by Jim Benjaminson
Hernando DeSoto would have been proud, had he lived long enough, to see his name, family coat of arms, and even his bust displayed on this contraption that moved under its own power. The 16th-century explorer gets credit for discovering the Mississippi River, but how his name became associated with the line of automobiles introduced by Chrysler Corporation in the summer of 1928 is something of a mystery. Perhaps it was the connection with travel and adventure that brought his name to the forefront.
DeSoto joined the growing ranks of the Chrysler Corporation during the halcyon days of 1928, along with Plymouth and Fargo. Much speculation had taken place when the Plymouth name first surfaced in Detroit, but there was no doubt who was behind the DeSoto project—the first announcement appearing in the trade publication Automobile Trade Journal on April 23, 1928, reading “DeSoto Six, New Motor Car, To Be Built By Walter P. Chrysler.” Under the headline, ATJ continued, “DeSoto Motor Corporation is a division of the Chrysler Corporation, owned 100% by the parent company, and will build a car which in non-competitive with any of the four Chrysler lines. DeSoto Corporation, officered by executives of Chrysler, with J. E. Fields, president; C. W. Matheson, vice president in charge of sales; B. E. Hutchinson, vice president and treasurer; and W. P. Chrysler, chairman of the board. Above officers and W. Ledyard Mitchell, vice president and general manager of operations of Chrysler; F. M. Zeder, vice president in charge of engineering, Chrysler Corporation K. T. Keller, Chrysler vice president in charge of manufacturing, constitute the DeSoto board. New car will be sold by entirely new dealer organization now being formed.”
That announcement was all it took for 500 would-be dealers to ask for a DeSoto franchise—without even seeing a prototype of the new car.
DeSoto was incorporated on May 6, 1928, exactly four days after Chrysler had purchased Dodge Brothers. Production began in July, with DeSoto sharing facilities with the new Plymouth and Chrysler cars at the corporation’s Highland Park headquarters near Detroit.
The two cars would share more than just production facilities; DeSoto’s major body panels were shared with the new Plymouth, to the point one had to ask, “Is DeSoto simply a six-cylinder Plymouth—or Plymouth just a four-cylinder DeSoto?” Like Plymouth, the new DeSoto was considered a ’29 model.
DeSoto was introduced to the public on August 4, 1928, after a private dealer showing in Detroit on July 7th. By year’s end over 34,000 cars had been shipped to more than 1,500 dealers, most of whom handled DeSoto exclusively. DeSoto would set a sales record for a new make of automobile that would not be broken for over 30 years. Unfortunately, DeSoto’s initial sales success would not be an indication of the trials and tribulations to follow.
“Multum pro parvo” in Latin means “Much for Little,” the motto for the new car. It was a motto many first-time DeSoto buyers found fitting. There was little mistaking the family resemblance between Chrysler or Plymouth. Like its corporate stablemates, DeSoto featured a thin-line radiator shell, with the hood overlapping the radiator core, giving the car a longer appearance. Hood louvers were grouped into three separate clusters, headlamps, cowl lamps, cowl band, tail lamps, and door handles were chrome plated—and on the Deluxe, the headlight tie bar was chromed.
Plymouth dealers had been asked to dress like pilgrims when the first cars were delivered; whether DeSoto dealers were asked to dress like Spanish explorers is a question. When it came to naming body styles of the new DeSoto, the Spanish connection was clear. What was normally called the business coupe was the “cupe business.” The Deluxe coupe (with non-folding cloth top and landau irons) became the “cupe de lujo.” The Deluxe sedan carried the moniker “sedan de lujo” (there was also a regular sedan) with the roadster (with rumble seat) becoming the “roadster español.” The touring car took on the name “faeton,” the two-door “sedan coche.” Needless to say, it wasn’t long before the fancy titles faded into oblivion.
A three-door, blank quarter window commercial sedan was built in prototype form, but it would appear that none were sold at retail.
