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DeSoto: The Early Years

copyright © 2005 Curtis Redgap • used with permission

The article about the last DeSotos on Allpar's forum reminded me of stories related by my Dad and Grandpa over the years about some of the earliest DeSoto cars. DeSoto was always the brand that Grandpa selected as his company demonstrator when the new models came out. His last was a kind of ugly green 1960 two door Fireflite model. Even then, it was not just a rumor that DeSoto was out. Too many indications ended up being truth as production ended with the short run of 1961 DeSoto cars.

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There are a couple of different versions of how DeSoto came into existence. The version that seems to lend the most credibility concerns Walter Chrysler's efforts to purchase the Dodge Brothers Automobiles from the banking consortium that owned Dodge. To show he meant to not only compete, but to surpass the Dodge, he introduced two new cars to his Chrysler Corporation line up. Plymouth, which was the real motivation for WPC wanting Dodge, and DeSoto, which proved to the bankers that he was putting a car aimed right at their price range.

Plymouth was introduced on July 7, 1928. DeSoto followed about a month later on August 4, 1928. Both were considered as 1929 models. Just to add to some confusion, some of the cars were registered as 1928 cars. The DeSoto, as WPC calculated, fit right in the price range between the low priced Plymouth and the upscale Chrysler 65.

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Both were good looking models in the day. At Walter Chrysler's insistence, they were not just badge engineered. Granted, the wheelbase of 109 inches and the length of 169 inches were the same for both cars, and they used the same straight flathead six cylinder engine; but, in the Plymouth, the 174.9 cubic inch twirler made 45 horsepower, while the upgraded DeSoto made 55 horses.

The $160 price increase to the DeSoto was justified with upscale styling, sumptuous interior appointments, that extra power, and generally better equipment.

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Chrysler Corporation initially placed DeSoto directly above the Plymouth. Dealerships began lining up. All of a sudden there were 1,500 dealers, and they were handling nothing but the DeSoto cars. We were not really a dealership at this time, Grandpa having agreed only to store the Chrysler Corporation vehicles of all types on his empty lot. He was centrally located within the city, as well being an equal distance from other sales lots. As the inventory began to build, having all those new temptations out back constantly sent pangs of ownership to my Grandpa. Not that he couldn't afford a new car, he just didn't feel that getting a new one was necessarily since he had a practically brand new 1926 Star car given to him by his former boss who became his partner, virtually on a handshake, when Grandpa took possession of the car.

Word of the DeSoto spread quickly. In some of a ironic move, the banking consortium gave in just four days before the DeSoto went on sale, giving Walter Chrysler the foundry equipment and space he needed to manufacture Plymouth in high volume.

Sales of the DeSoto took off with a very strong start. The calendar year production showed 64,911 DeSotos with proud new owners. Over the first year of production, DeSoto built and sold 81,003 units. This was a sales record that stood for 30 years for a new car. DeSoto in the first five years of production stayed within 70% of Oldsmobile sales.

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There were several new DeSoto cars on Grandpa's lot. Sometime in December 1928, just before Christmas, a young fellow came along and introduced himself to Grandpa. There was no real indication of it then, but he was eventually to become a legal power house, and a candidate for Vice President some many years later. He was a newly licensed attorney at law seeking gainful employment in his trade. Grandpa never figured much for an attorney, but he talked with the guy anyway. On a whim, Grandpa had the young man, Mr. Littlebridge, take a look at his will and estate. Of course, he turned Grandpa's head with the legalities of dying and probate. After securing a new will, and convincing his sons and daughters that they needed to do the same, Grandpa gave Mr. Littlebridge a small amount as a retainer. He added his name to the company letterhead. It was a good move as time will show.

