by Jim Benjaminson
DeSoto’s 1950 cars, like the Plymouths, were essentially restyled ’49s. They could be easily identified by the addition of a body color panel in the center of the grille, dividing the 14 grille teeth which by this time had become a DeSoto trademark.
Minor trim differences such as round (rather than vertical) park lamps, the DeSoto script replacing the DeSoto coat of arms on the hood (the coat of arms was inset into the center painted grille panel), and an all-metal DeSoto bust hood ornament set the two cars apart. Around back, it took an observant eye to notice the rear fenders had been extended slightly and now featured recessed tail lamps, the first since 1939. There had been significant, albeit nearly imperceptible changes in the body structure, the ’50 using a larger rear window than ’49 models.
Henning Anderson added: “The most telling difference between 1949 and 1950 were the front and rear bumpers. The ’49 were rippled top to bottom, while they were smooth on ’50s and many were concave. It was the easiest way to spot a 1949 from a 1950.”
Mechanically the same and on the same wheelbase as ’49, the Deluxe was coded S14-1, the Custom S14-2. Major changes for the year came with the addition of several new body types. Deluxe models could be had in club coupe, four door, or four-door Carry All form. A long-wheelbase Deluxe, an eight-passenger sedan, was added to the lineup.
The Custom series saw the greatest number of changes—added to the customary four-door sedan, club coupe, and convertible coupe was the Sportsman hardtop convertible.
Chrysler had pioneered the two-door hardtop concept when it built a handful of Town and Country hardtops right after the war. For whatever reason, Chrysler dropped the idea only to see it picked up by General Motors. Wildly popular on Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles—even Chevrolet had a hardtop—Chrysler was forced to play catch up to an idea they had pioneered!
Known as a “hardtop convertible,” the body was essentially that of a convertible with steel roof panel welded in place of the folding cloth top. Doors, interiors, and trim panels interchanged between the two body types. Rear windows of the Sportsman consisted of three pieces separated by attractive dividers. Sales of 4,600 Sportsmen trailed only the four-door sedan and club coupe in popularity.
The addition late in the year of an all-steel four-door station wagon (featuring a roll-down rear window) along with the four-door wood-body wagon gave buyers a choice. Only 100 all-steel wagons would be built, compared to 600 wood-body wagons—the last wood wagons DeSoto would offer.
Only two long-wheelbase Customs, the eight-passenger sedan and nine-passenger Suburban were cataloged. As before, Gyrol Fluid Drive with Tip Toe shifting was standard on Custom and optional on Deluxe DeSotos.
DeSoto, as well as Plymouth, enjoyed the best sales years in their history, DeSoto ending with a calendar total of 127,557 units. Despite this increase DeSoto’s market share decreased, dropping one notch to 14th for the year.
DeSoto entered the ’51 model year under the same cloud of Korean War restrictions as the rest of the industry. Material shortages of aluminum, copper, and chromium, along with a hesitancy on the part of the government to place military orders or restrict production of civilian automobiles, played havoc with the car companies.
Mildly redesigned, the S15 DeSoto featured a sloped hood with stamped windsplits, leading to a massive nine-tooth grille and heavier front bumper. Among the more noticeable changes was deletion of the chrome trim between the hood and grille opening. The DeSoto coat of arms returned to the leading edge of the hood while an all-metal bust of Hernando rode atop the hood.
Bodies were devoid of chrome trim with the exception of a rear fender spear, windshield trim, and belt line moldings. Model names remained the same, the Deluxe line (S15-1) including a four-door sedan, club coupe, and the six-passenger Carry All on the same 125.5-inch wheelbase. A single 139.5-inch-wheelbase Deluxe, the four-door eight-passenger sedan was also continued.
Custom models (coded S15-2) included all of last year’s models with the exception of the wood-body station wagon which had been discontinued.
DeSoto’s semi-automatic transmission was standard on Custom models and optional on Deluxes. No doubt some customers had to go without an automatic as National Production Authority restrictions kept the number of automatic-equipped DeSotos at 65% of total production. A planned Hemi-head V8 engine for DeSoto had to be delayed until the following year because of the unavailability of machine tools.
Calendar-year sales slipped slightly, to 121,794 units although DeSoto’s market shared climbed to 12th where DeSoto would remain for the next three years.
There was little change between the 1951 and 1952 DeSotos—at least at first. It took a sharp eye to notice the differences between the two model years. Block, rather than script, lettering on the hood, a different hood ornament, and revised tail lamps were the major differences.
Because of the few changes, the ’52 DeSotos also carried the code of S15-1 for Deluxe and S15-2 for Custom trim. Serial numbers were bumped slightly to differentiate between the ’51 and ’52, but production figures for the two years were lumped together.
It wasn’t until Valentine’s Day 1952 that the biggest change took place, when the new DeSoto Firedome V8 was introduced. Based on the Chrysler hemispherical-cylinder-head V8, introduced the previous year, the over-square design (3 5/8-inch bore x 3 11/31-inch stroke) displaced 276 cubic inches, pumping out 160 horsepower.
