by Jim Benjaminson
Redesigned for 1940, the S7 DeSoto again featured a split grille motif of horizontal chrome grille bars centered between fender-mounted sealed-beam headlamps. Buyers could again choose between two trim levels, again called Deluxe and Custom, either model easily identified by the script found on the lower rear hood panels, spelling out the trim level. In addition, Custom models had chrome trim around the windshield, windows, and above and below the tail lamps not found on the Deluxe.
Wheelbase increased 3½ inches to 122½ inches and to a whopping 139½ inches on extended-wheelbase cars which again could be had in either trim level. Power was provided by a 100-horsepower six displacing 228 cubic inches—marking the first time since the Airflow that a DeSoto reached a triple-digit rating.
Deluxe buyers could choose between the three-passenger business coupe, three- or five-passenger auxiliary seat coupe, and two- or four-door sedans (still carrying the title of Touring Sedan although the luggage compartment was now an integral part of the body). Only two long-wheelbase cars, a seven-passenger sedan or the seven-passenger California taxi, came in Deluxe trim.
Custom body types included the same as the Deluxe, with the additional of a convertible coupe (with power-operated top) which returned to the lineup this year. Long-wheelbase Customs included a seven-passenger sedan and limousine. At mid-year DeSoto brought out the Sportsman, a gussied-up four-door sedan featuring two-tone paint in three combinations of green, gray, or blue over gunmetal. Colors were split along the belt line and extended over the hood; other Sportsman features included two-tone interior fabrics, chrome trim on door panels, a color steering wheel, two-tone wood grain on the instrument panel, and additional exterior chrome trim including windshield divider bar, chrome strips on the hood nose, and chrome speedline strips on the fenders. The Sportsman name would become more familiar during the 1950s applied to the hardtop convertible bodies. Optional for all models were “Safety Rim Wheels” which held the tire on the rim in case of flat or blowout—safety rim wheels would become standard equipment on all Chrysler lines for ’41.
Added to the option list was a semi-automatic transmission called “Fluid Drive.” Although it would be years before Chrysler Corporation would offer a truly fully automatic transmission, Fluid Drive would be a staple of all car lines except Plymouth for years to come.
Fluid Drive discarded the conventional flywheel in favor of a fluid coupling. There was no metal-to-metal contact as found in a regular clutch/pressure plate combination. Fluid Drive provided two gear lever positions—“low” controlling first and second gear (used mainly for extra pulling power) and “high” which engaged third and fourth gears. Fluid Drive still required a clutch which was needed when shifting to reverse or initially into high range. Once under way, it was necessary to release the accelerator pedal to allow the transmission to shift in final high, usually accomplished with an audible “thump.”
83,805 DeSotos found homes by end of calendar year 1940, good enough to move it into tenth place in industry sales.
DeSoto launched its Rocket line of bodies for 1941, longer, wider, and with a lower belt line, returning to the alligator-style hood opening first used in ’37. The hood latch was released from inside the passenger compartment to foil battery thieves, as after DeSoto moved it from under the driver’s seat where it had resided since 1929.
Carrying the same styling motif of years past, the grille was made up of 14 curved, vertical bars on either side of the center body panel, only now the bars ran vertically rather than horizontal, setting a DeSoto styling trend that would last for the next 15 years. Three short, horizontal trim strips decorated the nose of the car. Running boards were now fully concealed on all models.
Coded the S8, Deluxe, or Custom trim levels were offered for both regular and long-wheelbase vehicles. Deluxe models were fitted with the familiar 100-horsepower 228 six, achieved at a 6.5-to-1 compression ratio—Custom models now boasted 105 horses, reached by raising compression to 6.8 to 1. Wheelbase was decreased by an inch, to 121.5—long-wheelbase models continued to be built on the 139.5-inch wheelbase.
Deluxe body styles were the same as 1940 while the Custom differed by the addition of the four-door Town Sedan. Unlike the regular four doors, where the rear door opened backwards (suicide style), the Town Sedan opened in conventional fashion. Rear quarter windows normally found in the roof-body side structure, were carried in the door frame on Town Sedans. The Town Sedan was an across the board addition to all Chrysler lines with the exception of Plymouth, which wouldn’t get that body style until next year. Custom models were easily identified by the vertical chrome strips decorating the tail lamps and by chrome reveal body moldings. The word DeSoto was prominently stamped into each rear bumper bar. Two-tone paint could be had on any closed model at slight extra cost and running boards could be deleted as a no cost option.