In January 1929, there was an awful blizzard. Blinding snow, driven by howling gale force winds, clogged all the roads, and sent people scurrying for the nearest shelter. About an hour after the first start of the storm, 3 truck loads of DeSoto and Plymouth cars arrived at Grandpa's storage lot. The drivers only had survival on their minds, wanting to get to the nearest hotel to seek safety in the teeth of the blizzard. As it was, Grandpa had secured his own car as he was waiting for my Dad to come and pick him up at the forge. (We weren't a car dealer yet, just an empty lot behind Grandpa's forge shop.) About that time, Mr. Littlebridge happened by. He stopped when he saw the lights still on in Grandpa's office. Quickly, rides for the drivers were secured with Mr. Littlebridge, whose route took him right by one of the area hotels.

It took about 3 days for the storm to blow itself out. In the end, another 3 days were spent moving the tremendous amount of snow. With not much to do, Mr. Littlebride got the drivers from the hotel and brought them back to Grandpa's forge. The trucks were still sitting, loaded in the big parking area. Dad had a tractor with a big bucket on the front, and was moving the snow out of the lot and driving areas.

That is when Mr. Littlebridge met one of the loves of his life. Sitting in the first position on the last truck was a beautiful 1929 DeSoto Faeton in a light green color. Roy Littlebridge was struck with the new car disease. The bug bit him really hard. The price was $845 delivered, just as it was, right on the truck. Of course, he didn't have that sort of money. Nor, being new in business, was he able to show a steady income to obtain a loan. The obvious want for the car was all over him. Grandpa would have liked to help, but, he couldn't, with a business to run.

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We all know that when the bug bit Roy Littlebridge, the stock market crash of October 29 was looming some 9½ months away. Grandpa was always one to watch his pennies. But it was a good thing that Mr. Littlebridge was an astute business man. He noted to Grandpa one day that there was no real towing service for disabled or wrecked cars. He suggested that he start one with a modest wrecker. Mr. Littlebridge would secure the necessary indemnity and contact law enforcement agencies to have wrecks removed from the roadways when accidents occurred. Vehicles had to have insurance (yes, even back then), so suitable storage fees could be charged. If not paid, the car would become our property through a mechanic's lien, and it could be sold off to pay for fees or charges incurred.

Dad managed to secure a pretty good Graham truck (Graham was absorbed into Dodge in 1924 after having been a partner since 1916.) He stripped the truck of its flat bed and built an "A" angle frame to fit the back of the truck. With a big hand crank and some cable, the tow service came into its own. Some months, it actually carried the entire business, kicking in just enough to make all the ends meet.

Starting a dealership

In May, Grandpa's business partner had a heart attack and passed away. In his will, which he did not rewrite to cover the business with Grandpa, he left nothing! Within weeks, the heirs sought to take over Grandpa's forge to sell it for the estate. Grandpa had built that forge with his partner's money, but he had repaid that loan years prior. Many a nice profit had gone to them both. The loan papers the heirs had secured showed it as an open account. Fortunately, Grandpa had saved everything, included the note showing it was paid, as well as the many profit sharing checks sent over to his partner. The heirs brought suit against Grandpa in probate, seeking to secure the business for an estate sale. Grandpa was fit to be tied. Finally, Dad spoke up (he was still pretty young, only 17 at the time) and told Grandpa to take the matter up with Roy Littlebridge, the company lawyer. Even then, legal mumbo-jumbo kept the case in trial court for weeks. Finally, after some wrangling, the judge threw the entire suit out, settling on Roy Littlebridge' s legal version of the truth. Grandpa had won. Title was subsequently secured and a new deed executed in our county that locked up ownership rights in perpetuity. Then, it came time to settle up.

Roy Littlebridge was an eminently fair minded upright person. But he was also an attorney, and one of extremely sharp wits about him. His bill amounted to just over $1,100, expenses included. Grandpa was well prepared to write him a check for the entire amount. That is crux of the story here. The light green DeSoto Phaeton still sat on Grandpa's lot. The price was still $845. Roy was in a hot bout to have that car. Now, he could have taken Grandpa's money and bought the car cash from the sales person that came to visit the lot whenever Grandpa called him to let him know that someone was there to buy a car. We were not a dealer yet, but Roy had something shrewder in mind. He asked why we were not the dealer. Grandpa didn't really know, but said that no one had asked him.