DeSoto’s first eight cylinder since 1930, the Firedome (S17) was basically a Custom with changes to note the new powerplant. A newly designed hood with functional scoop (which was added to the Deluxe and Custom lines) and Firedome 8 fender script, along with a V8 insignia on the deck lid, gave notice of the potent new engine. All three series rode on the 125.5-inch-wheelbase chassis and all three offered at least one 139.5-inch-wheelbase body style.
Transmission choices include manual shift with or without overdrive, Fluid Drive with Tip Toe shift or Top Toe shift with Fluid Torque Drive as options. Fluid Torque Drive substituted a torque converter in place of the fluid coupling, providing a 2.34-to-1 torque multiplication. Also known as FluidMatic (similar to Plymouth’s Hy-Drive), Fluid Torque Drive used engine oil to operate the transmission. It was optional only with the Firedome V8.
Also new for the year was power steering, electric window lifts, and tinted windows. Some ’52 DeSotos may also be found with power brakes, an option not offered until 1955 but released by MoPar parts as a retrofit service package for these models.
Deluxe DeSotos could be had in club coupe, four door, or Carry All body types, or long-wheelbase eight-passenger sedan (some long-wheelbase six-passenger taxis were also built). The Custom series continued the four door, club coupe, Sportsman hardtop, convertible, and four-door station wagon along with the extended-wheelbase eight-passenger sedan or nine-passenger Suburban.
Firedome V8 DeSotos included a four-door sedan, club coupe, Sportsman two-door hardtop, convertible coupe, four-door station wagon, and a single long-wheelbase eight-passenger sedan.
Calendar-year production fell to 97,558 units but DeSoto remained firmly in 12th place.
1953 marked DeSoto’s and Plymouth’s 25th anniversary, yet the Corporation chose not to dwell on the subject—nor build any anniversary models to commemorate the event. As mentioned earlier, this may have been due to the fact both Buick and Ford were celebrating 50th anniversaries.
There were major changes, however. A completely new body—again of the Keller “larger on the inside, smaller on the outside” dictate—was carried off without as stubby looking a car as either Dodge or Plymouth. Wheelbase remained at 125.5 inches for all models except the extended-wheelbase eight-passenger sedan which used the previous year’s body with the addition of the 1953’s curved, one-piece windshield.
At long last the names Deluxe and Custom were laid to rest, replaced by Powermaster for all six-cylinder models, the Firedome name retained for V8-powered cars. Eleven protruding grille teeth marked the new DeSoto’s front end, the teeth coming to a peak under the center of the hood, with oval park lamps under the headlamps in the grille cavity. Integral rear fenders were a marked change from years past (the extended-wheelbase eight-passenger sedan, which used the ’52 body, still had detachable rear fenders).
The club coupe appeared to be little more than a two-door sedan (and is many times incorrectly called that).
There were no changes under the hood of either series (the Powermaster coded S18—Firedome S16). Horsepower in the six remained at 116, 160 for the V8. Transmission choices included manual with or without overdrive, semi-automatic Fluid Drive with Tip Toe Shift, and Fluid Torque Drive. Added to the option list this year was air conditioning in January and chrome wire wheels.
With the end of hostilities in Korea, chrome trim became more abundant and may have marked an effort by Chrysler’s new head of styling to liven up the cars.
Missing from the Powermaster line was the Carry All sedan, replaced instead by the four-door station wagon. Also in the Powermaster lineup was a four-door sedan, club coupe, Sportsman two-door hardtop, and the long-wheelbase eight-passenger sedan—a car it would have seemed more suited to have been built with V8 power!
This entire lineup was repeated in the Firedome series, with the addition of a convertible coupe. Calendar-year sales set an all-time high record (as did those of Plymouth) to 129,963 units—again keeping DeSoto locked into 12th place.
From outward glances, the ’54 DeSoto was little changed from the previous year. Most noticeable was a reduction in grille teeth, back again to just nine. Bumpers were more rounded and ornamentation was rearranged—but the word for year 1954 was “PowerFlite.”
Chrysler’s first true fully automatic transmission, PowerFlite combined a torque converter with a two-speed gear box. No longer was there a need for a clutch pedal—drivers could shift from neutral to forward or reverse without needing to use their left foot. Optional, at $189 on all models, PowerFlite was popular for both Powermaster six and Firedome V8s.
Styling changes for the year included a nine-tooth grille centered between circular out board parking lamps, all riding on the same floating bar in the grille cavity. The prominent V on the hood surrounding the DeSoto coat of arms and prominent hood scoop were carried over from ’53.
Powermaster (S20) body styles included a club coupe, four-door sedan, Sportsman two-door hardtop, and four-door station wagon on the 125.5-inch-wheelbase chassis, and an eight-passenger sedan on the 139.5-inch chassis. The wagon continued to use the ’49 DeSoto body with detachable rear fenders, as did the eight-passenger sedan.