This year’s Sportsman was a club coupe fitted with convertible-type upholstery of leather and whipcord. DeSoto ambulance conversions continued to be available, now featuring a hinged (rather than removable) B pillar.
Fluid Drive, now coupled with Simplimatic transmission, was continued. To prove how easy a DeSoto with Fluid Drive was to operate, two young ladies—Virginia Campbell and Joselyn Reynolds—were given a car to drive cross country. Recording 13,611 miles in five months, the two women claimed they had never once had to shift the car during the entire trip.
Calendar-year figures showed a slight increase in sales, to 85,980 units—not that much higher than 1940, but enough to push DeSoto into tenth place overall for the year.
DeSoto’s 1942 models are among the most sought after of the prewar cars for two reasons—their relative scarcity caused by early production shut down for the duration of the war, and their one-year-only hidden headlamps.
Mildly restyled, DeSoto took on dramatic new dimensions through the use of the hidden headlamp concept, pioneered by the 1936 Cord 810. DeSoto’s airfoil lamps hid beneath retractable panels at the leading edge of the fenders, advertised as “out of sight except at night.” Clean fenders drew attention to the heavier, 37-tooth vertical grille. Chrome fender trim that wrapped from side to side provided the break line between the expanses of painted sheet metal and the tooth grille, culminating as the grille peaked below the forward edge of the hood. Rectangular parking lamps and a hood medallion that fell to join the upper grille cavity and concealed running boards were among the remaining changes to the car.
Coded S10, the ’42 DeSoto was again offered in two trim levels—Deluxe and Custom, both available in two wheelbase lengths—121.5 and 139.5 inches. Power came from an engine bored slightly to 3 7/16 inches, displacing 237 cubic inches and developing 115 horsepower. Power was transmitted by the standard three-speed manual transmission, with Fluid Drive and Simplimatic transmission optional.
Deluxe buyers had their choice of business coupe, club coupe, two- or four-door sedan, four-door Town Sedan with blind quarter windows, and a convertible coupe—only 79 ragtops were built before DeSoto production was shut down on January 30, 1942 (Dodge production came to a halt a day earlier, Plymouth and Chrysler production the next day). Long-wheelbase Deluxes included a seven-passenger sedan and seven-passenger California taxi. Custom models included a business coupe, club coupe, convertible coupe (489 built), two-door Brougham, four-door sedan, and four-door Town Sedan. Long-wheelbase Customs included a seven-passenger sedan and seven-passenger limousine. Never built in large quantities, these big cars saw production of just 79 and 20 units, respectively.
1942 production amounted to slightly better than 25,000 units, but calendar-year sales came to just 4,186, dropping DeSoto to 14th for the year.
Like the rest of the Corporation, DeSoto was late getting back into the business of building automobiles after the war. Building just 367 Deluxe and a single Custom cars in December of ’45, the new ’46 DeSotos were based on the short-lived ’42 body. Restyling included a new hood, new front fenders that blended back into the door, and restyled rear fenders. Gone were the hidden headlamps, but the grille design left little doubt as to DeSoto’s heritage, made up of vertical grille teeth like the ’42. Larger parking lamps sat below the front fender molding which curved over the grille cavity. Prominently exposed headlamps and wrap-around front bumper completed the package.
Coded the S11 series, the Deluxe line was given the additional code letter of S (Custom models became the S11-C) series. Two wheelbase lengths, unchanged from 1942, would be offered, but now just in the Custom line. Body style choices were likewise pared down, the Deluxe to just four including three-passenger coupe, club coupe, and two- or four-door sedans. Customs could be had in club coupe, convertible (now offering four color choices), and two- or four-door sedan on the regular chassis—or eight-passenger sedan or limousine, and new to the line, eight-passenger Suburban.
Not appearing in the sales lineup until November of 1946, the Suburban was designed for use in posh hotel settings or for the well-healed buyer who needed hauling capacity along with room for many passengers. The Suburban featured a fold-down rear seat with no partition between the trunk and passenger compartment, a metal-and-wood roof rack for even more carrying capacity, and beautifully finished wooden interior panels. Seats were upholstered in a heavy plastic called Delon. Priced at $2,093 it was the most expensive DeSoto built, yet 7,500 of them would be sold.