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The dealership pictured here is not the one belonging to the Redgaps.

As Roy indicated, a lot of people thought he was, since they brought their cars back to Grandpa in the expectation that they would be fixed. In some cases, they were, because my Dad was a pretty sharp mechanic in his own right, however, no warranty work was ever done, because we didn't have the dealership. This is right where Roy wanted to go. Wrangling with Grandpa, he convinced him that acquisition of the dealership rights as an "independent" would be the way to garner great business. That way he could keep running anything that he had going, such as the tow service, while gaining profit from sales, services and parts. Grandpa was hooked.

Within a few days, people from the Highland Park headquarters of Chrysler Corporation were visiting the forge. They made a few suggestions, and offered to build a garage showroom at Chrysler's expense on Grandpa's land. Grandpa would own the buildings in exchange for advertising, telephone, teletype, service, warranty service, and automobiles direct from Chrysler. Roy Littlebridge was ecstatic. Handshakes went all around that night, along with more than a few well hoisted liquid adult refreshments.

Now came time for the lawyer to strike. Contract in hand for Grandpa, it made us the official Chrysler zone outlet for the region, in one fell swoop. That meant we handled not only our own sales, but vehicles going to other dealers as well. At that time, Chrysler didn't care if you only sold 5 cars and 50 tractors out of the same place. You got the same respect as any other dealer. We gained the small sales staff that had been working out of their houses!

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Here is the deal he pitched to Grandpa. This is why he was a success. He had Grandpa take the DeSoto Faeton that he wanted as a company demonstrator. Chrysler allowed so many units as advertising expense. This allowed Grandpa and Chrysler to write them off over the course of their use. Keeping his money for Roy's fee, he turned the DeSoto keys over to Roy as a "sales person." Roy gained his car, Grandpa kept his money, and both enjoyed a partnership of sorts that significantly increased incomes for both. In the future, Roy Littlebridge earned many more DeSoto cars. In fact, they ended up becoming his annual retainer.

1930 arrived with the world sinking rapidly into the deep troughs of economic depression. It was a strange time. Business seemed to do well, but the money supply for the working man was seemingly gone. The President seemed helpless to make anything happen to free up the money or to restore confidence in banks or the stock market.

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Grandpa finally acquired his first DeSoto of the many to follow when the 1930 models arrived. In a definitive move away from Plymouth, DeSoto introduced the model CF. Built on a 114 inch wheelbase, its claim to fame was its 8 cylinder engine. The straight flathead 8 cylinder produced 70 horsepower from 207.7 cubic inches. The regular six cylinder was bored slightly to 189.8 cubic inches which then produced 60 horsepower. What difference 2 cylinders, 17.9 cubic inches and 10 horsepower could make in an advertising budget in 1930!

The eight outsold the six for a time. DeSoto proudly proclaimed it was "America's lowest priced straight eight," as it started at $965, undercutting Marmon by $30; it was way under Hudson's eight.

One of the greatest undertakings that probably kept Chrysler Corporation above the fray in profitability through the depression years was WPC's authorization to all outlets to sell the Plymouth, as of March 1, 1930. Instantly, Plymouth had 7,000 dealers nationwide. It was a great business decision, but it should have had a finite end. Plymouth should have been split off from every other line to stand along in the 1940s, but the closest that Plymouth came to standing alone was near 1955.

In 1933, DeSoto moved to its final place in the corporate scheme. It leapfrogged Dodge to move up closer to Chrysler in style, equipment, and technical makeup, mainly to keep its distance from Plymouth when Plymouth got its own 6 cylinder engine. The wheelbase went to 114 inches. The six cylinder engine was bored to 217.8 which gave an 82 horsepower rating. The 8 cylinder engine had been dropped after the 1931 model run (this engine stayed around until 1953!) The DeSoto car lost sales over the course of the years of the depression.

The Airflow cars

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President in 1932. His promise of a "new deal" instilled trust and hope throughout the country. Reluctantly, the world could not help but follow. Banks reopened; loans and savings were guaranteed now. Hopeful, things looked better for 1934.