Firedomes (series S19) offered the same lineup, with the addition of a convertible coupe. Updating the Sportsman hardtop was a new one-piece rear window. Joining the line for the spring selling season was the Coronado sedan. Differing in paint and trim, the Coronado borrowed its bright work from the Chrysler New Yorker, adding Coronado medallions to the rear fenders and on the C pillar. The Coronado would be continued before the name was relegated for use by Plymouth on a series of extended-wheelbase sedans built for export markets in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Powermaster sixes, now in their last year, still churned out 116 horsepower from 250 cubic inches. The Firedome V8, with increased compression, now pumped out 170 horses.
Although 1953 had set all-time production records, it soon became evident buyers were flocking away from Chrysler products—sales and production hit all-time lows as evidenced by a decline in DeSoto deliveries to just 69,844 units for the calendar year. Despite the drop, DeSoto remained 12th.
It was the called “The Forward Look,” and it came none too soon. Under the direction of Virgil Exner, every car in the corporate line received a major restyling. All new bodies that emphasized “the forward look of motion” were the order of the day, to undo the damage done by Keller’s boxy dictates. Designed in just 18 months, Chrysler Corporation borrowed $250 million from the Prudential Insurance Company to affect the change. Exner himself penned the lines of the Chrysler, DeSoto, and Imperial, leaving his associate Maury Baldwin to tackle Dodge and Plymouth.
What evolved was a line of cars lower, longer, and wider—and modern in every sense of the word. Carrying on the tradition set in 1941, DeSoto featured a toothy grille, this time with seven teeth nestled between protruding buck teeth bumper over riders. Oblong parking lamps at the extreme ends of the grille cavity completed the front end. Separate letters spelled out DeSoto beneath what appeared to be a hood-scoop-type ornament which also carried the DeSoto medallion. Headlamps were deeply set into chromed rims.
Along the side, a forward pointing swept spear of trim provided color break lines for two-tone paint—this design, too, would become a DeSoto trademark for the next few years (this on Fireflite models only—Firedomes were decorated with a single body-length trim strip). Vertical tail lamps capped the rear fenders. Across the deck lid DeSoto was again spelled out in individual letters set above a prominent V.
Again, two series were offered—the S22 Firedome, which took its place at the bottom of the sales lineup, and the upscale S21 Fireflite. Under the hood, the venerable out six had been put out to pasture and for the remainder of its days, DeSoto would have V8 power. Built on a 126-inch-wheelbase chassis (shared with Chrysler) the DeSoto Hemi now boasted 291 cubic inches from a bore and stroke of 3.72 x 3.344. Firedome’s version put out 185 horsepower, the Fireflite’s an even 200, the difference coming from use of a four-barrel carburetor.
Transmission choices still included a three-speed manual with or without overdrive and the fully automatic two-speed PowerFlite. Fireflites equipped with PowerFlite were fitted with a water-cooled transmission, Firedome’s an air-cooled version. Like the rest of the corporate line, the PowerFlite’s shift lever protruded from the instrument panel—it would stay there just one year, as DeSoto adopted pushbuttons in ’56.
Firedomes came in four door, convertible, Sportsman hardtop, and Special hardtop coupe as well as four-door station wagon. Fireflites could be had in four-door sedan, convertible coupe, and Sportsman hardtop coupe styles. Again added for the spring selling season was the Coronado sedan. Based on the Fireflite four door, the Coronado offered DeSoto’s first three-tone paint scheme of light green, black, and white applied to the top, color sweep, and body. Customers were given the choice of where the colors were applied, resulting in six possible color variations. Coronado upholstery was leather.
Extended-wheelbase sedans were dropped as sales had never really justified their existence, other than the taxi trade or for professional cars. Chrysler and DeSoto had been among the last holdouts (with the exception of luxury builders such as Cadillac and Packard).
With calendar-year sales of 129,767, DeSoto sales were about 200 cars less than 1953—it would prove to be DeSoto’s last high water mark. DeSoto once again captured the number 12 spot in industry sales.
Having received all new bodies for ’55, DeSoto, like the rest of the corporate line, had to make due with a warmed over restyle for ’56. Most noticeable was DeSoto’s rear quarters, which began to sprout the first visages of tail fins. Frontal appearance was changed by switching to a mesh grille, replacing the familiar toothy grilles of years past.
Again, two series were DeSoto’s mainstay, the Firedome (S23) and Fireflite (S24). Before the end of the year, two specialty models would be added, both of which would become the most memorable DeSotos of all.
DeSoto announced in January it had been chosen to provide the pace car for the Indianapolis 500, a first for DeSoto. They fielded a Fireflite convertible, with a stock engine and beefed up suspension; the car was dubbed the “Pacesetter.”
