1955-1957: Dodge and the DeSoto Firesweep (A Personal History)

Corporate Personnel sent me to be interviewed by George Gibson, Assistant to Dean Engle, the Chief Engineer, who was looking for an engineer to be their liaison with the DeSoto Division on the new short-wheelbase DeSoto Firesweep that would share the Dodge body. This car was to have its own unique front-end components and styling, and be assembled at the Dodge plant on the same line as the Dodge model. This was a pretty big assignment for someone who had been out of automotive for four years (and was only 28 years old), but I got it. And I don’t think there was an increase from the $675 per month I had at Defense Engineering, but several came soon.

dodge main, circa 1955There was a very slow start in this position, as all I had to do was to get to know the DeSoto people at their plant at Michigan and Wyoming, about 30 minutes away. Bernie Meldrum, the same guy that interviewed me at University of Detroit for the Chrysler Institute, was Chief Engineer Dean Engle’s counterpart.

I got along fine with them and the Dodge Engineering group (about 20 strong, including Chuck Kelley and Ted Donaldson from the Institute class behind mine), but I was a one-man team, neither fish nor fowl, neither Dodge nor DeSoto, with not much to do for a year but watch change-requests as they came by and try to look smart by writing a few myself to substitute parts (mostly fasteners), which were already in use at Dodge, to be used on the DeSoto. This didn’t endear me with the Dodge “fastener engineer” as I was playing in his sandbox, but we got along.

Eventually, in the fall of 1956, the time came for the Dodge line to be shut down for conversion to the 1957 models. But before that happened I was told to prepare a presentation for Dodge management on the DeSoto model they were to build, to show its differences from Dodge. The department often gave presentations to Dodge Division management of this nature. For the presentation I prepared a mock-up of the front end and used it during the talk. This is one of four panels that were also used for that talk, which went very well.

1957 desoto firesweep grille

To get ready for production, Dodge set up a prototype conveyor system in Plant 4 and assembled some cars on it during the summer. Although I didn’t have much to do or much responsibility, this position did give me a birds-eye view of how an automotive assembly plant worked. The Dodge complex, built in 1910, was huge, covering 67 acres on the edge of the city of Hamtramck, Michigan, totally surrounded by the city of Detroit, and it took a while to learn the route from our office in the front corner of the building to the furthermost building on the back of the complex.

Included in the complex were door and fender stamping, a foundry, engine machining and assembly, body assembly, dipping and painting, seat upholstery and trim, and final car assembly. As Pete Hagenbuch wrote,

Dodge Main was where all the Dodges came from, until they moved to Lynch Road. It was fun to try to follow the line across six floors. This isn't factual, but it’s a for-instance — the line started out on floor two, it went up to four and down to one. It spent a little time on one, went up to six — it was crazy. It was like they put in different parts of the line as things came up.

My day at Dodge would start with a stop at DeSoto then over to Dodge, parking a 15 minute walk from the plant, in a back-alley garage which I had to pay for, and then arrive with nothing to do. Dean Engle tried to make my assignment bigger than it really was, by connecting me with my counterparts at the Chrysler and Plymouth Divisions, so that as a team we were sent to the Los Angeles Assembly Plant to tell them about these new models (the other divisions had a similar plan). Finally, in August 1956, the line started back up, and what a mess we saw.

1958 firesweepAs I understood it, the 1957 models were intended to be launched a year later as 1958s, but with sales slumping, they were introduced a year early. Chrysler had become enamored with Ford manufacturing folks and hired a bunch who were going to show them how to produce automobiles. However, it didn’t pay off, and the quality was terrible. Poor sheet metal fits resulted in water leaks which they tried to stop by putting dum-dum wherever they appeared. I remember going with Chuck Kelley to the closest Dodge Dealer who showed us the complaints he was receiving from his customers.

The DeSotos coming off the line had a very obvious appearance problem, in that the three-piece eye-brow molding had gaps which gave it a terrible appearance. When this came to my attention, I broadcast it to any of the Dodge managers who would listen but they had their own mess to fix, and no time for me.

I can’t remember how it happened or who told me to do it or maybe it was my own idea, but I got one of the shops to mount a front end (fenders, hood and related sheet metal), on a wooden skid, load it on a flatbed truck, with the three moldings installed to show the problem, and we drove it to Doelher Jarvis in Toledo, the supplier of those die-castings. I authorized them in writing to modify their dies so that the gaps were filled. It took a little while for revised parts to arrive, so I don’t know how it worked out, but I think I heard that when the fender and other stampings were finally proofed and began to be produced as designed, the three revised moldings had to be revised again, as the problem was in the sheet metal not the moldings.

By that time I had moved to a new job in Highland Park, Corporate Product Planning & Cost Estimating (how that happened I’ll relate later). In my new job, my people reviewed tooling costs on Product Change Requests, and one day one came through where Doehler Jarvis was asking to get paid maybe $5,000 for what I had authorized 6-9 months earlier. My name was on it, so they brought it to me asking “what’s this.” I said, “It’s okay,” and gave no further explanation. This would have been in 1958.

That poor quality on all 1957 Chrysler cars was one more nail in the coffin for the smallest of the big three. In 1970 the DeSoto Division and its line of cars was dropped and they became collector’s items. Here’s a photo of one happy couple and the car they bought, along with a few words extracted from an on-line DeSoto history.

1957 DeSoto Firesweep

1957 was not a good time for DeSoto. It was a tragedy. Corporation-wide quality problems resulted in some horribly built cars. It's said that DeSoto four door hardtops leaked so badly that occupants were wise to exit the car to avoid drowning. One 1957 DeSoto Adventurer went through four transmissions, three power steering units, two new double point distributors, new valve guides, and a new radiator.

Stories like these and a propensity for early rust angered DeSoto’s traditional clientele. Quality control was a problem throughout Detroit in the late fifties, but the sin seemed greater at DeSoto in light of the make’s previous high standards. Predictably, customers didn't return to DeSoto show rooms for 1958. Making matters worse was a recession. Unemployment topped 5.1 million, meaning fewer people could afford a new DeSoto.

firesweep tail

In March 1957 Dean Engle expanded my responsibility in a widely distributed Organization Notice which read, “Mr. W. Oliver has been appointed to the newly created position of Liaison Engineer - Regional Assembly Operations. In the new capacity, Mr. Oliver will be responsible for maintaining liaison with Regional Assembly Plant personnel on Dodge Plant Engineering activities with Dodge Division Engineering. Mr. Oliver will continue to be responsible for all engineering contacts pertaining to DeSotos built at Dodge.”

This was a nice vote of confidence for my work but there was really not much to do as there were only two plants, one in Los Angeles and one in Windsor, and they didn’t need much help. However I did fly to L.A. with my counterparts from Plymouth and Chrysler again and together we spent a week there trying to be helpful.

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