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We all know what happened when DeSoto Division had pinned its hopes on the Air Flow. A smashing success when it was first shown, introduction problems ultimately put the Air Flow down. Technically, it was the car that all cars of the future would be based upon. For the first time, passengers rode between the axles instead of on it, as in the past. The engine was moved some 20 inches forward to ride over the front axle. The ride was markedly improved, in fact, at the time it was considered just sensational! It also marked a new form of body construction. It has been called unit body, but that is incorrect. It is more like a unitized system with a series of interlocking squares that the body panels were fitted to. It was every bit as strong as a unit body, and far stronger than the body on frame cars then built. WP Chrysler wanted this car so badly; he ordered it built for Chrysler line as well. The engineers worked feverishly to make it happen. Building the production line, training workers to make a totally new car, took far longer than anticipated. The cars were delayed.

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General Motors was beside itself. They had nothing in the works to answer the Air Flow. It would take GM three years to get there. They instituted a snarling rotten vicious rumor campaign against the Chrysler car. Orders for the Air Flow began to drop like dead flies.

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Some three months after its expected delivery, the first 1934 Air Flow DeSoto cars began arriving. My Grandpa was one of the first to get one. He was excited about it. Priced at $995, besides having a new 6 cylinder of 251.3 cubic inches, it also had electrically controlled overdrive. Riding on a new 115.5 inch wheelbase, combined with the 100 horsepower, 3300 pound weight, and overdrive, the Air Flow was hot. He liked the styling. A lot of people did, but loathe to admitting it, they said it was ugly. The technical aspects of the Air Flow should have made it the hottest seller of the decade. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. (Years later, he remarked that the successful Volkswagen Beetle and the Air Flow Coupe, except for the size of the two cars, remarkably resembled one another, and other sources claim that the Beetle was based on a smaller Airflow experimental car.)

Roy Littlebridge was ecstatic about his new Air Flow sedan, taking delivery the same day as Grandpa. He had also convinced a new resident of our community to invest in an Airflow. Doctor Pedelford was the quintessential family Doctor. He covered a lot of territory in making house calls. In the Airflow, he made faster trips! Many a local police officer with their V-8 Fords found out that all they would catch would be dust if they tried to run Doc down. After getting many complaints from his officers, my uncle, the city Police Chief, got Doc a large MD plate and attached it to the rear of the Air Flow.

Early one Sunday morning, Doc got an emergency call from a patient hospitalized some 80 miles away. The local doctors requested that Doc get there to assist in an operation of some consequence. Doctor Pedelford jumped in the Airflow and away he went. He flew out of the city at some 70 miles an hour. Drawing a frown from a State Police Officer, Doc left him far behind when they hit the Ridge Road. A wide cement ribbon running some 100 miles between cities, it cost a million dollars, earning the nickname "million dollar highway."

Somewhere near the halfway point of his high speed trip, Doc blew by a State Police Officer who had been comfortably sitting observing traffic near a small town. Doc barely slowed for the town, and speeded up when he saw the Trooper. This State Police Officer was not equipped with the usual V-8 Ford, however, but in a confiscated Packard sedan. Doc related that he was running near the 80 mile an hour mark when he saw the single red light begin blinking some distance behind him. To Doc's disbelief, he actually saw the car gaining on him. That would never do. In overdrive, with all 100 horses maxed out, the Air Flow's speedometer went past the 100 mile an hour mark. At that point, it became an endurance contest. The Airflow couldn't get ahead, and the Trooper couldn't catch up. About half a mile apart, they set the speed for the next 25 miles. The Trooper chased Doc right up to the hospital. Doc's reputation was made, that the cops couldn't catch him. For years, he was a local terror on the highways. He always got a DeSoto or a Chrysler with the biggest engine.

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The Air Flow marked the high point for DeSoto styling for many years, in fact, up until 1957, which is another story. After the failure of the Air Flow, styling became dully conventional. Even though the 1935 introduction of Airstream models doubled production, the Airflow still remains as a classic for all time.

See our DeSoto section and DeSotoLand.

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