Like the rest of the Corporate line, there would be no discernible changes in the S11 series until it was phased out of production in favor of the “second-series” DeSoto in March of ’49. The engine and drive train remained unchanged from postwar models, even the huge two-ton Suburban would be hauled around by the 237-cubic-inch six, now rated at 109 horsepower (down from 1942). Tire sizes were changed late in 1947, from 6.00 x 16 inches on regular chassis cars to 7.60 x 15 inches. Due to shortages, whitewall tires were not available until April ’47, most of the early cars fitted with a plastic inner wheel liner that gave the effect of whitewalls. Transmission changes came in the form of Chryslers M6 hydraulically controlled (rather than vacuum controlled) four speed known as Gyrol Drive with Tip Toe Shift.
Cars built after January 1, 1947, were considered to be ’47 models, likewise cars after January 1, 1948, were ’48s—anything built after December 1, 1948, was considered by the factory to be a 1949 model. When the “true” ’49s came on line they were called, for lack of anything better, the “second-series” 1949.
Calendar years sales of 62,860 for 1946 put DeSoto up one notch, to 13th place over its 1942 showing. Despite increased sales, DeSoto’s market share slipped in each of the following two years—81,752 for calendar year ’47 saw DeSoto move back to 14th, 92,920 units for ’48 slipped DeSoto back another notch to 15th.
Among the last of the big three to introduce its true 1949 models, Chrysler Corporation spent $90 million bringing the new cars on line. Not one single piece of sheet metal or trim interchanged with previous models as the old turtle back body shell was finally replaced by modern styling, at least by Keller’s standards. Although a radical change from prior years, the new DeSotos were conservatively styled—too conservative for some in what in now derided as the Keller “three box” school of styling.
A half inch shorter, two and a half inches narrower, and considerably lower than the S11, DeSoto shared its basic body and engine block with Chrysler. Despite a four-inch-longer wheelbase for regular chassis cars, the new DeSotos looked shorter and boxier than they actually were. Different ornamentation and a smaller engine told the world DeSoto was one step beneath Chrysler in the corporate pecking order. A vertical grille of alternating wide and narrower bars (two narrower bars to each wide bar) did little to help the cars’ rather high appearance, but it gave DeSoto instant recognition. Windshields were still two pieces of flat glass, a move made for cost reduction than style, making for a pronounced belt line where the roof met the body. Riding on the leading edge of the hood was a DeSoto coat of arms medallion beneath a lighted ornament featuring the bust of Hernando DeSoto. Tail lamps sat in little pods on top of the detachable rear fenders.
Trim levels were still Deluxe and Custom, coded S13-1 and S13-2, respectively. Deluxe buyers were given a choice of club coupe, four-door sedan, the new “Carry-All,” and four-door station wagon. The wagon, a first for DeSoto, offered the marques first “factory” wagon, a four-door affair with wood body (the only other wagons had been built by outside body builders although the DeSoto body was provided by Chrysler’s “house” builder U.S. Body & Forging). Although the body (and roof) were all steel, it was trimmed with ash trimming and DiNoc panels. Only 850 wagons would be built.
Perhaps more significant was the Carry-All. Similar to the Suburban but built on the short-wheelbase chassis, the Carry-All’s rear seat folded down to provide cargo carrying capacity. Like the Suburban, there was no partition between trunk and passenger compartment with the rear deck and seat back trimmed with wood protected by steel skid strips; unlike the Suburban, the Carry All did not have a roof rack. Until the introduction of an all-steel station wagon, the Carry All combined the best of both worlds—sales of 2,690 clearly showed buyers preferred a maintenance free body to that of the woody wagon.
Custom buyers again could choose either regular or long-wheelbase models—regular chassis body types included a club coupe, convertible coupe, or four-door sedan, with long-wheelbase eight-passenger sedan, or nine-passenger Suburban. Gone was the long-wheelbase limousine.
Powered by the same 237-cubic-inch six as before, horsepower was raised to 112 via increased compression ratio (still three horsepower less than the ’42 DeSoto). Custom buyers were treated to Gyrol Fluid Drive with Tip Toe hydraulic shift as standard equipment, an option that ran Deluxe buyers an extra $121.
Calendar year sales of 108,440 DeSotos carried the marque back to 13th place for the year.
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.
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