by Jim Benjaminson - part of the Illustrated Plymouth & DeSoto Buyer’s Guide
From 1937 to 1961, Chrysler Corporation sold a series of “junior” DeSotos in export markets. Virtually unknown to most collectors in the United States, these junior DeSotos were based on the smaller Plymouth body shell, and used—in most cases—lookalike grilles, with real DeSoto nameplates, hubcaps, and other trim.
Disguising Plymouth bodies as other makes was not a new idea to the corporation. The first conversion took place during the Depression year of 1932, when the Plymouth PB series was converted to become the export-only Dodge DM. The reason behind the conversions was simple enough—to provide overseas dealers with a less expensive product. Dodge had a well-established reputation overseas, and converting the PB Plymouth gave Dodge a less expensive four-cylinder car to sell, opening up markets where either Plymouth dealers did not exist—or where the Plymouth name was not as well known.
In its infancy, Chrysler thought it best to hide the Plymouth mechanicals, frame, four-cylinder engine, etc., underneath a Dodge body. By 1933, the conversions took on a new twist—it would be less costly to use the Plymouth body as well as chassis and drivetrain, so the only changes needed would be to the front sheet metal, fitting a grille look that looked like the full-size Dodge to the Plymouth sheet metal. This required tooling a similar but not altogether identical grille different from the “senior” cars because of the size differences between the smaller Plymouths and larger Dodges.
DeSoto conversions started with model year 1937. Under the corporate structure, all car lines were assigned engineering codes for identification. Plymouths were all “P” series, Chryslers “C” series, and Dodges “D” series. Because of the duplication of the first letter in the car name, DeSotos became the “S” series. In the case of the conversion cars, the “junior” DeSotos were coded “SP.”
For 1937 and 1938, the DeSoto conversions were built only on the price-leader Plymouth P3 “Business” and P5 “Roadking” chassis. It would appear all regular Plymouth body styles were offered as SP DeSoto conversions. DeSoto serial numbers were not altered from those use by Plymouth (Dodge conversions were assigned their own serial number sequences, however).
By 1939, both the P7 Roadking and P8 Deluxe Plymouths were converted to DeSotos, as the SP7 and SP8. Catalog illustrations show even the four-door convertible sedan available—whether any were actually built remains a mystery...
Conversions continued up to World War II and resumed again after the war, when 9,612 P15 Plymouths were converted to SP15 DeSotos in both Deluxe and Special Deluxe trim—the only early years for which actual conversion production figures are known. From 1949 through 1954 conversion production figures were combined with Dodge conversions—and all cars, whether sold as Dodge or DeSoto, were counted as Plymouths in the corporation’s year-end figures.
With the “second series” ’49 Plymouths, the SP DeSoto was offered in three distinct series—SP17 Diplomat on the 111-inch-wheelbase chassis, SP18 Diplomat Deluxe and SP18 Diplomat Custom on the 118½-inch-wheelbase chassis, offering all of the same body styles as the parent Plymouth. The Diplomat nameplate would be used on conversions through the 1961 model year—and even later by Dodge on a domestic series of cars.
Little is known about the pricing structure of these junior DeSotos except for model year 1952. U.S. Government Office of Price Stabilization records authorized Chrysler Corporation to price the DeSoto conversion $35.23 above the price of the Plymouth model it was based on. (Dodge conversions were priced $20.28 higher).
Unlike the senior cars, SP DeSotos did not get V8 power until Plymouth began offering V8s in 1955, nor did they offer automatic transmissions—or overdrive—any sooner than did Plymouth, although these items were offered earlier on the “senior” DeSotos.
SP DeSotos began to look more like real DeSotos with the 1957 models. This became a reality because of a corporate decision that all station wagons, which had low sales, would share the same body—whether it be DeSoto, Chrysler, Plymouth, or Dodge. Although each would carry its own makes identifying front clip, all would have to mate readily to the same body.