The contract with the Speedway called for two cars suitable for use as the pace car along with 20 support vehicles of various types for official use. It wasn't long until the Pacesetter convertible was made available to the general public. Painted white with gold trim, the Pacesetter was identical in all aspects to the actual pace car with the exception of the pace car’s lettering. All Pacesetter convertibles were equipped with power seats, electric windows, electric clock, Jiffy Jet windshield washer, along with special gold wheel covers, “Forward Look” emblems over a checkered flag background, gold-mesh grille (with silver V medallion), and special air-scoop medallion. Because the Pacesetter was based on the Fireflite convertible it is unknown how many of the 1,485 Fireflite convertibles were built as pace car replicas.
1956 was Chrysler Corporation’s year for factory hot rods. It had begun with the C300 Chryslers of 1955 carrying over to both Plymouth and DeSoto for ’56—Plymouth getting the Fury, DeSoto the Adventurer.
A sub-series of the S24 Fireflite, the Adventurer took its name from a DeSoto dream car built in ’54. The dream car had been a close-coupled four-passenger coupe built on a 111-inch wheelbase. The production Adventurer was a hardtop coupe (based on the Fireflite Sportsman) fitted with a special 341-cubic-inch, 320-horsepower Hemi engine. Enlarged valve ports, high-lift camshaft, larger diameter valves, heavy-duty valve springs, modified slipper-skirt pistons, heavy-duty connecting rods, and shot-peened crankshaft topped with two Carter four-barrel carbs meant the Adventurer was one powerful automobile.
Standard equipment included power brakes, whitewall tires, dual tailpipe extensions, dual outside rear-view mirrors, rear-mounted manual radio antennas, padded instrument panel, power front seat, electric windows, windshield washers, electric clock, and heavy-duty suspension completed the package.
Officially introduced as the Golden Adventurer on February 18, 1956, the car has often been confused with the Pacesetter convertible. Both shared the same gold vinyl with brown tweed insert upholstery, black carpets, gold dash with black pad, and ivory-and-gold steering wheel. Both also had a stylized eagle sewed into the rear seatback rest. Pacesetter convertibles were white with gold sweep spears while the Golden Adventurer could be had in four different combinations of white and gold, gold and white, black and gold, or gold and black, or white and black, or black and white. Pacesetter convertibles were fitted with a gold top lined in white. Special turbine blade gold wheel covers and gold trim were shared between the two cars. Adding to the confusion between the two cars was the fact the '56 Adventurer was chosen to pace the Pikes Peak Hill Climb on July 4th.
A Golden Adventurer competed at the Daytona Speed Weeks in Florida, recording a top speed of 137 miles per hour; later the same car was clocked at 144 miles per hour on the high-bank track at Chrysler’s Chelsea proving grounds, where traction was better. Golden Adventurers were rare even when new, as only 996 were built.
DeSoto’s bread-and-butter Firedome models were powered by an enlarged 330-cubic-inch Hemi, developing 230 horsepower, coupled to a standard three-speed manual transmission with or without overdrive. PowerFlite was standard on the Fireflite, a $189 option on Firedomes. Fireflites also used the 330-cubic-inch Hemi, which through the use of a four-barrel carb, developed 255 horsepower. All cars switched to 12-volt electrical systems to meet the increased demands of power accessories. Push-button transmission controls came into use with the ’56 models, as an across the board corporate change.
Restyled body side trim still incorporated the color break line for two and three-tone paint schemes—Firedomes could easily be spotted by their chrome-plated headlamp bezels in contrast to the Fireflites deeply hooded, painted housing. Nestled beneath the slightly upraised fin sat a triple tier of tail lamps, a styling cue that would set DeSoto apart over the next few years. The color sweep spear was standard on all Fireflite Sportsman models and the convertible.
There were two sets of Firedome hardtops, the less expensive taking on the moniker “Seville,” in either two-door or four-door hardtop form. Cadillac would also offer a Seville model in ’56, although the name would seem more appropriate for DeSoto, as Seville was the name of the Spanish city that served as the departure point for Hernando DeSoto when he made his trip to the New World. Selling for $99 to $121 less than the Sportsman, Sevilles outsold them on a four to one ratio. Upscale was the Sportsman hardtops, again in two- or four-door format (four-door hardtops were produced by all divisions of the corporation for ’56), along with a conventional four door, four-door wagon, and convertible coupe.
Fireflites only had the Sportsman for hardtops, in either two- or four-door form, a four-door sedan, and two convertibles in regular or Pacesetter trim levels. Unusual options for the year included a gasoline-fired heater, steering wheel hub-mounted clock (it wound itself as the wheel was turned!), and an under-dash record player called “Hiway Hi-Fi,” playing through the car radio. Station wagon buyers could also purchase an optional kiddie seat that mounted behind the rear seat with room for two pint-size passengers. DeSotos had 14 solid colors and 84 two-tone combinations.