Known as the Model K, the DeSoto rode the same 109-inch-wheelbase chassis as the new Plymouth. In nearly all matters, the cars were identical with the exception of the power plant—the K-series DeSoto was powered by a 175-cubic-inch, 55-horsepower six. Both DeSoto and Plymouth shared a 4 1/8-inch stroke—but the DeSoto’s bore, at 3 inches, was fully 5/8 of an inch less than the four-cylinder Plymouth. With just five more cubic inches, the DeSoto developed ten more horsepower than the Plymouth Four.
Unlike the Plymouth, the DeSoto Six had a water pump, although fuel was still supplied by a vacuum tank; ignition was by Delco-Remy. Four-wheel Lockheed hydraulic brakes (as redesigned by Chrysler), 5.00 x 19-inch balloon tires, and an automatic windshield wiper were standard equipment. Standard upholstery was mohair, although Deluxe models received a better grade, along with dual fender-mounted spare tires. Prices for the new DeSoto ranged from $845 to $995. DeSoto finished calendar year 1928 in 18th place, rising to 14th by end of 1929.
Starting with cars built after July 1st (some sources say August 15, 1929), the Model K DeSoto became a 1930 model for sales purposes, with no other changes made to the car. Within 14 months, DeSoto surpassed the 100,000 mark in sales. 1930 would mark debut of the CF series, the first straight eight-cylinder engine in the Chrysler lineup. (At this early date, DeSotos were being coded with the letter “C,” which in later years would designate Chrysler cars—DeSoto would begin using the letter “S” to designate DeSoto models with the 1931 model SA.)
At a time when the number of cylinders was an indication of a car’s status, it is surprising Chrysler Corporation chose to let DeSoto build the first straight eight from the company rather than reserving the honor for the Chrysler nameplate. The reasoning may have been that Marmon’s Roosevelt had already gone on the market, advertising the first straight eight at a price of less than $1,000. At $965 for the business coupe, DeSoto could advertise itself as the lowest-priced straight eight on the market. (Dodge would also get its own straight eight.)
With a bore of 2 7/8 inches and stroke of 4 inches, the eight displaced 208 cubic inches, developing 70 horsepower. Production of the CF Eight began in December of ’29 and continued through November of 1930.
Differing from the six-cylinder DeSoto, the CF Eight featured an undivided vertical louver arrangement on the hood side panels. The thin-line radiator of the six cylinders was abandoned in favor of the more conventional deep radiator with chrome-plated radiator shell. Like previous cars, bumpers were two piece and like all Chrysler products, DeSotos employed four-wheel hydraulic brakes. Eight-cylinder cars sat on a seven cross member, 114-inch frame (five inches longer than the six).
Later in the year, the six-cylinder series CK “Finer DeSoto Six” came on line—like the CF Eight and the 30U Plymouth, the CK abandoned the thin-line radiator in favor of the more conventional full radiator shell. Also setting the CK apart were the cowl lamps mounted on the crown of each front fender.
Boring the six-cylinder engine by 1/8 of an inch increased displacement to 190 cubic inches—15 more than the K series, raising horsepower to 60. A new mechanical fuel pump replaced the trouble prone vacuum tank.
Body styles in the CK series were the same as the K, with the addition—as at Plymouth—of a real convertible coupe with fixed windshield posts and roll-down windows. CF Eight body styles included the same lineup as the K and CK of roadster with rumble seat, phaeton, business coupe, Deluxe coupe (with rumble seat), four-door sedan, Deluxe sedan, and convertible coupe. The Spanish model designations were, thankfully, laid to rest.
Calendar year production for 1930 came to 34,889 units, good enough to bring DeSoto up one spot, to 13th, in industry sales.
The SA-series DeSoto made its debut in January at the New York Automobile Show, although production had begun the month earlier. The SA had a restyled body, but again used the thin-line radiator design with vertical radiator shutters and vertical hood louvers patterned after the Imperial. New for the year were dual-cowl ventilators. The engine was again bored, this time an additional 1/8 inch, resulting in a 3¼-inch bore. Displacement was up to 205 cubic inches bringing horsepower up to 72.