With this accomplished, it was now possible to mate “real” DeSoto sheet metal to the Plymouth body shell. Such would not be the case, however—for 1957 and 1958, the SP DeSoto would use front sheet metal from the FireSweep series, which in reality was a Dodge front clip modified to resemble the senior Firedome and Fireflites!
Production figures for the 1957 SP DeSoto show a total of 4,572 conversions built. This total dropped to 3,250 for 1958—the majority of both years being sold as six-cylinder cars. 1959 production figures dropped to 2,364 conversions with the six edging out V8s by about 250 units.
1959 marked the last year Plymouth would provide bodies for the SP series DeSotos, this time using actual DeSoto sheet metal. ’59 would also be the only year a DeSoto Diplomat Adventurer would be offered as well. 1960 DeSoto Diplomats would be based on the new Dodge Dart. In this case, the corporation made no attempt to disguise the Dodge to look like a DeSoto. Outside of DeSoto nameplates and DeSoto like swept-spear body side chrome, the car was pure Dodge.
Even though the senior DeSotos disappeared in the fall of 1960 after only a few ’61 models had been built, the DeSoto Diplomat lived on, again as a name-change-only Dodge Dart. While no production figures have been found for the 1961 conversions, it is altogether possible “fake” DeSotos outnumbered the real thing.
With the demise of the real DeSoto came an end to the DeSoto conversions. Plymouth had played a unique role as the source of most of these conversions. During its lifetime Plymouth was sold as not only a Dodge and a DeSoto—in England they were sold as Chryslers, too!
The name game didn’t stop here, however. The 1934 DeSoto SE and ’35 SG were sold in England as the Chrysler Croydon; the ’36 and ’37 DeSotos were sold as the Chrysler Richmond. In an even stranger turn of events, the real ’39 Chrysler was sold as a Dodge!
Nearly everyone knows—or has seen—photographs of late 1970s trucks built in Turkey under the DeSoto name. Relatively unknown was Chrysler Corporation’s use of the DeSoto name on commercial vehicles in export markets around the world.
The reasoning behind this move can only be surmised at this point, considering the corporation also sold commercial vehicles under the Fargo nameplate. Fargos were commonly seen in Canada, and Chrysler’s Windsor, Ontario, factories built them in ranges from half-ton pickups to three-, four-, and five-ton models. Fargos were also built in the United States, but all were shipped overseas. Why they sold a third line of trucks under the DeSoto banner is a mystery.
Export records show the DeSoto name first being used on commercial vehicles beginning in September of 1938—presumably as 1939 models. Models ranged from the DC1 116-inch-wheelbase half-ton pickup up to the DC6-20 205-inch-wheelbase two-ton truck. By the next year, the line had been expanded to include trucks with a three-ton rating. In all, the ’39 DeSoto truck came in 17 different ratings—climbing to 25 ratings for 1940.
Like the Fargo, DeSoto trucks used Dodge sheet metal and differed only in nameplates and ornamentation. DeSoto trucks were assigned the same serial number sequences as the parent Dodge Truck (Fargo trucks, at least in the early years, had their own serial number sequences). DeSoto truck production came to a halt during the war years, although a few models were recorded as having been built in 1944 and 1945.
After the war, all the trucks would carry the same serial number, whether they were Dodge, DeSoto or Fargo—each would be separately identified by the prefix code. For example, a Dodge B-series pickup was officially a B-1-B; the same truck in Fargo trim would be an F-1-B and a DeSoto would be an S-1-B. This must have made things a lot easier for corporate records keepers and the parts department.
Exactly when the practice of converting Dodge trucks to DeSotos is unclear. The Fargo line was continued through 1972 in Canada. Records in this writers possession show DeSoto truck conversions still being produced late in 1952. As for Turkey, the independent distributor with rights to the name eventually stopped using Chrysler designs, and had to give up Dodge when Chrysler brought the brand back in 2002; but the Fargo and DeSoto names continue to this day (in 2013), atop vehicles created by Hino, Daewoo, and LDV.
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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