DeSoto 1929-1933

Whether conceived to put a scare into the bankers who controlled Dodge Brothers or as a hedge for Walter Chrysler in case he couldn't acquire coveted Dodge, the 1929-1933 DeSotos helped lay claim to an empire.

It's tempting to accuse Walter P. Chrysler of "Sloanism" in creating DeSoto. It was legendary General Motors President Alfred P. Sloan's principle of a "car for every purse and purpose," the Chevrolet-to-Cadillac hierarchy, that helped GM become the world's largest, most successful auto company. Chrysler conceived DeSoto for his own nameplate "ladder."

Pre-viewed for dealers on July 7, 1928 and introduced to the public on August 4, this midpriced six-cylinder car was intended to plug the gap between the fledgling low-price four-cylinder Plymouth and Walter's premium namesake Chryslers. Despite some last-minute intramural competition, DeSoto got off to a strong start, only to suffer along with the rest of the U.S. auto industry once the Depression set in.

The DeSoto name was not chosen by accident. America in the late Twenties had taken a fancy to many things Span­ish -- architecture, artists like Pablo Picasso, and "Latin lover" film stars, to name three -- so invoking the name and visage of Hernando de Soto, the explorer who discovered the Mississippi River, was in keeping with the national mood.

Extending the theme were Spanish or simply Spanish-sounding model names: Roadster Español (with rumble seat), Cupe Business (ditto), Faeton (for the touring car), a five-passenger four-door Sedan (a name that works in most any language), and Coche (five-place two-door sedan). There were also a Cupe and Sedan tagged "de lujo" -- deluxe.

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1929 DeSoto

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.)

1929 DeSoto
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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1930 DeSoto

The DeSoto K series ran unaltered through July 1929, then continued for another six months as a "first-series" 1930. In January of that year it gained an eight-cylinder stablemate, the Model CF.

Most U.S. automakers in the late Twenties offered two series each model year. The first typically bowed in July of the previous calendar year and ran through December. A second series, sometimes all but indistinguishable from the first, was then trotted out for sale through the following July. DeSoto held to this custom.

1930 DeSoto
The big surprise from DeSoto for 1930 was the
addition in January of an eight-cylinder car, the CF.

A straight eight was the engine of choice for medium-priced cars in 1929-1930. The CF got a 70-bhp 207.7-cid engine and a new 114-inch wheelbase for a seven-model lineup offering all K-model body styles, plus a rumble-seat convertible coupe. It was also sold as a bare chassis for commercial applications and, perhaps, the occasional coachbuilder. Priced at $965-$1,075, the CF undercut ostensible rivals such as Graham, whose cheapest eight sold for $1,445, but clashed directly with Hudson ($885-$1,295).

It also had to contend with the first eight-cylinder Dodge, introduced at almost the same time. Designated DC, this rode the same wheelbase as the CF, but offered five more horsepower from a 220.7-cid version of the same basic sidevalve design (an extra quarter-inch of stroke made the difference). Despite being pitched slightly upmarket of DeSoto at $1,095-$1,145, the Dodge DC modestly outsold the CF with production of more than 23,000 units.

A new six-cylinder DeSoto CK appeared at the end of May 1930. Wheel­base was slightly shorter at 109 inches, a dimension not coincidentally shared with the Model DD Dodge. So was a 60-bhp 189.8-cid engine. At $810-$945, the CK, called "Finer Six," was slightly cheaper than the DD, but most body styles overlapped and styling was similar. Even so, Dodge soundly won this sales race too, by a margin of three-to-one.

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1931 DeSoto

The DeSoto CK carried into model-year 1931, ending production in November 1930. The CF also continued as a "first-series" 1931, though with just 500 built after July 1930. Both these DeSotos had deeper radiator shells without the corporate "ribbon" design still used by Chrysler and Plymouth.

1931 DeSoto
January 1931 ushered in a more
powerful six-cylinder DeSoto, the SA.

January 1931 ushered in a freshened DeSoto crop. The revised six-cylinder SA retained the 109-inch wheelbase, but featured a new 67-bhp 205.3-cid engine, plus revised styling with a longer hood and reduced overall height. The eight-cylinder line, internally designated CF, graduated to the 220.7-cid Dodge engine, but looked much the same as before except that the ribbon radiator returned.

