Chrysler designated the 1929 DeSotos as the "K" series, but early advertising featured the name "Conqueror" along with a Latin motto, Multum pro Parvo ("much for little"). Neither lasted long, nor did the faddish model names. (By the way, the letter designations now familiar to enthusiasts and restorers are actually engine-number prefixes, though they more or less correspond to model series and are thus useful for understanding DeSoto's various lineups.)
The 1929 Desotos were a mid-priced car option and
an immediate hit.
Priced from $845 to $955 for debut 1929, DeSoto fit nicely between Plymouth, announced in June 1928 at $670-$725, and the contemporary six-cylinder Chryslers that started at $1,065. (The Plymouth was effectively a rebadged four-cylinder Chrysler 52, discontinued in May.) The new in-betweener was an immediate hit.
More than 80,000 were delivered in the first 12 months, a new record for a startup marque. (GM's Pontiac, born as a "companion" to Oakland, had set the previous record of 76,742 during 1926, eclipsing Chrysler's high of the year before by some 100 units). On July 31, 1928, however, Walter Chrysler purchased Dodge Brothers, Inc., and with a stroke of a pen created a sibling rival for DeSoto.
Actually, Chrysler had been eyeing Dodge for some time. Brothers John and Horace Dodge had both died in 1920. Their widows took over the business, but decided to sell by 1925. Their best offer came from Clarence Dillon of the banking firm Dillon Read & Company -- $146 million cash. Dillon and Chrysler, who knew each other well, discussed Chrysler's purchasing Dodge in 1926. But Dillon wasn't ready to sell yet, envisioning a grand merger of Dodge, Packard, Hudson and body supplier Briggs Manufacturing Company -- thus the long-told story that he "rebuffed" Chrysler.
Walter definitely coveted Dodge's plants, forges, foundries, and dealers. He also wanted the Dodge name, which had built a strong reputation for reliability since the make's founding in 1914. Moreover, Chrysler sensed that Dodge's new bank-installed management was floundering. K. T. Keller, who was later president of Dodge and then all of Chrysler Corporation, recalled that in one of their first meetings with the bankers, Walter "told me Dodge ... was in trouble. 'I think we can pick it off,' he said." The evidence suggests Chrysler was simply biding his time.
He did, however, take the opportunity to pilfer many of Dodge's dealers, enlisting them to sell his new DeSoto, then on the drawing boards. By April 1928, Dillon realized his merger scheme would not fly, and that Chrysler Corporation was, for all intents and purposes, the only viable buyer in Detroit. After a period of hard negotiations, a deal was struck. The next day, August 1, Dillon assured Chrysler that Dodge was in such good shape it could run itself for awhile. "Hell, Clarence," Walter replied, "our boys moved in last night."
The product line Chrysler acquired was fully up to date but quite broad, and would take time to integrate with his company's existing models. Dodge had moved from four-cylinder to six-cylinder cars in 1927, only to lose sales ground to Pontiac, Hudson, Nash, and Durant. With cash suddenly running short, Dodge dropped its "Fast Four" in January 1928 and added a lower-priced six-cylinder line.
The result was a trio of Dodge sixes covering a broad $875-$1,800 price range: Standard, Victory, and Senior on respective wheelbases of 110, 112, and 120 inches. Seniors used a newly bored 241.5-cid engine with 78 bhp, other models a new short-stroke 208-cid unit with 58 bhp.
By contrast, the K-series DeSotos had a 55-bhp 174.9-cid six in a 109.8-inch-wheelbase chassis. The low-end 1929 Chrysler 65 offered a 65-bhp 195.6-cid six and a 112.8-inch wheelbase, the nicer 75 a 75-bhp 248.9-cid engine and a 121-inch chassis. Of more concern than this overlap was the fact that, despite its slump, Dodge outsold DeSoto by about two-to-one in 1928. Why, then, would Walter persist with DeSoto?
The "rebuffed Chrysler" theory holds that DeSoto was conceived in spite. Historian Vincent Curcio calls it instead a "ploy," created to provide inducement, through competition, for Dillon Read to sell. Historian Jan P. Norbye saw the matter a bit differently. As he wrote in Consumer Guide®'s The Complete History of Chrysler Corporation: "DeSoto was actually planned long before Walter Chrysler was sure he would be able to acquire Dodge. In case that deal fell through, DeSoto was to be his medium-price weapon, aimed right at Dodge but selling at lower prices." In any case, Walter had the middle market very well covered once he had Dodge as well as DeSoto.
Curcio rightly calls the first DeSoto a "six-cylinder Plymouth." Each make arrived with the same wheelbase and overall length (169 inches). Styling, too, was virtually identical, the most noticeable difference being the pattern of the hood louvers. A romp through early Hollander's manuals turns up all manner of interchangeable components, from transmission cases to brake drums.
Clearly, the DeSoto was an easy and inexpensive proposition once the Plymouth was tooled up. Much is made of General Motors' use of common bodies starting in the Thirties. Less appreciated is Walter Chrysler's similar practice of "top-down" engineering and parts-sharing from almost the very beginning of his company. A glance at Chrysler-built cars of any era hints at the similarities; reading the specifications charts and parts catalogs confirms them.
To build and sell DeSoto, Chrysler set up a wholly owned subsidiary, DeSoto Motor Corporation, with Joseph E. Fields as president. Fields had been sales manager for the first Chrysler cars, and had much to do with DeSoto's first-year success. DeSoto became a family affair in 1933, when Fields was replaced by Byron C. Foy, who had married Walter's elder daughter, Thelma, in 1923. Foy had worked for both Ford and Reo Motor Company of California before serving as vice president of Chrysler dealerships in Detroit and New York. He then joined the parent corporation, where he was also a vice president and board director. DeSoto Motor Corporation became DeSoto Division in 1935.
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