1956-1960 DeSoto Adventurer

The 1956-1960 DeSoto Adventurer surprised critics. True story. Big-time automotive journalists in the late 1950s compare a flashy full-size coupe to Chrysler's mighty 300-D and find it holds its own against the premier performance car of the day. They act as if this is a revelation. Their account in the June 1958 edition of Motor Trend begins: "Sneak treat of '58 is DeSoto's Adventurer series, a gutty hardtop and convertible duo for the fellow who wants something different." Interestingly, the Adventurer was in its third model year. And previous versions had been even quicker.

Desoto Image Gallery

The Adventurer was an unsung hero among the big cars of the 1950s. The 1958 DeSoto Adventure is shown here.
The Adventurer was an unsung hero among the big cars of the
1950s. The 1958 DeSoto Adventurer is shown here. See more
pictures of Desotos.

Motor Trend's apparent surprise speaks volumes about the Adventurer, a highly capable car trapped, unsung and unappreciated, between the glamorous letter series Chryslers and the lean young guns from Dodge and Plymouth. For although the Adventurer was among the fastest and best balanced big cars of the '50s, it also was a DeSoto.

Here was an automobile that could top 140 mph, but wasn't mentioned in DeSoto's sales literature until 1959, the fourth and final year of "true" Adventurer production. The 1957 version was the first American car whose standard engine made one horsepower per cubic inch of displacement, but DeSoto let Chevrolet claim glory for reaching that magic threshold.

Still, to the few who recognized its abilities, the Adventurer was sweeter for being a DeSoto. It was as if the family wallflower had suddenly revealed a hidden talent. Indeed, DeSoto was the most conservative division in the staid Chrysler clan. It considered one hundred thousand units a great year, never climbed above tenth place in the sales race, and couldn't capitalize on what excitement did come its way.

DeSoto's first V-8, for example, was a hemispherical combustion-chamber 276-cid mill with 160 bhp, more power per cubic inch than any six- or eight-cylinder engine on the market. But few cared: The 1952 DeSotos in which it debuted were lackluster variations of the boxy 1949 models.

It wasn't until Chrysler Corporation's "Forward Look" reskin of 1955, and the addition of modest tailfins for '56, that DeSoto seemed to have a pulse, The division had adopted Chrysler's 126-inch wheelbase for '55 and dropped its prewar facial motif in favor of a modern mesh grille for '56. DeSoto's hemi V-8 grew to 330 cid, good for 230 bhp in the base Firedome model and a healthy 255 in the upscale Fireflite.

The promotional highlight of one year -- maybe of its existence -- was the announcement that a Fireflite convertible would pace the '56 Indianapolis 500. It was the division's first and only Indy pace car, and it celebrated by building about 400 production replicas, dubbed Pacesetters. Done in white with a gold top, side sweep, and trim, the replicas were unveiled on January 11. They used the 255-bhp hemi, and were adequate performers.

Real Mopar muscle at the moment was the domain of the letter-series Chryslers, which debuted in mid-1955 as the $4110 C-300. Powered by a 300-bhp 331-cid hemi, the 130-mph coupe won races, grabbed headlines, and demonstrated how a performance model could generate showroom traffic. It's unclear if the other divisions then badgered the corporation for permission to create "super stackers" of their own, or were ordered to come up with one. For its part, DeSoto had a tradition of releasing midyear luxury models.

In a recent interview, James L. Wichert, DeSoto's director of advertising and sales promotion from 1949 to 1961, said he wasn't privy to the thinking of his superiors, but suspects DeSoto was less anxious than youth-oriented Dodge and Plymouth to push the performance theme.

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By early 1956 each division had its hot car: Dodge the 260-bhp 315-cid hemi V-8 D-500 package, Plymouth the 240-bhp 303-cid Fury hardtop, and Chrysler the 300-B with its 354-cid hemi capable of 355 bhp.

For its performance model, the 1956 DeSoto Adventurer reached back for the the most provocative name ever associated with the marque. Chrysler styling chief Virgil M. Exner had created a series of DeSoto-badged show cars in the early Fifties. His personal favorite was the first one, a graceful four-seater unveiled in 1953 as the Adventurer I. On February 18, 1956, the division unveiled its production Adventurer, a Fireflite-based two-door hardtop that shared many Pacesetter appearance features, though it offered six color combinations: Surf White lower body with an Adventurer Gold roof panel and color sweep; gold body with white or black roof and color sweep; black body with gold or white roof and sweep; and white body with black roof and sweep.