Although extended-wheelbase models had been discontinued in 1955, there was still enough demand for specialty models that DeSoto’s fleet sales office contracted with outside suppliers to build both extended-wheelbase, multi-door airport limousines and raised-roof industrial ambulances. Never built in great numbers, the Memphis Coach six door, three-seat airport limo featured a three-foot stretch.
DeSoto sales were off slightly for ’56, as was the rest of the industry, still calendar-year sales of 104,090 was among the best in DeSoto’s history—enough to move it up one notch to end the year in 11th place. 1956 would also mark a high point for DeSoto as it outsold Chrysler for the first and only time.
In aun unprecedented move—especially for Chrysler Corporation—DeSoto, along with every other Chrysler division, was all new, from the bottom up. In an industry where the customary norm was using a body shell for three years, Chrysler had scrapped everything after just two.
Starting with a longer, wider frame riding on unique longitudinal torsion bars with ball joints, wider wheels, and smaller-size rims, DeSoto was longer, lower, and wider than any preceding car. Sharing Torsion-Aire with the rest of the corporation, Motor Trend magazine would name all five Chrysler lines as its “Car Of The Year.” But there was more than just new engineering to crow about.
Exner's styling of the ’57 DeSoto took the dart shape of his earlier concept cars, with long smooth sides and a gently rising tailfin beginning just aft of the front door, rising to what seemed, at the time, to be towering heights. Falling down the back side of the fins were the now famous triple-tower tail lamps residing above oval-shaped exhaust ports built into the rear bumper. At the front, an flattened oval grille and bumper combination rode above protruding bumper overriders so reminiscent of prior toothy grilles.
Nestled into the fender tops were headlamps in either single or dual pattern—depending on which state the car would be sold in (eight states had not certified use of dual headlamps when the ’57 came on line). A double-compound curved windshield folded neatly into the A pillars without creating the “dog-leg” windshield post found on GM and Ford products, as well as curving into the roof. And then there was the razor-thin roof line giving the cars a light and airy appearance. It was a stunning design that brought customers running.
Plymouth’s advertising campaign, “Suddenly, it’s 1960,” spilled over to the rest of the corporate cars. Truly, the cars were three years—heck, light years—ahead of the competition, especially perennial style leader General Motors. Their 1957 products were at the end of a three-year cycle, and the ’58 bodies were already wrapped up. The shock waves felt from Chrysler’s styling coup caused GM top brass to counter-act, scrapping the '58 after just one year in a mad scramble to redesign their product line in time for the ’59 model run.
Chrysler Corporation sales soared to new heights but the euphoria would be short lived. Poor quality, shoddy workmanship, and rust problems would soon plague these outstanding designs causing a slump in sales that would prove to be nearly fatal. Victory would come at a terrible price.
DeSoto buyers were given three model choices for ’57, adding a line of shorter-wheelbase model called the FireSweep (S27) to the line. In designing the ’57 models, orders had come from above that all Chrysler Corporation station wagons would share the same body—be they DeSoto, Plymouth, Dodge, or Chrysler. This entailed designing the body so the entire front clip from any make could be bolted to it, by making sure all door skin panels would mate to the front fenders. The only drawback to this move was that all wagons would rely on Plymouth rear fenders—in the case of DeSoto, whose rear fenders canted rearward, the Plymouth wagon fender canted forward!
Chrysler had a long habit of playing name games, making one car into another, as witnessed by the export Dodges which were thinly disguised Plymouths, as well as the export only SP series DeSotos which were also little more than a Plymouth in drag. This time it was Dodge’s turn to dress up, to become the DeSoto FireSweep. Built in the Dodge assembly plant, it used a modified hood and front fenders to look like the full-size DeSoto. Powered by a 325-cubic-inch, 245-horsepower Dodge polyspherical Red Ram wedge V8 on a 122-inch wheelbase, FireSweeps could be had as a Sportsman hardtop in either two- or four-door form, as a regular four-door sedan, and in either of two station wagon models—the four-door, six-passenger Shopper or four-door, nine-passenger Explorer.
The nine passenger featured a rear facing third seat, an idea pirated from the ’56 Plymouth Plainsman concept wagon debuted the year before. The Shopper carried its spare tire behind a removable panel in the right-rear fender (another idea taken from the Plainsman).
The Explorer, on the other hand, eliminated the spare altogether, relying on Goodyear’s Captive Air tires to get them to their destination. The Goodyear Captive Air claimed it would “last as far as a tank of gas will take you.” The FireSweep would make its appearance only in the United States, Chrysler Canada building only the Firedome and Fireflite. Adding the FireSweep gave DeSoto price penetration into 91% of the market, or so it was claimed, DeSoto models covering everything except the low-price market (which held the lion’s share of the industry).