By this time, the Depression was devastating the entire car market, making it impossible for DeSoto to repeat its high first-year popularity. And indeed, production and sales sank to around 32,000 units for 1930 and 1931.

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1932 DeSoto

DeSoto's 1932 model year opened in July 1931 with the Models SA and CF soldiering on. That January, however, brought a dramatic departure in the all-new Model SC. Built on a 112.4-inch wheelbase, it carried an SA six stroked to 211.5 cid, good for 75 bhp. Carryover models were gone by March, and with them went the eight-cylinder engine. DeSoto wouldn't get another until 1952.

1932 DeSoto
A longer, more powerful six-cylinder SC series was
new for 1932.

Sometimes called "New Six," the SC did wonders for DeSoto's image. No corporate look-alike, it sported a handsome barrel-shaped chrome radiator not unlike those of the famous Miller race cars, an iconic countenance that causes heartthrobs to this day. "Floating Power," the novel engine-mounting concept introduced on the 1931 Plymouth PA, was now extended to DeSoto.

So was optional freewheeling, which allowed the engine to idle when power was not required, as in descending hills. It enhanced fuel economy, but was a mixed blessing, because it rendered compression braking unavailable unless the freewheeling was locked out.

To make the most of its "one-model" line, DeSoto offered the SC in seven Standard body styles and five Customs, plus bare chassis. Standards comprised a two-seat roadster and coupe, rumble-seat roadster and coupe, phaeton, brougham two-door sedan, and four-door sedans seating five or seven passengers. The seven-seat sedan mounted a longer 121-inch wheelbase. Customs offered rumble-seat roadster and coupe; five-passenger sedan; and two exclusive models, a convertible sedan and a rumble-seat convertible coupe. Priced $60-$100 above equivalent Standards, the Customs came with trumpet horns, dual taillamps, dual windshield wipers, safety glass, cigar lighter, adjustable seats, and body-color fenders (replacing black).

Reflecting the dire economic climate, the SC was downpriced from previous DeSotos, ranging from $675 for the Stan­dard two-seat roadster to $975 for the Custom convertible sedan. Unfortunately, DeSoto's sales slide continued, and SC production totaled fewer than 25,000 units.

Along with other Chrysler Corporation makes, DeSoto extended its 1932 season to end the annual July introductions and the two-series-a-year scheme. Making their debuts on December 8, 1932, were SD models with a two-inch-longer wheelbase (114.4) and more flowing lines. The Miller-type grille was canted back a bit, its shell now painted body color, and there were wider "Air-Flow" front fenders reaching nearly to the bumper.

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1933 DeSoto

Similar streamlining to the 1933 DeSoto showed up on 1933 Chryslers. Both makes now sported divided windshields, as did some Dodges, but Chrysler's glass was vee'd while DeSoto's was flat -- though not for long.

1933 DeSoto
For 1933, a longer car with a 217.8-cid engine would move
 DeSoto above Dodge pricewise in the six-cylinder field.

Only five body styles were offered, as the phaeton and roadsters were dropped and the long sedan became an export-only item. A business coupe returned after a year's absence, leaving the model count at nine, plus chassis. Horsepower moved up to 82, courtesy of a 217.8-cid six inherited from the previous year's Dodge. Prices came down another notch: $665 to $875. More significant, Dodge sixes were now priced below DeSotos at $595-$775. With the demise of the Dodge Eight after 1933, DeSoto assumed the "middle middle" spot in the corporate line that it would occupy for the next 27 years.

Unfortunately for DeSoto, the upmarket but more affordable SD sold no better than the SC. Production, in fact, declined by 1760 units, and the make's market share dropped from 2.3 percent to less than 1.5 percent. But DeSoto had found its niche as a subluxury car of bold image that would, in later years, offer avant garde features such as hidden headlamps (1942) and innovative models like the Suburban utility sedan (1946-1952) and Sky-View taxicab.

In 1933, racing driver Harry Hartz drove a new DeSoto "backwards" across the country. Actually, the car's controls had been reversed, so the driver looked out through the rear window, and the ring gear flopped over to give, in effect, three speeds in reverse. Passers-by didn't realize it, but they were seeing the future. Wind-tunnel tests had shown that contemporary cars actually had less wind resistance when traveling backward than when going forward.