Both the SA and CF boasted an Easy Shift transmission, in addition to offering freewheeling as a $20 option (freewheeling would become standard later in the model run). Like Plymouth, DeSoto used a wide array of transmissions throughout the year, starting with a spur-gear transmission used since the beginning of DeSoto production in the summer of ’28. This was replaced by two different transmissions, one using left-cut helical gears, the other right-cut helical gears.
Production of the 1931 DeSotos was transferred from Highland Park to Plymouth’s Lynch Road facility. On April 31, 1931, Goodyear became the official tire supplier to Chrysler, replacing the Fisk brand used since both Plymouth and DeSoto came on line.
SA DeSotos came in the usual assortment of body types, including roadster with rumble seat, phaeton, standard coupe, Deluxe coupe with rumble seat, convertible coupe, two-door sedan (in mid-year), four-door sedan, and Deluxe sedan.
Bumpers were now of the one-piece variety, with the cowl lamps moving back to the base of the windshield. Wheelbase was increased ¾ inch as well.
The DeSoto Eight, now known as the CF* (that is, Cee-Eff-Asterisk), remained the same, except that the engine was stroked a quarter of an inch to 221 cubic inches, raising horsepower to 77. The * in the model code indicated the larger-displacement engine in a car that had otherwise unchanged. The eight-cylinder DeSoto would be phased out at the end of the model year.
As in previous years, the six-cylinder DeSotos continued to share major body stampings with the four-cylinder Plymouths. Model year designations continued to be confusing with cars being sold as both 1931 and 1932 models. Both the SA and CF* series were considered next year’s models after July 1st, 1931. The CF* phaeton was added to the model lineup after January 1, 1932, but it, like the roadsters, would be discontinued before the true 1933 models came on the scene. Calendar-year sales of 29,835 slipped DeSoto back to 14th in industry sales.
If DeSoto styling had been conventional since its inception, the true 1932 DeSoto series SC was about to set the industry on its ear. Featuring a rounded grille patterned after the popular Miller racing cars, DeSotos would not be mistaken for anything else on the road. Stories were told of a blind man who was asked to run his hands over the front fascia of the car—after so doing, the man proclaimed DeSoto to be the most beautiful car he had ever seen!
The car was available in two trim levels, Standard and Custom; the Custom series featured external trumpet horns, dual tail lamps, dual windshield wipers, cigar lighter, safety glass, adjustable seats, and fenders painted to match the body color. Chrome headlamps were standard on all models. Unique to DeSoto was what appeared to be a stylish split windshield — but the windshield glass was actually one piece!
Body styles in the Standard SC series included a two-passenger roadster, phaeton, business coupe, rumble-seat coupe, two-door Brougham, and four-door sedans in both five and seven-passenger format. Custom body styles included a rumble-seat roadster, rumble-seat coupe, convertible coupe with rumble seat, four-door sedan, four-door Town Sedan, and two-door convertible Victoria. The convertible Victoria was a top-of-the-line offering also offered by sister Plymouth—DeSoto production of this model came to just 275 units. All DeSotos featured forward opening suicide doors on all body styles. Two open-front Town Cars were also built (probably to special order) but were not regularly catalogued models.
The engine was again stroked an eighth of an inch for 211 cubic inches with an increase in horsepower to 75—just two horses short of last year’s eight-cylinder car. Chassis features included a double drop frame on a 112 3/8-inch wheelbase and adoption of Floating Power (introduced the year before by Plymouth).
Floating Power mounted the engine at three points, suspending the power plant along the axis of its own center of gravity. Developed to reduce vibration from Plymouth’s four-cylinder engine, Floating Power made the six—and eight-cylinder DeSoto engines—silky smooth. DeSoto’s lone seven-passenger car shared a 121-inch wheelbase with the seven-passenger PB Plymouth and seven-passenger Dodge.
Famed Indianapolis race car driver Peter DePaolo had driven a CF* DeSoto Eight on a promotional tour the previous year and was this year called on to make a ten-day promotional trip culminated by a 300-mile race track trial at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. Calendar year sales of 27,441 helped moved DeSoto into ninth place in industry sales.
