father had not driven a DeSoto for the last two years.

Chrysler's own car lines were squeezing DeSoto out. If something were not done, there was no way to keep the marque competitive. Edsel’s failure may have been enough justification for Chrysler to avoid spending funds on its medium-range DeSoto cars. As the year progressed and Edsel continued to bleed, DeSoto's fate was sealed alongside the Ford brand.

desoto police cars

Dad had suggested to the Dealer Association that DeSoto get back into the fleet business, going for the taxi, police, and limo business, as well as the specialty market for ambulances, hearses vehicles, and tourist stretch cars. They could have given DeSoto a unique appearance for each of two wheelbases, then develop, as Chrysler was always doing, a new unique engine size. Using Chrysler’s tremendous share of the fleet business, DeSoto could have been sold to taxi services and police departments. It would have been enough to keep DeSoto alive. We were never sure where that proposal went; nothing ever came of it.

DeSoto soldiered on into 1960; shortly after 1961 began, the brand was dropped.

1959 DeSotos cars

Management Changes (by Bill Watson)

In 1958, there were 5 five divisions. With their managers, these were:

  • Plymouth Division - Harry E. Cheseborough
  • Dodge Division - M.C. Patterson
  • DeSoto Division - J.B. Wagstaff
  • Chrysler Division - Clare E. Briggs
  •  Imperial Division - Clare E. Briggs (The Imperial Division was more for show than reality)

In June 1959, as Curtis wrote, DeSoto was merged in with Plymouth, under Mr. Cheseborough, to become the Plymouth-DeSoto Division. About this time, the Chrysler and Imperial divisions were officially joined to become Chrysler-Imperial Division. Then, in November 1959, the Plymouth-DeSoto Division became the Plymouth-DeSoto-Valiant Division. With the demise of the DeSoto in October 1960, the Plymouth-DeSoto-Valiant Division became the Plymouth Division.

In early 1961, the Plymouth Division and the Chrysler-Imperial Division were joined under Clare E. Briggs as the Chrysler-Plymouth Division. M.C. Patterson was replaced as Dodge Division manager in 1960 by Byron J. Nichols, who went to bat for the Custom 880.

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Other parts of this series

  1. 1946-1953: The story through 1950; Hemi engines and Virgil Exner.
  2. 1954 and Plymouth’s independence, and automatic transmissions.
  3. 1955 — hot cars, NASCAR’s roots, Daytona, and more
  4. 1956 and the Plymouth Belmont
  5. 1955-56 police packages and CHP testing
  6. 1956 Plymouth Fury and Daytona Speed Weeks
  7. The stunning and disastrous 1957 cars
  8. 1957 engineering, Daytona, and pursuit cars
  9. The much more reliable 1958s
  10. The Pettys and Bill France; creating the ’62s
  11. The 1959 Chrysler Corporation cars
  12. NASCAR and the Pettys; Engineering vs Marketing
  13. Losing DeSoto, 1957-1960
  14. Dodge and Valiant clobber Plymouth, 1957-1960
  15. 300 and 300X; personal notes
  1. The hot new 1960 Valiant
  2. The new unit-body 1960 cars
  3. 1960 Chrysler fleets and squads
  4. Chrysler racing, 1960
  5. The hot Chrysler 300F
  6. Corruption and incompetence
  7. The 1961 cars
  8. 1961 police cars and racing events
  9. The 1962 cars
  10. 1962 Police Pursuit cars
  11. 1962: Hot Performance
  12. The 1963 cars
  13. The 1964 cars
  14. NASCAR racing — 1964
  15. End of the series

More by Curtis Redgap:


Police cars

Military and space

Don’t miss Jim Benjaminson’s Plymouth 1946-1959
or our other Chrysler heritage articles and racing coverage

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