The 1956 DeSoto Adventurer's gilded appointments included its grille and wheel covers.
The 1956 DeSoto Adventurer's gilded appointments
included its grille and wheel covers.

As on the Pacesetters, the Adventurer's aluminum mesh grille was gold and its "V" insert was silver -- the reverse of other DeSotos. The hood medallion was in a checkered-flag setting, and there were checkered-flag "Forward Look" emblems on the front fenders. The rear fenders held chrome Adventurer script and dual antennae. Dual outside mirrors were standard.

Shared with the Pacesetter were new turbine-style wheel covers, gold-anodized aluminum discs that covered the full rim surface; to reach the tire valve, the disc had to be pried about three inches from the rim, where it was suspended by five retainer clips.

Interiors of the two specials also were similar: exclusive gold vinyl upholstery, brown tweed inserts, and black carpeting with gold "Lurex" flecks. The ivory-colored plastic steering wheel had gold grip sections at three and nine o'clock. DeSoto's standard dual-cove dashboard was retained, but Adventurers got black dashtop padding (a $19.40 option on other models), and gold-trimmed coves.

Instrumentation included oil pressure and generator gauges, but no tachometer. The round, chrome-bezel dials were sporty, but with black markings on white faces, they were hard to read in sunlight. Among standard items were a signal-seeking radio, a $118.80 option on lesser DeSotos, and power windows, which normally cost $102.30.

DeSoto billed the Adventurer as a limited-edition model and was apparently happy with a first-year production of 996, which Motor Trend said was sold out in just six weeks. By comparison, Chrysler built 1102 of the 300-Bs, Plymouth assembled 4485 Furys, and Dodge sold an uncounted number of D-500 packages.

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The 1956 DeSoto Adventurer's new image backed its sizzle with sinew -- 320 bhp. The division bored its own hemi V-8 to 341 cid and added a high-lift camshaft, heavy-duty valve springs, aluminum pistons, forged-steel connecting rods, and a forged-steel crankshaft shot peened for strength. Compression was 9.25:1, compared to the 330 V-8's 8.5:1, and spark plugs and distributor timing were unique.

The Adventurer was the only DeSoto with dual four-barrel carburetors. A delta-shaped "batwing" air cleaner covered the two down-draft Carters and like the rest of the engine, was painted bright gold. A dual exhaust system, $32.90 on other models, was standard on Adventurer. The two-speed Powerflite automatic was the only transmission and could team with axle ratios of 3.54:1, 3.73:1, 4.1:1, or 4.3:1. As on other '56 DeSotos, the automatic transmission was controlled by mechanical push buttons on the dash to the driver's left.

Color offerings for the 1956 DeSoto Adventurer included the black body with gold roof and sweep pictured here.
Color offerings for the 1956 DeSoto Adventurer
included the black body with gold roof and sweep
pictured here.

Heavy-duty Oriflow shock absorbers were fitted "for maximum ride control," according to the factory specification sheet, and handling was improved over tamer models via special front coil. Stunning new styling, which made Chrysler the envy of the U.S. industry; a 345-bhp, 345-cid hemi engine; and new torsion-bar front suspension were the key features of the 1957 Adventurer. Still, it remained somewhat of a secret. The two-door hardtop, which at $3997 basic cost a little less than a dollar a pound, saw just 1650 assemblies. Power brakes were standard, but power steering cost $96.90 extra.

Among the Adventurer's few other options were a self-winding Benrus clock in the steering-wheel hub, a gasoline-fired interior heater that could reach 100 degrees in 15 seconds, and Chrysler's new Highway Hi-Fi. The last was a compact phonograph that mounted under the dash and played special 16 2/3-rpm discs.

The inaugural Adventurer tipped the scales at 3870 pounds dry and listed for $3728, $113 more than the Pacesetter. Both the new D-500, which was really a $175 engine and suspension package, and the $2900 Fury, were lighter and faster off the line than the DeSoto, turning 0-60-mph times in the mid-nine-second range. But they were hot rods for the peg-leg-pants set. DeSoto positioned the Adventurer as a fully equipped car for the mature performance enthusiast. It clearly wanted to identify with the 300-B, and in the absence of Adventurer-exclusive advertising or showroom literature, issued an owner's manual supplement, just like the one in the 300-B signed by Chrysler division chief engineer R. M. Rodger.

