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Inside Chrysler: Losing DeSoto, 1957-1960

by Curtis Redgap

I cannot make any claim to accuracy for the materials that I have used to make these articles. In some cases, the journals go back 50 years. - Curtis Redgap

The 1957 DeSoto Firesweep was, in essence, a Dodge. Marketed as a low-priced alternative to the larger DeSoto, it rode on the 122 inch Dodge wheelbase, and was powered by a Dodge 325 V-8. Even though it had DeSoto styling, it shared just about everything else with Dodge.

1959-DeSoto-shoppers.jpg


My father was most concerned with the price spread. He had every Chrysler Corporation line in his dealership for comparison. Let's look at some 1957 model four-door sedans, the bread and butter cars of Detroit. All of them are shown with power brakes, power steering, radio, heater/defroster, carpet, light kit, and Torqueflite automatic.

ModelPosition
Within
Brand
WheelbaseFeatures/OptionsPrice
Chrysler Windsorlow 122"285 hp 354 Hemi $3,180
Chrysler Saratogamid126"295 hp 354 Hemi $3,714
DeSoto Firesweeplow122"245 hp 325 Poly $2,775
DeSoto Fireflitemid126"270 hp 341 Hemi $3,487
Dodge Coronetlow122"138-hp 230 six $2,683
Dodge Royalmid122"285 hp Poly 325 $3,091

The price ranges began to merge together. With cars that even looked similar, it was difficult to explain the price difference, and it was hard when a person wanted the bigger car at the same price as the cheaper car. It was easier when the person stepped up to pay the extra price from the less expensive car to get into the bigger car.

Name recognition and prestige still play a big role in today's market, but the main barrier was that $500 difference. Even today, $500 is a lot of money. People balked when you get into that range. Mostly, you can get people to agree, after a little selling, to step up a couple hundred dollars. But, trying to get them over that $500 barrier was like pulling hen's teeth!

Chrysler marketing forgot all about that, and the situation worsened in 1959.

1959-desoto-fireflite.jpg


Here I am, Mr. Potential Customer, looking at a nice DeSoto Fireflite. It has all the equipment on it that I want. The sticker price is $3,754.

1959-chrysler.jpg
In the next row back, however, there is a real pretty Chrysler in the special blue color that my wife likes. I look at the window sticker - wait a minute, same car, same engine, wheelbase, same everything. And it's a Chrysler! It's only $275 more at $4,029! Man, I must be the luckiest guy on the lot to spot this mistake!

DeSoto was getting clobbered from both sides. Same customer, same lot, looking at DeSoto Firesweeps, to move up from a Plymouth, spots a nice 4 door sedan, the V-8, automatic, and all, $3,254. Then he looks up and spots a four-door car in the next row. It has that beautiful hardtop look. Hey, wait a minute, look at the sticker, and not only that, it has the hotter 361 four-barrel with duals too. It is a Dodge Custom Royal Lancer, the absolute top of the line... and hey... look at that sticker price... I don't believe it... $3,279! That is only $25 more, and I get the big Dodge. I must be the luckiest guy on the lot to spot this mistake!

1959-royal-lancer.jpg


Nope, not a mistake. Just Chrysler in chaos... and DeSoto in decline.

jefferson-assembly.jpg
More troubling news came out of Highland Park at the end of the 1959 model run. After 22 years of operating its own headquarters and producing cars in its own factory, DeSoto was being moved to the Jefferson Avenue Plant to be manufactured besides Chrysler. DeSoto as a unique division also died in the summer of 1959.

The division even lost its 126" wheelbase cars starting with the 1960 model year. The 1960
Fireflite was a replacement for the 1959 Firesweep, and the 1960
Adventurer replaced the 1959 Firedome; in 1960, the Adventurer was a
sport model no more.

It could have been an excellent cost cutting move, which could have saved the line, if the Board had put the investment into DeSoto to set it apart from Chrysler. The spectrum of medium priced cars was getting tight, but if General Motors kept Oldsmobile alive, then Chrysler should have followed their lead in developing DeSoto as a direct competitor. It would have given the marque a goal and helped it hang on until further development was put into the marketing scheme. However, I think Chrysler, like everyone in the industry, was keeping their eye on Ford's Edsel and holding their breath.

Edsel sales were dismal. It was obvious by the end of 1959 that Edsel was a flop of tremendous proportions. Ford lost millions on that car. Down in his heart, my father saw the same thing happening with DeSoto. Even his own father had not driven a DeSoto for the last two years.

Chrysler's own car lines were squeezing DeSoto out. If something were not done, there was no way to keep the marque competitive. Edsel's failure may have been enough justification for Chrysler to avoid spending funds on its medium-range DeSoto cars. As the year progressed and Edsel continued to bleed, DeSoto's fate was sealed alongside the Ford brand.

1957-police.jpg


Dad had suggested to the Dealer Association that DeSoto get back into the fleet business, going for the taxi, police, and limo business, as well as the specialty market for ambulances, hearses vehicles, and tourist stretch cars. They could have given DeSoto a unique appearance for each of two wheelbases, then develop, as Chrysler was always doing, a new unique engine size. Using Chrysler's tremendous share of the fleet business, DeSoto could have been sold to taxi services and police departments. It would have been enough to keep DeSoto alive. We were never sure where that proposal went; nothing ever came of it.

DeSoto soldiered on into 1960; shortly after 1961 began, the brand was dropped.

1959-desotos.jpg


Management Changes (by Bill Watson)

In 1958, there were 5 five divisions. With their managers, these were:

  • Plymouth Division - Harry E. Cheseborough
  • Dodge Division - M.C. Patterson
  • DeSoto Division - J.B. Wagstaff
  • Chrysler Division - Clare E. Briggs
  • Imperial Division - Clare E. Briggs (The Imperial Division was more for show than reality)

In June 1959, as Curtis wrote, DeSoto was merged in with
Plymouth, under Mr. Cheseborough, to become the
Plymouth-DeSoto Division.
About this time, the Chrysler and Imperial divisions were
officially joined to become Chrysler-Imperial Division. Then, in November 1959, the Plymouth-DeSoto Division
became the Plymouth-DeSoto-Valiant Division.
With the demise of the DeSoto in October 1960, the
Plymouth-DeSoto-Valiant Division became the
Plymouth Division.

In early 1961, the Plymouth Division and the
Chrysler-Imperial Division were joined under Clare
E. Briggs as the Chrysler-Plymouth Division.
M.C. Patterson was replaced as Dodge Division
manager in 1960 by Byron J. Nichols, who went to bat for the Custom 880.

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Other parts of this series

More by Curtis Redgap:

Chrysler HeritageHistory by YearChrysler People and BiosCorporate Facts and History


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