The resulting quest for slippery shapes led to development of the radically streamlined 1934 Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow. But where Chrysler also offered conventionally styled six-cylinder models, the CA and CB, DeSoto offered nothing but Airflows for 1934 -- and paid the price.

Ultimately, the market niche that DeSoto struggled to find in its first five years was erased by a changing market, but also by a kind of "brand mismanagement" that typically favored Chrysler and Dodge at DeSoto's expense. All the more remarkable, then, is that DeSoto did good -- sometimes great -- business between the Airflow debacle and its model-year 1961 demise. It's as if Walter P., K. T., and later Chrysler leaders never quite figured out what to do with their middle child. Alfred Sloan and General Motors, of course, had no such problem.

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1929-1933 DeSoto Models, Prices, and Production

The deluxe DeSoto was a successful mid-priced classic car. Find weight, production, and prices for 1929-1933 DeSotos in the chart below.

1929-1933 DeSoto: Models, Prices, and Production

1929 Model K (wb 109.8) Weight Price ­Production
roadster, 2/4P 2,350 845 --
phaeton 2,445 845 --
business coupe, 2P 2,465 845 --
De Lujo coupe, 2/4P 2,525 885 --
2d sedan 2,580 845 --
4d sedan 2,645 885 --
De Lujo 4d sedan 2,655 995 --
Total 1929 DeSoto

1930 Model K (wb 109.8) Weight Price
roadster, 2/4P 2,350 845 --
phaeton 2,445 845 --
business coupe, 2P 2,465 845 --
De Lujo coupe, 2/4P 2,525 885 --
2d sedan 2,580 845 --
4d sedan 2,645 885 --
De Lujo 4d sedan 2,655 995 --
Total Model K


Model CK (wb 109.0) roadster, 2/4P
2,385 810 --
phaeton 2,475 830 --
business coupe, 2P 2,515 830 --
DeLuxe coupe, 2/4P 2,585 860 --
convertible cpe, 2/4P 2,540 945 --
4d sedan 2,705 875 --
chassis -- -- --
Total Model CK

Model CF (wb 114.0) Weight
roadster, 2/4P 2,720

phaeton 2,800 1,035 --
business coupe, 2P 2,835 965 --
DeLuxe coupe, 2/4P 2,875 1,025 --
convertible cpe, 2/4P 2,845 1,075 --
4d sedan 2,965 995 --
DeLuxe 4d sedan 2,975 1,065 --
chassis -- -- --
Total Model CF

Total 1930 DeSoto

1931 Model CK (wb 109.0) Weight
roadster, 2/4P 2,385
phaeton 2,475
830 209^
business coupe, 2P 2,515
DeLuxe coupe, 2/4P 2,585
convertible cpe, 2/4P 2,540
4d sedan 2,705
chassis -- -- 94^
Total Model CK

Model SA (wb 109.0) Weight
roadster, 2/4P 2,465 795 --
phaeton 2,580 795 --
business coupe, 2P 2,585 740 --
coupe, 2/4P 2,635 775 --
convertible cpe, 2/4P 2,630 825 --
2d sedan 2,680 695 --
4d sedan 2,695 775 --
DeLuxe 4d sedan 2,835 825 --
chassis -- -- --
Total Model SA

Model CF* (wb 114.0) Weight
roadster, 2/4P 2,720 985 1,457^
phaeton 2,800
business coupe, 2P 2,835
coupe, 2/4P
convertible cpe, 2/4P 2,845
4d sedan 2,965
995 9,653^
DeLuxe 4d sedan 2,975
chassis -- -- 373^
Total Model CK

Model CF* (wb 114.0) Weight
roadster, 2/4P 2,785 995 --
phaeton 2,800 1,035 --
business coupe, 2P 2,915 965 --
DeLuxe coupe, 2/4P 2,970 995 --
convertible cpe, 2/4P 2,970 1,110 --
4d sedan 3,025 995 --
DeLuxe 4d sedan 3,115 1,065 --
chassis -- -- --
Total Model CF*

Total 1931 DeSoto

1932 Model SA (wb 109.0) Weight Price
roadster, 2/4P 2,465