Last year’s low-priced line, the Firedome (S25), moved up to the middle rung on the sales ladder. A true DeSoto, it rode the same 126-inch wheelbase as before. Both it and the upscale Fireflite (S26) were powered by 341-cubic-inch V8, the Firedome version pumping out 270 horses, the Fireflite 295. Firedome models included the Sportsman hardtop with two or four doors, a four-door sedan, and convertible.
As the top of the line, the Fireflite series offered every model offered by the other two, including the Shopper and Explorer station wagons, four-door sedan, and both Sportsman hardtops.
Making its debut in December was the Adventurer, first in hardtop form and later joined by a convertible. A high-performance luxury automobile, both Adventurers came in white or black with gold trim and most every option as standard equipment.
Built on the 126-inch-wheelbase chassis, the Adventurer was powered by a dual four-barrel 345-cubic-inch Hemi V8 pumping out 345 horsepower. 345 horses from 345 cubes was an engineer’s dream—one horsepower per cubic inch—but it was Chevrolet, with its optional Rochester fuel-injected 283 Corvette V8 that got the credit and publicity, not DeSoto! The 283-horsepower Chevrolet was rarely seen (an option in the full-size Bel Air convertible and the Corvette), but neither marque sold enough of either engine to be noticeable—the 345-horsepower Adventurer saw just 1,650 hardtops and 300 convertibles built. Regardless, DeSoto had been the first to make such an engine as the standard power plant for the series.
Adventurers also sported dual headlamps as standard equipment—FireSweeps, Firedomes, and Fireflites were designed to accommodate either single or dual lamps, depending on where the vehicle was to be sold (eight of the 48 states had not yet made them legal went he ’57 DeSotos went on the market).
TorqueFlite, Chrysler’s new three-speed automatic transmission, was made optional on both the FireSweep and Firedome but buyers could still choose PowerFlite on FireSweep models. Joining the option list this year was a six-way power front seat. ’57 DeSotos could be had in any of 14 solid colors or 32 reversible two-tone combinations (FireSweeps pared the reversible two-tone combinations to 25). Fleet sales continued to offer industrial ambulance and hearse conversions, as well as special seven-passenger sedans. Also available was a line of DeSoto police specials and special taxi models (the taxis having been dropped two years earlier).
1957 would be DeSoto’s third-best year. With addition of the FireSweep, it was the only medium priced car to enjoy a sales gain over the previous year. DeSoto still placed 11th with calendar-year sales of 117,747 units. 1957 had been a pivotal year for DeSoto—unfortunately it would be all downhill from here.
In the second year of its body cycle, the ’58 DeSoto was only mildly face lifted. A new front grille-bumper, with round parking lamps added below the main bar, and a revised medallion were the only noticeable changes except for the dual headlamps which were now standard on all models. Trim changes included moving the color sweep higher up on the body side, sweeping upward as it reached the rear of the car.
Model and body style choices remained the same as ’57 with the exception of the addition of a convertible to the FireSweep line (again Canadian buyers were deprived of the FireSweep series).
The major changes had taken place under the hood. The Hemi, although among the most efficient and powerful engines ever built, was expensive to build, and heavy—much like carrying an anchor over the front wheels of the car. Hot rodders nicknamed it “The Elephant.” Eighteen months prior to introduction of the ’58 models, Chrysler engineers began work on a clean-sheet-of-paper design to replace the Hemi. It would be another classic design, one that most MoPar fans instantly recognize—it was the engine that became the 383, 400, 413, and 440 of later years.
In the FireSweep (still on its 122-inch-wheelbase Dodge chassis) it was 350 cubic inches producing 280 horsepower in standard form, with 295 horses optional.
In the Firedome and Fireflite it was 361 cubic inches, Firedomes running with 295 horses, the Fireflite 305. The Adventurer, too, received the 361 developing 345 horsepower from dual four-barrel carburetors.
Optional for the Adventurer (and Chrysler 300D) was the short-lived Bendix Electrojector fuel injection which promised 355 horsepower. Trouble prone and unreliable, albeit largely due to the short-lived electronics and insulation materials of the day, the Bendix system was unworkable in the long run; the few cars built with the option were later recalled to have the unit replaced by the standard dual four-barrel carburetor system. No accurate production figures for the Bendix system has been found, although it is rumored at least a dozen DeSotos were sold with the system. Rights to the system were sold to Bosch, and the basic design used from the 1970s onward.
Beginning with the 1958 models, Chrysler Corporation began a new series of engineering codes for their cars, using letters of the alphabet to designate model years. Under the new system, the FireSweep became an LS1-L (the first L indicating 1958, the S indicating DeSoto, the numeral 1 indicating the low-line series and the second L designating the low-price line—cars would be designated as L for low price, M for medium price, H for high price, and S for specialty models such as the Adventurer). The Firedome was now an LS2-M, Fireflite LS3-H, and the Adventurer LS3-S.
DeSoto again gave buyers 14 solid colors or 86 two-tone combinations to choose from (FireSweeps pared the two-tones to just 80 combinations).