DeSoto claimed 52 changes to the ’33 SD Standard series (with an additional 28 improvements to the Custom) while telling their dealers “the DeSoto car, as now produced, will not be essentially changed during the 1933 selling season.” Even die-hard auto buffs had to look hard to see the differences—the rounded radiator grille was retained, featuring a horizontal rather than vertical motif but other changes, such as “silent upholstery springs” went unnoticed. Again offered in two trim levels, top-of-the-line cars could be easily identified by the vertical trim divider over the headlamp lens.
Other Custom equipment included twin sun visors, dual-trumpet horns, and tail lamps—but this equipment was made standard on both trim levels later in the model run. Wire wheels were discontinued in favor of wood wheels and smaller tire sizes. Prices were unchanged at introduction time and reduced by $30 to $100 on March 27, 1933. In addition, a $20 accessory package (called combination #2) offered dual tail lamps, dual windshield wipers, cigar lighter, and special paint was released for all Standard models.
Unlike Plymouth, which discontinued the convertible Victoria at the end of the 1932 model run, DeSoto continued theirs into 1933 in Custom trim level only. President Roosevelt was one of just 132 people who would take delivery of this unusual body style.
Standard body styles included the two-passenger business coupe, rumble-seat coupe, two-door Brougham, two-door Special Brougham, and four-door sedan. Custom models included only the rumble-seat coupe, convertible coupe, four-door sedan, and convertible Victoria. The Special Brougham was discontinued mid-year.
A two-inch increase in wheelbase marked the SD DeSoto, with the engine again being stroked; displacement was now up to 218 cubic inches and rated horsepower was 86 for both trim levels. Making their debut as standard equipment on all models was an automatic choke and coincidental starter, the latter activated by stepping on the accelerator pedal—a feature that become a Buick trademark in later years.
At year’s end, DeSoto assembly moved from the Plymouth plant to the Chrysler Jefferson Avenue plant, as DeSoto moved up a notch in the corporation hierarchy. In years past, Chrysler’s price ladder had found Plymouth at the bottom, DeSoto directly above Plymouth, then Dodge, Chrysler, and Imperial at the top. With the switch to the Airflow body in ’34, DeSoto leapfrogged Dodge. In the long run, it was a move that would eventually spell doom for DeSoto.
As a prelude to introduction of the Airflow, a specially prepared ’33 DeSoto sedan was built by Aero Dynamics of New York City. Driven across country by veteran race driver Harry Hartz, the car had the body mounted backwards on the chassis to prove the point that the automobile as it was then known was more efficient in reverse than it was in forward motion. Fitted with a special wrap-around rear window, Hartz’s zany stunt drew a lot of attention, not all of it favorable, especially from police who ticketed him for driving the wrong way!
A special close-coupled pillar-less sedan was exhibited at Chrysler’s pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair. With both front and rear doors open, the sedan lacked a center door post—it never got beyond the prototype stage. (A pillarless sedan wouldn’t see production until the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.)
Year-end totals fell to 20,186 units for calendar year 1933, dropping DeSoto back to 12th in industry sales.
To say there had never been another car like it would be an understatement when DeSoto unveiled its Airflow for 1934. Credit—or blame—for the car lies with Carl Breer, of Chrysler’s famed Zeder, Skelton, and Breer engineering trio. Breer told the story of how he came up with the idea of designing an aerodynamically shaped car, based on the principle of birds in flight. The result of five years research, Breer took the accepted norms of automobile engineering and literally threw them out the window.
Tested in the woods of northern Michigan, the Airflow principles were established in a prototype known as the “Trifon Special.” When it appeared in the showrooms, the Airflow established new standards in the construction of the automobile.
Called “completely and unmistakably new” the DeSoto Airflow was literally “born in a wind tunnel,” the contour of the car designed according to aerodynamic principles—with a gracefully rounded front to bore through air currents, the radiator completely hidden behind a chrome grille. Headlamps were fared into the body, something other Chrysler lines would not adopt until 1939. Fenders, usually designed to add length to a car, were streamlined to form a cover over the wheels, with the rear wheels further protected by the addition of wheel shields. At the rear, the body curved downward in true streamline form.
