Despite the return of the same broad lineup, 1959 marked the beginning of DeSoto's end. Firesweeps were upgraded to the 361 wedge in just one 295-horsepower version.
Other models got an even bigger-bore new 383 with 305 horsepower for Firedome, 325 for Fireflite, and 350 for Adventurer. The last saw slightly improved sales, but total model-year production of just over 46,000 was hardly the sort that had sustained DeSoto earlier in the decade.
Rumors of DeSoto's imminent demise began cropping up in '59, and naturally affected sales. Though calendar-year output was up slightly from '58, volume for both years was less than half that of 1957's near 120,000 units.
Plainly, the recession had put DeSoto in the same kind of trouble as Oldsmobile, Buick, and Mercury, but those makes started at higher levels and thus had further to fall. Moreover, all were planning smaller models for 1960-61. Although DeSoto's 1962 plans included "downsized" standard cars, there was no program for a compact.
The real problem, though, was a change in corporate marketing strategy. Previously, company franchises split into Chrysler-Plymouth, DeSoto-Plymouth, and Dodge-Plymouth dealers. The advent of Imperial as a separate make for 1955 prompted Chrysler Division to expand in the lower end of its price territory, while Dodge moved upward with larger, more-luxurious cars. DeSoto had nowhere to go -- except the grave.
At first, Chrysler strongly denied that DeSoto would be terminated, and even staged a 1959 celebration marking production of the two-millionth DeSoto. Press releases noted that almost a million DeSotos were still registered and that $25 million had been earmarked for future models -- $7 million for 1960 alone. Officials also said commitments had been made for '61, and that work was underway toward 1962-63. They also pointed out that Chrysler had regularly made a profit on DeSoto.
But then Chrysler combined DeSoto and Plymouth Divisions in 1960, with the new compact Valiant an ostensibly separate make. Valiant sold very well and Plymouth did fairly well, but DeSoto fared badly. Sales in the first two months of 1960 were just 4746 -- a mere 0.51 percent of the industry -- down substantially from the 1959 period (6134 units and 0.72 percent).
DeSoto's 1960 line reflected these developments: cut to just a sedan, hardtop sedan, and hardtop coupe in two series. The upper was called Adventurer, but sold for a few hundred dollars below '59 Fireflites and was much-less-special than previous Adventurers. Fireflite was now in the $3000 area formerly occupied by Firesweep. The year's most-popular DeSoto was the Fireflite sedan, but even it failed to exceed 10,000 units.
All 1960 DeSotos shared a 122-inch wheelbase with that year's Chrysler Windsor and Dodge Matador/Polara. They also adopted the new "unibody" construction that arrived corporate-wide (except on Imperial). Adventurers carried the 305-horsepower 383 from the now-departed Firedome; Fireflites had the 295-horsepower 361 from the '59 Firesweep.
Styling was all but identical with the 1960 Chrysler's, announced by a blunt, trapezoidal grille composed of small horizontal bars atop a huge vee'd bumper with rubber-capped guards. Fins flew as high as ever, but performance was down. A 1960 Adventure could stay with a Windsor away from a stoplight, but would lose to a Chrysler Saratoga or the lighter 383 Dodge Dart Phoenix.
DeSoto's appearance for 1961 was brief -- token really. Production was understandably low: a mere 3034. There was but one nameless series (the cars were simply "DeSotos"), and four-door pillared sedans were eliminated.
Minimal advertising focused on the individual styling. "Odd" was a more-apt adjective -- especially in front, where diagonally stacked quad headlights flanked a curious "double" grille with a latticelike lower section; above was a large oval holding the DeSoto name in unreadable stylized letters against a fine mesh. The rest of the effort was equally uninspired.
But DeSoto's fate had long been sealed, so Chrysler wound down production by Christmas 1960, filling what few orders remained with mostly '61 Windsors. Some DeSoto-Plymouth dealers then became Chrysler-Plymouth stores -- to the chagrin of existing C-P dealers nearby. Left stillborn were the smaller '62 DeSotos based on the planned new corporate "S-series" platform -- though that was no great loss considering their dumpy looks.
It was a sad finale for a marque that had generated much business for Chrysler over more than three decades. And ironically, it was premature. Less than a year later, DeSoto was effectively resurrected at Dodge to bolster sales of its unpopular 1962 standard line, which had been shrunk to near-compact size.
Called Custom 880, this reborn full-size Dodge was much like the '61 DeSoto, and even cost about the same, but sold much better with its smoother styling and more model choices. One suspects, then, that DeSoto's rapid decline, like Edsel's, stemmed from a "loser" image as much as from a changed market.