On November 18, 1960, the nation's DeSoto dealers received a tart, 81-word telegram. "Chrysler Corporation is discontinuing production of the 1961 DeSoto," it began. "Your factory dealer council has been informed of the decision." This was the beginning on the end; twelve days later, the very last DeSoto, a turquoise and white two-door hardtop, was driven off the assembly line.
By the time the 1960 DeSoto was built, a decision
to discontinue the brand was virtually made
already. See more pictures of Desotos.
Thirty-two years earlier it had seemed so promising. Walter Chrysler's new make had set a record for sales: 81,065 cars in its first 12 months, surpassing a string of first-year marks set throughout the heady Twenties by Graham-Paige (1928), Pontiac (1926), and Chrysler itself (1924).
Called in its introductory advertisement in The Saturday Evening Post of August 4, 1928, "the kind of car the whole world expects Walter P. Chrysler to produce," DeSoto made its formal debut on August 26. Walter Chrysler's stature as a mover and shaker in the motor industry rose dramatically as the car that bore his name took America by storm. Solid engineering advances, such as high compression; four-wheel brakes; and full-pressure lubrication; all in a modestly priced car, had made the 1924 Chrysler B-70 the darling of the industry.
Less well-remembered than DeSoto's first-year sales was the introductory motto Multum pro Parvo, Latin for "much for little," which disappeared after the first ad. Early DeSoto literature explains that the coat of arms on the radiator was that "of the Andalusian branch of the DeSoto family," as used by the explorer Hernando DeSoto, and that it symbolized "strength, purity, fidelity and security."
This success, however, placed the new DeSoto at the heart of some internecine rivalry.
Walter Chrysler -- whose advances to the foundering Dodge Brothers firm, then owned by merchant bankers Dillon, Read & Company, had been spurned -- undertook to develop his own medium-priced car to complement the new entry-level Plymouth.
Hardly had the wheels set in motion when word came down that Dodge was finally for sale. Although this complicated his plans, Chrysler jumped for the deal, as it gave him the Dodge plants and dealer network, and meant that he could manage his way through the overlapping product lines rather than compete head-to-head with them. In fact, it has been said that Chrysler created DeSoto not so much to battle Dodge but to induce Dillon, Read to sell.
The Dodge deal was consummated just days before the DeSoto introduction. It took a further five years, though, to rationalize the product lines, with DeSoto newly repositioned above Dodge on the price hierarchy, so that the two siblings were no longer fighting over the same market. From this time on, DeSoto became Chrysler's upmarket "idea car," an Oldsmobile-like niche in which new concepts were market tested. The Miller-inspired "barrel" grille of 1932-33 was one of these, as were 1942's "Airfoil" hidden headlamps ("Out of sight, except at night"). Almost forgotten is the air conditioning offered (or intended to be) on that year's cars.
DeSoto, too, was privy to some unique models, among them the 1946-52 Suburban, a boutique version of the long-wheelbase sedan adorned with a distinctive wood-floored cargo compartment and chrome roof rack, and a line of purpose-built taxis. Less successful was DeSoto's 1934 confinement to all-Airflow, all the time, while parent Chrysler hedged its bets with a conventional line that solidly outsold the unpopular streamlined cars.
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