The result was a car that was unconventional and unusual—and to many, just plain ugly. The DeSoto Airflow was the type of car that evoked one of two responses—either you liked it or you hated it and there was little ground in between. Even today 60 years later the Airflows still evoke these emotions.
The Airflow claimed 40% less wind resistance than a conventional car of similar size. Body and frame construction was discarded in favor of an all-steel welded body, trussed by bridge-like steel girders, over 40 times stronger than a conventional automobile. One can only wonder why the Airflow retained a tube front axle, while both Dodge and Plymouth adopted independent front-wheel suspension for ’34.
Because of the teardrop shape, and in accordance with prinicples of vibration reduction, engineers moved the engine 18 inches over the front axle. The passenger was also moved 18 inches forward of the rear axle (again the result of the teardrop shape), resulting in a much improved ride—DeSoto called it “Floating Ride.” The front seat could then be increased eight inches in width, allowing three front-seat passengers to sit comfortably. Wind noise was reduced employing special body and window vents. Front windows, like those of the PE Plymouth for ’34, featured a disappearing vent wind wing (while Plymouth would discontinue it at model end, the Airflows, both DeSoto and Chrysler, would continue using the complicated system).
Interiors were as unusual as the exterior—front seats being surrounded by chrome tubing, with several inches of air space beneath the cushion. Four-door sedans cut costs by having front and rear doors interchangeable—that is, the left-front door interchanged with the right-rear door.
Powering the Airflow was a 100-horsepower, 241.5-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine. Proving their mettle, the Airflow established 25 AAA speed records, including an 86.2-mile-per-hour flying mile, and a record 80 miles per hour for 100 miles—prompting DeSoto advertising to crow you could read a book or write a letter at 80 miles an hour (hopefully while someone else was doing the driving!). Harry Hartz piloted an Airflow cross country, recording an average of 21.4 miles per gallon for the trip. No doubt this car was equipped with the Borg Warner overdrive, a $30 option (developed by Chrysler engineering).
Only four body styles were offered, all built on a 115½-inch wheelbase, including a five-passenger coupe (access to the luggage compartment was only through the rear seat of the car and trunk mounted spare tire), two-door Brougham, four-door sedan, and four-door Town Sedan with blind quarter windows.
$995 bought any body style, a significant jump over the prices of the 1933 DeSoto.
Introduced at the New York Auto Show, the cars (along with the Chrysler Airflow) stole the show—sales, however, were another story. Actual cars for retail sales were slow in coming, giving competition more than ample time to circulate stories the cars weren’t any good. A premium price, $200 more than the highest priced ’33 DeSoto, in the midst of one of the worst years of the Depression, helped take a toll on Airflow sales. Buyers flocked to the more conventional Plymouth and Dodge which were some of the most beautiful cars built.
Despite public exposure at the Chrysler Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair, setting stock car records, and receiving the Grand Prix Award at the Monte Carlo Concours D’Elegance, Airflow production came to a measly 13,940 units, most buyers choosing the regular four-door sedan. Calendar-year sales of 15,825 cars kept DeSoto in 12th place in industry sales, but it was soon clear the buying public was not yet willing to accept the radical Airflow styling. Surprisingly, the Airflow design was soon copied around the world, most notably by Sweden’s Volvo, Japan’s Toyota, France’s Peugeot, and Germany’s Volkswagen.
Realizing the need for a more conventional car, but not giving up on the Airflow design, DeSoto entered the model year with two completely different series of cars. The Airflow continued, now coded SG, with a more prominent vee’d front end which made the car look longer. (Dealers would install an updated grille on ’34 Airflows to give them the appearance of the ’35 Airflow.) Wheelbase remained at 115½ inches. Hood louvers decreased to just three horizontal from the previous year’s 11. The same four Airflow body styles were continued with prices increasing to $1,015 regardless of body type. Despite the Airflows controversial looks, it received—for the second time—the Grand Prix Award at the Monte Carlo Concours D'Elegance.