The Adventurer's manual was signed by DeSoto President L. Irving Woolson. "It isn't very often that any man or woman has the opportunity to see one's dream come true," he wrote, "but a dream of ours has become a reality in your new DeSoto Adventurer. We believe it to be the finest DeSoto ever built. May I congratulate you on your choice of this superb automobile."

The 1956 Adventurer had a $691 price advantage over the 300-B and would be the only Adventurer with a better power-to-weight ratio than the 300-B, carrying 12.1 pounds per horsepower, to the 4145-pound standard-engined 300-B's 12.2. But the 300-B was quicker and more ferocious. A 340-horse model ran 0-60 mph in 9.0 seconds for Hot Rod, turned the quarter-mile in 17 seconds at 84 mph, and topped out at 140 mph. Motor Trend timed an Adventurer at 10.5 seconds 0-60, 17.5 seconds and 81 mph in the quarter, and claimed to have recorded a top speed of 144 mph.

The Chrysler had better high-speed throttle response, and its competition-bred suspension gave it the edge in cornering, but critics admitted that DeSoto had produced the genuine article. "All honest and available, 320 horsepower is enough to make any car a bomb," wrote Don MacDonald in the July 1956 Motor Trend. "Combined with a striking gold and white color scheme and an especially deluxe interior to match, it adds up to a very desirable piece of property." He continued, "handling is excellent, with a heavy-car feel," noting, "as is usual practice on Chrysler Corp. 'sports' models, the Adventurer has stiffer-than-stock springs and shocks. These produce a ride which we favor, altho [sic] we admit we don't seem to be in line with the majority of car buyers in this respect."

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It was Chrysler styling chief Virgil M. Exner's 1955 DeSoto Flight Sweep show cars that presaged Chrysler's landmark 1957 restyle. The DeSoto Adventurer hardtop returned in late December 1956 to top the dramatic new line at $3997. It was joined shortly by a convertible, which stickered at $4272, a new DeSoto high.

The Hi-Way Hi-Fi, an under-dash record player, was featured in some 1957 DeSoto Adventurers.
The Hi-Way Hi-Fi, an under-dash record player,
was featured in some 1957 DeSoto Adventurers.

Both were again based on the Fireflite and came with quad headlamps. Exterior colors were white or black with a gold sweep and roof, or gold with a white or black sweep and roof. All convertible tops were gold. The checkered-flag "Forward Look" emblem moved to the rear tailfins, and five stainless-steel accent strips appeared on the trunklid.

The gold anodized grille was gone, but the gold turbine wheel covers remained, albeit on 14-inch wheels rather than 15s. DeSoto had advised buyers in '56 that these hubcaps required no special attention, but the '57 owner's manual said they should be washed only with mild soap because the caustic cleaners that many owners used on whitewalls "could dull the deep lustre of your wheel covers."

Adventurer's interior patterns would change annually, but would retain exclusive gold, white, and tweed combinations; DeSoto called this year's material "vinahide." As on all '57 Chrysler cars, the seating position was criticized as too low for comfort. The dashboard retained automatic-transmission push buttons, but relinquished its Euro-flavored layout for an all-American horizontal design with a ribbon speedometer. Adventurer furnished fuel, battery, oil-pressure, and coolant-temperature gauges, but still no tach. The steering-wheel watch was again optional, but the Hi-Way Hi-Fi was fading from the options list -- sources differ as to how long into the '57 model year it was available.

This was a bold car: two tons of tailfins and chrome and 218 inches long from bumper to bumper, requiring an epic 42-foot turning circle. "Here is a car that can be said to provide three major functions: it is a real pleasure to drive, it gives maximum driver and passenger comfort and entertainment, and it impresses the hell out of people," declared Sports Car Illustrated.

Beneath the fresh sheetmetal was Chrysler Corporation's new torsion-bar front suspension, which provided unsurpassed ride control and quelled body lean in turns. These big cars were surprisingly poised in changes of direction, despite power steering that was overassisted even by contemporary standards. The Adventurer now had exclusive rear springs, but its heavy-duty front torsion bars were available on other DeSotos.

