Adding much-needed pizzazz to DeSoto's dour image in 1954 was the interesting Adventurer I, one in the series of Exner-styled show cars begun with the Plymouth XX-500 of 1950. Most were built by Ghia in Italy. Riding a shortened 111-inch wheelbase, Adventurer I was an off-white, close-coupled coupe sporting outside exhausts, wire wheels, and full instrumentation.
It came close to production -- closer than any other Exner special. "Had it been mass-produced," the designer later said, "it would have been the first four-passenger sports car made in this country. It was better than a 2+2 -- and, of course, it had the DeSoto Hemi. It was my favorite car."
Adventurer II followed in '55, a standard-chassis four-seat fastback shaped more by Ghia than Exner. Painted deep red and lacking bumpers, it was very sleek but not quite as integrated as Adventurer I, and wasn't seriously considered for production.
Meanwhile, the first of Exner's new "Forward Look" production models was due for 1955, so DeSoto's old '49 bodyshell was modestly reworked one last time for '54. The V-8 was tweaked to 170 horsepower, but the big news was the midyear debut of two-speed PowerFlite, Chrysler's first fully automatic transmission. This would be standard on many DeSotos through 1960.
Fluid Drive ($130 extra) was on the way out, as was overdrive ($96), long sedans, and the Powermaster Six. Reflecting Chrysler Corporation's 1954 sales nightmare, DeSoto's model-year output dropped below 77,000 and the make fell back to 12th place in the industry.
Much bolder, fully up-to-date new Exner styling and more-powerful engines stood to turn things around for 1955. Firedome (the "d" no longer capitalized) now played "second banana" to a new uplevel Fireflite line. Both shared a 126-inch wheelbase with that year's Chryslers, and carried a Hemi bored out to 291 cid. Rated horsepower was 185 for Firedomes, 200 for Fireflites.
No '55 Chrysler product was sedate, but DeSoto looked possibly busiest of all -- though still attractive, with a much lower silhouette; wrapped windshield; the last of the toothy grilles; "gullwing" dash; and broad, optional two-toning. This package appealed greatly, boosting division output to nearly 115,000. Still, even that was good for only 13th in a year when most every Detroit car sold very well.
Firedome offered DeSoto's only '55 wagon, along with a detrimmed Special hardtop priced some $110 below its Sportsman counterpart. The plush Coronado sedan, a mid-1954 addition to the Firedome line, returned as a 1955 "spring special" Fireflite at $100 above the $2800 regular sedan.
This Fireflite is now a minor collector's item, mainly for having one of the industry's first three-tone paint jobs (turquoise, black, and white). Convertibles were available in both '55 DeSoto series but saw minuscule sales: just 625 Firedomes and 775 Fireflites.
For 1956, a longer stroke took DeSoto's Hemi to 330.4 cid, lifting Firedome to 230 horsepower and Fireflite to 255. Wire mesh replaced the trademark grille teeth, and unreadable gold-on-white instruments appeared.
But as on other Chrysler lines, the big change was tailfins, though they were pretty modest for '56. DeSoto's carried distinctive "tri-tower" taillamps -- stacked pairs of round red lenses separated by a matching backup lamp -- which would persist through 1959.
Following GM's lead in '55, DeSoto introduced three four-door hardtops for '56: a Sportsman in each series and a low-priced Firedome Seville. A Seville hardtop coupe replaced the previous Firedome Special. (Cadillac's new-for-'56 Eldorado two-door hardtop was also called Seville, but no legal battles ensued.)
A midseason highlight was the limited-edition Adventurer hardtop coupe, a supercar awash in gold-anodized aluminum trim. Carrying a new 341-cid, 320-horsepower Hemi, it was part of that year's expanded Highland Park performance squadron along with the Chrysler 300B, Plymouth Fury, and Dodge D-500.
DeSoto was selected as the 1956 Indy 500 pace car, and the division celebrated by reeling off about 400 "Pacesetter" replicas, all Fireflite convertibles with Adventurer-style trim, priced at $3615 apiece.