Added to the line was the SF series of conventionally styled automobiles. Body types included both business and rumble-seat coupe, convertible coupe (featuring a separate X-brace frame mounted on top of the regular frame, designed to prevent sagging and twisting commonly found in regular open cars), two and four-door sedans, in either flat-back or humpback Touring Sedan format. Like the ’35 Plymouth, the SF DeSoto applied many of the Airflow principles to the design of a regular automobile. Styling took on a more rounded look. Called “Airstream,” the SF was built on a 116-inch wheelbase shared with Dodge, three inches longer than the PJ Plymouth. Styling included a sloping V-type radiator, with two rows of horizontal hood lovers, and bullet-shaped headlamps. The front bumper had a V-shaped dip in the center, with three chevron hash marks on the lower front fenders.
A Deluxe equipment package included two-tone paint, small front fender lamps, dual tail lamps, dual trumpet horns, two windshield wipers, wheel trim rings, chrome fender and running board molding, cigar lighter, and front compartment carpet.
Both the Airstream and Airflow were powered by the 241.5-cubic-inch six, the Airstream developing 93 horsepower to the Airflow’s 100 horsepower (achieved by a higher 6.5 compression ratio). Differing from the Airflow, the Airstream had independent front suspension—Airflows continued to offer overdrive, but dropped freewheeling.
Priced $200 less than the Airflow, the Airstream outsold its companion by a better than three to one ratio. Just 6,797 Airflows were built compared to 20,784 Airstreams. Calendar year sales of 34,276 cars saw DeSoto slip one more notch, to end the year in 13th place.
1936 would mark the last year for the Airflow DeSoto (its companion Chrysler Airflow would soldier on for one more year). A new die-cast grille with vertical moldings, curved diagonal trim pieces, and twin pennon-style hood lovers, along with new bumpers and revised body side moldings, set the Airflow apart from previous years. Body styles were pared to just two—the five-passenger coupe and four-door sedan. Prices had continued to escalate, either body style now commanding $1,095. The DeSoto Airflow passed into history after only 5,000 1936 S2 models—250 coupes and 4,750 sedans had been built. Mechanical specifications of the last Airflows remained the same as previous years—a 115½-inch wheelbase powered by a 100-horsepower, 241.5-cubic-inch six.
The S-1—or Airstream—series was built on a two-inch-longer wheelbase than ’35, powered by the 93-horsepower version of the 241. For the first time, overdrive was optional on all Airstreams. Custom models were fitted with a hypoid rear axle as standard equipment with Deluxes retaining the old-style, spiral-bevel differential. When ordered with overdrive, Deluxes also came with hypoid gearing.
Available in two trim levels, Deluxe or Custom, the Airstream carried conventional bodywork with a new horizontal bar grille and pennon-style hood louvers. Deluxe Airstreams had a flat one-piece windshield while the Custom (with the exception of the convertible) had a vee’d two-piece windshield. Other Custom touches included two instrument-panel glove compartments, dual cowl-mounted windshield wipers (Deluxes had a single wiper on the header board), chrome moldings on the top of the headlamps, chrome chevrons on the front fenders, fender skirt and running board moldings, rear wheel shields, and two-piece rear windows.
Body types for the Deluxe series included a business coupe, two-door Touring Brougham, and four-door Touring Sedan. Custom models included those already mentioned along with a rumble-seat coupe, convertible coupe, and four-door convertible sedan. Both series featured full steel roof panels replacing the customary fabric center (the steel panel was still an insert, however), and all closed cars featured built-in trunks.
Added to the line this year was a series of Custom models on an extended 130-inch wheelbase, including a four-door five-passenger Traveler Sedan, four-door seven-passenger sedan, four-door seven-passenger limousine with fixed divider window, and 2,500 seven-passenger taxis for New York City’s Sunshine Cab Company, all built with sliding sun roofs.