DeSoto built its two-millionth car during the year, which happened to be its 30th anniversary as well. 1958 was a recession year for the industry and automobile sales fell accordingly. Some were hit harder than others but it was the medium-price cars that were hit the worst—and there was new competition on the block, as Ford Motor Company unveiled the Edsel. DeSoto sales had fallen like a rock—calendar-year sales managing to climb to just 36,556 units. Despite the drop, DeSoto still managed to cling to 13th place for the year. Regardless, the Corporation decided to move DeSoto production out of its own factory and into Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue plant. To many industry observers, DeSoto was in deep trouble...
Now in the third and final year of its styling cycle, Chrysler Corporation found itself again at a disadvantage against its rivals. Both Ford and GM were fielding new cars for the year—the GM cars among the wildest creations ever to hit the highways.
Realizing the need for change, $150 million was appropriated to redesign Chrysler’s products lines, mostly to restyle Plymouth; DeSoto, whose sales had fallen by 75% in ’58, would have to be content with a minor facelift of front and side trim.
DeSoto’s familiar wide-oval mouth became busier—two air scoops adorned with small raised ribs rode above a larger lower mouth—the bumper overriders capped with rubber tips. A conventional rectangular mesh grille rode above these gaping holes, running between the headlamps. Letters spelling out DeSoto ran across the hood, which was now shorn of medallions.
Side trim again featured a sweep spear—looking like an elongated checkmark the spear dipped behind the rear wheel well before sweeping up to the crest of the tailfin. Around back, the familiar triple-tower tail lamps again appeared. A busier rear bumper incorporated the license-plate holder (it had nestled in its own cove on the deck lid of the ’57-58 DeSotos). Two overriders, also capped by rubber, completed the package.
1959’s model lineup included the FireSweep (MS1-L) on its own unique 122-inch-wheelbase, the Firedome (MS2-M), Fireflite (MS3-H), and Adventurer (also MS3-H) retaining the 126-inch-wheelbase of years past. Standard power plant for the FireSweep was the 295-horsepower, 361-cubic-inch V8 but buyers could specify an optional engine—the same 350-horsepower 383 found under the hood of the Adventurer.
Raising the hood of the senior cars revealed a 383-cubic-inch big-block V8, the Firedome running 305 horses compared to the Fireflite carried 325-horse version. Like the FireSweep, either series could be fitted with the optional 350-horsepower Adventurer 383.
Adventurer engines continued to utilize dual four-barrel carburetors and hotter cams to achieve its 350-horsepower rating—all 383s demanded use of premium fuel. TorqueFlite transmissions were included as standard equipment on all series.
FireSweep body styles included the Sportsman hardtops, in two or four doors, a regular four-door sedan, convertible, six-passenger Shopper, or nine-passenger Explorer station wagon. Canadian buyers continued to find the FireSweep missing from their sales catalogs.
These same models were available in Firedome trim with the exception of the two wagon models, which reappeared in the Fireflite line along with the Sportsman hardtops and sedan.
The Adventurer coupe and convertible retained its two distinctive color schemes of white or black with gold anodized trim. As the high performance, personal luxury offering, whitewall tires, dual exhausts, power steering, and power brakes continued to be standard on the Adventurer. Also standard was the novel “Sports Swivel Seat.” Designed to provide semi-bucket type eating with fold-down center armrest, the Sport Swivel Seat could set three abreast if desired—but its main feature was the outer driver and passenger seat that could be unlatched to swivel outward. The idea was to make entry and exit into the vehicle easier. Sport Swivel Seats could be had manually or, as an option, power operated. In later years, the seats would be designed to automatically swivel out when the door was opened.
Swivel seats never really caught on, although they were catalogued for the next few years. The seats were optional on all Fireflites except station wagons, although some sources disagree on whether they were available on the Fireflite four-door sedan.
Sales rose only slightly for the year, to 41,423 units. Rumors began to circulate that DeSoto’s days were numbered, a rumor Chrysler continued to deny. Industry insiders, predicting Chrysler Corporation would switch to unibody construction in the near future, assumed DeSoto would not live to make the switch; but, despite a 13th-place showing for ’59, DeSoto still had a little life left to it.
Things were changing rapidly at DeSoto but at least it was still part of the family. DeSoto made the switch to unibody construction, using (as in the past) a Chrysler body reskinned to give DeSoto its own identity, at least until 1960. Now it took a good, long look to differentiate between the two marques.
A flat, drop-center grille dominated the front view (could the design have been pirated from Exner’s 1954 Adventurer I dream car?) with dual headlamps nestled into the upper corners of the grille. Parking lamps rode in the far corners of the grille cavity while the front bumper dipped in a “V” at the center of the car. The familiar sweep-spear side trim was narrowed to a straight band running from front to rear. Now called “stabilizers,” the fins began at the center of the front door and swept upward, canting as they rose to the rear of the car. Gone were the triple-tower tail lamps, replaced by a full lens cut into the rear of the tailfin. The rear bumper featured upswept “windwings,” which were repeated in lesser form around the license-plate opening which rode under the deck-lid opening.
