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Car of the Month, October 2009: John Baker's 1954 Desoto Estate Wagon

story and photos by Gene Yetter

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Allpar Car of the Month for October 2009 is a Desoto Firedome wagon restored and modified by John Baker of Palm Bay, Florida. Baker acquired the car in 1999 having seen it advertised in Hemmings Motor News. It was for sale in Boulder Creek, California. After the seller sent him some pictures, Baker accepted a $500 purchase price. He says he had wanted the Desoto as a tow vehicle. But after he had it for awhile, he adds, "I liked it so much I decided I had to restore it. I got to where I could drive it around by the year 2004. It's been a drivable 'work in progress' ever since."

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In one of the pictures sent to him by the seller, Baker says, "There were some dark areas on the roof that looked like rust. But I went ahead and bought the car anyway. The 'dark areas' turned out to be some kind of California moss! I just cleaned it off and there was no rust at all. At least not on the roof. There was some minor rust on the body, and floor pans needed to be replaced. But that's all taken care of. To look underneath the car now you would have a hard time telling that the floor pans are not original."

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The Desoto Firedome line of vehicles, including a 4-door wagon, was introduced in the 1952 model year. Hemi V-8's powered all models. These were the first Desotos to get 8-cylinder engines since their straight-8's of 1930-31. In 1953, the cars got a one-piece windshield and Firedome V-8 identification on both front fenders. Through 1954 the wagons were similar in profile, with exterior changes only to detail such as trim, grille, lights and badges. Production numbers for wagons in the three years were small in relation to overall Firedome production: 1952, 550; '53, 1100; '54, 946. It's hard to fault the cargo-hauling proportions of these wagon. Besides, it's not hard to see in Baker's vehicle a precedent for future Mopar production cycles, including Volaré and Aspen wagons of 1976-80. Considering that only about 950 Firedome wagons were produced in 1954, it's safe to describe Baker's vehicle now as "rare." How many may still exist? The Baker estate wagon certainly caught my eye among a few hundred cars when I first saw it at the 2009 Mopars of Brevard SuperSwap meet in Melbourne, Florida.

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Popular with customizers of all makes of cars in the Fifties, the Desoto grille for the years 1952-55 showed only minor changes. The grilles featured eight or nine large roundish "teeth" arrayed on a horizontal component. In 1954 the grille had attached parking lights and became suspended in a wide oval. A grille was missing from his vehicle when he bought it. Baker tells how he turned one down that he thought was priced too high at $500. He later regretted that decision because he ended up buying two used grilles that had to be joined into one, and then the single unit had to be rechromed. "I've got about $2,000 in the grille alone!" he says. Baker matched paint color chips from a 1954 Desoto color brochure with Ford truck paints. While the two-tone blue scheme resembles a Mopar color combination, the paints are metallic (his wife's choice). The '54 Mopar paints would not be metallic.

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Not only did Baker's car come without a grille, it was also missing its Firedome Hemi V-8. It is now powered by a 440 engine from a Plymouth Road Runner (see below). But the Firedome Hemi standard specs, briefly: 276.1 cubic inches; bore and stroke, 3.625 x 3.344; 7.5 to 1 compression; Carter 2-bbl carburetor. Optional equipment was the PowerFlite automatic, or standard 3-speed transmission with optional overdrive. Wheelbase is 125.5 inches. Interior options included power steering, brakes and windows.

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Baker grew up in Maryland where his father operated a garage and salvage yard. Around 1990, the father gave Baker's son a Road Runner and two parts cars to go with it. All of these vehicles were transported to Florida. "We fixed up the best Road Runner for my son and he still has it," Baker says. "I saved all the other parts, including a 440 with 4-bbl carburetor. It has been rebuilt to Magnum specs and that's what has replaced the original Hemi in the Desoto. I had to do a little bit of relieving underneath to fit the exhaust pipes. But I didn't do anything to compromise the integrity of the frame. Frame, suspension, power-steering are all original. I put in a Torqueflite transmission from a Dodge motor home. It has a short tail shaft which saved me from having to modify rear engine mounts in the Desoto. I did have to make new front engine mounts. It also has a 323 positraction rearend. Exhaust pipes with Flowmaster mufflers and chrome tips were installed by a local shop, Malabar Muffler, here in Palm Bay."

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Up front, Baker had to replace the windshield. He had found most rubber weather-stripping he needed for the restoration at Steele Rubber Products, Inc., in Denver, North Carolina. "But they didn't have weather-stripping for the windshield," he says. "I sent them the original and they were able to fabricate brand new rubber for the windshield." The steering wheel is "new old stock" that cost $150. Gauges, radio, clock have all been professionally refurbished, and the speedometer rebuilt and reset.

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Baker says the rear cargo area involved expenses exceeded only by his cost to restore the vehicle's front end. The wood and stainless steel strips were in reasonably good shape, he said. He preferred to re-veneer the wood to its bare oak color. Access to a spare tire is through a hinged door in the deck. He polished the stainless steel deck strips and had other parts like the tailgate braces, hinges, handles and bumpers re-chromed. He found side trim and side mirrors through a vendor in Portland, Oregon. A Tallahassee, Florida, outfit, Pot Metal Restorations, redid some trim components including the non-functional hood scoop.

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1954 was the first year for the V-8 insignia on the estate wagon's tailgate. Baker owns several classic cars, stock and modified. allpar users may recognize his name from a spot news item that ran several weeks ago about the theft of original fenders for a 1931 Chrysler coupe. The stolen fenders have not turned up to date, but Baker has been able to purchase replacements. He has been active in the car hobby since his teen years when he used to get to drive junked cars around the woods behind his father's salvage yard. These days, he operates a storage facility in Palm Bay, mostly of automotive (garage-sized) units. His customers include individuals with automotive skills and assorted resources like transport vehicles, a few who helped with the Desoto restoration. But with all of his cars, he admits, "I'm my best customer!"

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