1936 was a good year for the Corporation as it built, for the first time, one million cars in a calendar year, surpassed Ford Motor Company as the nation’s number two automaker, and embarked on building a new plant on Dearborn’s Warren Avenue to become the exclusive home of DeSoto. Calendar year sales of 52,789 cars were not enough to move DeSoto out of 13th place in industry sales.
Having discontinued the Airflow, DeSoto offered just one model series, coded the S-3 for 1937. Conventionally styled, the S-3 featured a horizontal grille bar divided by a center panel painted body color. The top six grille bars continued along the length of the hood. An unusual change was adoption of a front opening alligator-style hood. Bullet-shaped headlamps and unusual ribbed bumpers characterized the new DeSoto. The ribbed bumpers, both front and rear, proved to be a popular item with customizers who soon adapted them to many other makes of cars.
As in the rest of the Corporate line, safety became a big issue. Dash knobs were located beneath the raised instrument panel, the back of the front seat in sedans was heavily padded and door handles, both inside and out, were redesigned to prevent snagging of clothing and accidental opening.
Built on a two-inch-shorter wheelbase (116 inches) the S-3 came in business coupe, rumble-seat coupe, convertible coupe, two-door fastback Brougham, two-door Touring Brougham (with built-in trunk), four-door fastback, or Touring Sedan as well as a four-door convertible sedan that shared its body with Chrysler. Bodies for the four-door convertible were built by Murray rather than Chrysler’s normal body supplier Briggs—most DeSoto bodies were supplied by Kercheval, a Chrysler-owned subsidiary.
Extended wheelbase models rode on a three-inch-longer 133-inch wheelbase, and included a four-door seven-passenger touring sedan, seven-passenger limousine, and a California seven-passenger taxi.
Power came from a 93-horsepower, 228-cubic-inch six, a destroked version of last year’s engine. Hypoid axles were now used across the board and the one-time popular option of fender-mounted spare tires were discontinued. Also on the option list was the $35 “Gas-Saver” overdrive transmission which it was claimed gave “one mile free in every five.”
A special DeSoto convertible sedan served as official car for the secretary of the AAA race board during the running of the Indianapolis 500 (not as the pace car, as has been erroneously reported elsewhere). And to the chagrin of criminals everywhere, DeSoto police cars of the Eastchester, New York, police department were the first in the world to install three-way radio communication, allowing car-to-car or car-to-base communications.
Calendar year sales of 86,541 units carried DeSoto to an all-time high 11th-place finish in industry sales.
Like the rest of the Corporate line, the ’38 DeSoto was a mildly face-lifted version of the previous year. Gone was the alligator-style hood, replaced by a shorter and more conventional butterfly type. A heavy, shorter die-cast grille flanked an aluminum chevron-style center grille. Headlamps were now integrated into the tops of the fenders, windshield wipers moved to the cowl, and for the first time, the windshield was fixed in place—fresh air coming to the passenger compartment via a cowl-mounted ventilator.
Wheelbase increased three inches, to 119 inches, the longest of any DeSoto to that time. Under the hood sat the same power plant as the previous year, a 93-horsepower six displacing 228 cubic inches.
Again offered in just one series—coded S-5—buyers had the choice of business coupe, rumble-seat coupe (the last rumble-seat coupes DeSoto would built), two-door Touring Brougham (with trunk), flat-back two door, four-door Touring Sedan, four-door fastback sedan, convertible coupe, or four-door convertible sedan (also the last four-door convertible DeSoto would build). Long wheelbase models also gained three inches in wheelbase, to 136 inches in four-door seven-passenger, seven-passenger limousine, and seven-passenger California taxi body styles. A handful of chassis were shipped to the Cantrell company for installation of station wagon bodies and at least one special Town Car was built by Derham.
An unusual option was the DeSoto Ambulance conversion. Unlike the Plymouth ambulance conversions, which allowed a stretcher to be inserted through the trunk, the DeSoto Ambulance featured a removable center door post and removable passenger front seat. Held in place by dowels and thumb screws, the center post could be easily removed to allow insertion of a gurney into the passenger compartment. In later years, a more modern version with swing-out-of-the-way center post would be offered.