There were now just two series—what had been the top line Fireflite (PS1-L) now became the bottom line. The high-performance Adventurer had gone by the wayside, replaced by a three-body lineup (all Adventurers coded PS3-M) that matched those in the Fireflite line—four-door sedan, two-door hardtop, and four-door hardtop sedan. Convertibles and station wagons had been relegated to the history books.
Both Fireflite and Adventurer now rode a 122-inch wheelbase shared with the Chrysler Windsor and Dodge Matador/Polara. Fireflites standard engine was the 295-horsepower 361 with the 325-horse 383 as an option. Standard in the Adventurer was the 305-horse 383 with choice of optional 383s rated at 325 or 330 horses—the 330 featuring ram-induction manifolding. TorqueFlite was now an option on all Fireflite models although it is doubtful many left the factory with “standard” manual-shift transmissions—TorqueFlite was standard on all Adventurers.
As sales continued their dizzying slide, rumors of DeSoto’s demise continued to appear in the trade press (in Canada, DeSoto did end in 1960). Motor Trend magazine, in their February 1960 issue, answered the question as to whether Chrysler would drop DeSoto claiming “...officials say they have no intention of pulling the plug, claiming they have plans for DeSoto cars up through 1962. There are those who say, however, that any new DeSotos planned will be luxury versions of the Valiant.” That rumor seemed plausible—Plymouth and DeSoto divisions had been merged into one division on July 1, 1959—39 days later, on August 8, a second realignment brought forth the Plymouth-Valiant-DeSoto division.
With just 19,411 sales for calendar year 1960, Motor Trend, in its November 1960 issue, reported that “many observers seriously doubted whether DeSoto would introduce any car, let alone a new car for 1961.” For DeSoto, suddenly it was 1960—but there would at least be a last gasp for ’61...
The first of the last DeSotos began coming off the Jefferson Avenue assembly line in August of 1960 with announcement date set for October 14. Again based on the 122-inch-wheelbase Chrysler body, the car was changed enough to make identification over the previous model easy. Canted dual headlamps (shared with Chrysler) slid into a grille cavity featuring rectangular crate work. Matching the angle of the headlamps, bumper tips protected angled parking lamp lens nestled into the corner of the fenders. It was the protruding air scoop above the normal grille that gave the DeSoto its distinctive (most said odd) appearance. Around back, new tail lamps filled the notch at the end of the canted tailfins. The ribbed deck lid (four embossed ribs and a chrome trimmed center rib), with the letters DeSoto widely spaced across the deck lid, broke up the expanses of sheet metal. Back-up lamp lens were fitted into the cove under the deck lid, with the license plate centered above a plain rear bumper.
Coded the RS1-L series, it carried no model names—no more Adventurer, Fireflite, Firedome, or FireSweep. It was known simply as DeSoto.
Only two body styles were cataloged, a two-door hardtop and four-door hardtop. Power brakes, power steering, and TorqueFlite were all optional, as was the Hiway Hi-Fi introduced back in 1956. The only engine was the 265-horsepower 361.
Most observers wondered why anyone had even bothered with a ’61 model—including corporate brass. On November 18, 1960, dealers received a telegram reading “Chrysler Corporation is discontinuing production of the 1961 DeSoto. Your factory dealer council has been informed of the decision. Sound business judgment dictates concentrating selling effort in the low-priced segment of the market where volume potential has been steadily improving. With two highly acceptable entries, Plymouth and Valiant, your profit and volume forecast is excellent. Public reception of these fine cars has been gratifying and confirms that another high-volume year is head for all of us. Letter follows.” It was signed by E. C. Quinn, General Manager, Sales Division, Chrysler Motors Corporation.
Although it was announced the end would come November 30, 1960, the final DeSoto rolled out of Jefferson Avenue a day earlier. The final count was dismal—just 911 two-door hardtops and 2,123 four-door hardtops.
What killed DeSoto? The blame has been laid on many factors, including Chrysler Corporation’s lack of interest in the car, competition from the Chrysler Windsor and upscale Dodges which invaded DeSoto’s market space, an overcrowded medium-price car market, and the economic recession of 1958. Although DeSoto had claimed its 1957 models penetrated 91% of the market in “all but the low-priced field,” Chevrolet and Ford together sold over half the new cars in the United States, and what was left of the market had to be divided too many ways. DeSoto joined a list of ten U.S. automakers who went out of business in the period between 1950 and 1960, all of them competing in the same middle-price market.
It was a sad ending to a once grand and glorious marque. Chrysler Canada’s 1958 DeSoto sales catalog had read, “DeSoto for 1958 Bids Farewell To The Past;” now it could read, simply, “DeSoto Bids Farewell.”
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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