Wounded by the Recession of ’38, calendar year sales of 32,688 were off 62% compared to the record year of 1937. Despite the drastic decline, DeSoto slipped only one notch, to 12th, for the year.
Gambling the recession of ’38 would be brief, Chrysler Corporation spent $15 million revamping its car lines for ’39. Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, and Imperial would all receive new bodies while Plymouth would be forced to soldier on with its old body, although a major redesign cleverly hid that fact.
Coded the S-6 series, DeSoto again offered two trim levels in Deluxe or Custom form. Oddly enough, even long-wheelbase models would be available in either trim level.
Streamlined styling featured a prow-like front end, the nose of the car covered with horizontal chrome grille bars on either side of the main grille whose bars stretched back toward the hood. A vee’d, two-piece windshield added length to the cowl and interior compartment. Headlamps and tail lamps were an integral part of the fenders, giving the cars a streamlined appearance. Four square vents decorated the lower hood panels, which were now fastened into place but removable for service of the engine.
Custom series equipment included dual sun visors, dual horns, dual tail lamps, and darker-colored interior fabrics. All cars received electric windshield wipers and column-mounted gear shifting.
Missing from the DeSoto line up this year was the convertible sedan and convertible coupe—only Plymouth would offer any open cars in the Corporation this year—and rumble-seat coupe. With the new bodies, the old-style humpback Touring Sedan body was discontinued, all cars now designed with a built-in rear luggage compartment. Deluxe buyers had the choice of three-passenger business coupe, three or five-passenger auxiliary seat coupe, or two- or four-door sedans. Long-wheelbase Deluxe models included a seven-passenger taxi, sedan, or limousine.
Custom models offered the same lineup with two exceptions—there was no Custom seven-passenger taxi, and only Custom buyers could opt for the Custom Club Coupe.
Built by Hayes, the Custom Club Coupe featured a special roofline with thin window pillar posts. A one-year-only model shared with Chrysler, Imperial, and Dodge, only 1,000 Hayes bodies were supplied to the Corporation. Of these, just 264 DeSoto Custom Club Coupes were built.
Wheelbase remained the same 119 inches as ’38 (136 inches on long-wheelbase cars) powered by a 93-horsepower, 228-cubic-inch six. New for the year was a column-mounted shift lever, a Safety Signal speedometer that changed colors as the cars speed increased, and electric windshield wipers.
With the discontinuance of open cars, DeSoto circulated photographs of sunroof-equipped coupes and sedans. Dealer letters indicate intent to produce these sunroof cars for sale. Dealer price sheets, while listing the sunroof, did not indicate any price for the option which was later quietly dropped apparently due to lack of interest. Cars photographed with the option were probably prototypes that never reached the public—if any such cars did find their way to a customer, they would be an extremely rare vehicle today.
With the improving economic picture, DeSoto sales rebounded to 53,269 for the calendar year, yet DeSoto found itself slipping to 14th place—a position it had last seen in 1931.
This book is reprinted with the permission and cooperation of Jim Benjaminson, who holds the copyright to the text and to his photos. Also see his book Plymouth 1946-1959.
Plymouth Commercial Vehicles
Top Ten List and Club Directory
Plymouth 1946-1959: Introduction • Turbines • Diesels • Christine • Dream Cars • Print version1924-1945 • 1946-48 • 1949 • 1950 • 1951 • 1952 • 1953 • 1954 • 1955 • 1956 • 1957 • 1958 • 1959 DeSoto and Plymouth Buyers’ Guide: DeSoto 1929-39 • DeSoto 1940s • DeSoto 1950s • Exports
Plymouth 1928-29 • 1930-34 • 1935-39 • 1940s • 1950s • 1960s • 1970s • Valiant/Barracuda
Acknowledgements • Introduction • Top Ten Lists and Clubs
Is there an error on this page? Let us know and you could win a prize!
More Mopar Car and Truck News