"Roadholding ability of [the] car is fantastic in all road conditions," said Sports Car Illustrated. "The ride at 100 mph is as smooth and quiet as at 60, and the Adventurer holds its course without effort in spite of road imperfections and crosswinds." The car's "biggest weakness," said the magazine, were brakes that faded quickly in repeated stops and required lots of pedal pressure, though they performed well in normal use.

The engine was again based on the hydraulic-lifter Fireflite hemi, which was a 295-bhp 341-cid V-8 for '57. The Adventurer's dual-quad version was bored to 345 cid and rated at 345 bhp -- the magical one horsepower per cubic inch. Despite gaining about 170 pounds, the '57 Adventurer was fractionally faster than the '56, running 0-60 mph in 10.2 seconds for Sports Car Illustrated. Enhancing Adventurer's power was its newly standard Torque-Flite three-speed automatic transmission, which was available for the first time across Chrysler Corporation's line. The standard axle ratio was 3.54:1, with options ranging from 2.92:1 to 4.89:1. A trait taken in stride by aficionados who bought '56 Adventurers became less palatable for '57.

With its high-performance camshaft and tricky-to-adjust dual quads, the 345-cid hemi idled rougher and 200 rpm faster (at 700 rpm) than other DeSoto V-8s. Its gearshifts also were more pronounced. DeSoto issued a dealer bulletin: "The distinctive operating characteristics outlined above are inherent features of the special type of Adventurer car, and if explained to your customer at time of delivery, will make him even more enthusiastic about his purchase."

The 1957 DeSoto Adventurer wowed critics with its bold styling and power.
The 1957 DeSoto Adventurer wowed critics with its
spectacular styling and power.

With its late introduction, the Adventurer still wasn't in DeSoto's fall catalog, and there was no separate brochure. But Woolson returned with an owner's manual insert, welcoming buyers to "the elite Adventurer family. I sincerely feel that your 1957 Adventurer is the finest automobile DeSoto has ever built."

His declaration stands the test of time. "The car is spectacular," wrote Robert Cumberford, revisiting a '57 Adventurer hardtop for the August 1993 issue of Automobile magazine. "One is obliged to think that they knew something about power in those long-ago pre-fuel-injection days, because the DeSoto moves when you put your foot down.

"Visibility is outstanding; the glass sweeps around in generous curves. Everything about the car speaks of a more relaxed and generous time. There is a self-winding Benrus watch in the steering wheel hub. The typical Fifties instruments, with a face texture that looks for all the world like the carbon fiber in a Ferrari F40, are scattered along the panel in knee-breaking position for the front-seat passenger. Other times, other standards. And other thrills. Good car."

The '57 Adventurer coupe maintained a substantial price advantage over the 300-C, which cost $932 more, and the rag-top was $1087 less than the letter-series convertible. The new styling helped boost DeSoto sales by more than nine percent, to 117,514. The Adventurer did its part, nearly doubling production to 1950, of which 300 were convertibles.

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The 1958 DeSoto Adventurer had challenges to overcome. Buyers quickly learned of some serious flaws in that flashy new sheet-metal of the DeSotos. Early rusting, especially around the headlights and rocker panels, plagued all '57 Chrysler makes. Some cars suffered torsion-bar failure, which left front ends sagging. Water leaked through the front-door trim panel, and on models like the Adventurer, rear-bumper exhaust outlets burned and peeled surrounding chrome.

Among exterior changes for the 1958 DeSoto Adventurer were a slightly changed grille and sidesweep.
Among exterior changes for the 1958 DeSoto
Adventurer were a slightly changed grille
and sidesweep.

Such problems, in addition to the recessionary economy, contributed to a Chrysler sales decline for '58, DeSoto plunging by more than half to 49,445. The midprice market shrunk, and DeSoto was squeezed further by new high-buck-priced Dodges and lower-cost Chryslers.

The '58 Adventurer bowed on January 5. Its grille was altered slightly, the side sweep now surfed up the rear tail-fin and included an anodized aluminum triangle, and the exhaust outlets were pinched.

Change was more drastic under the skin. The complex hemi engines were suddenly a costly extravagance, so Chrysler began switching to cheaper wedgehead V-8s -- though the flagship Chrysler 300-D retained its hemi.

The '58 Adventurer shared with Firedome and Fireflite models a 361-cid wedge that was easier to tune and weighed 60-pounds less than the hemi. In standard form, the dual-quad Adventurer version had 345 bhp, 40 more than the four-barrel Fireflite. Compression was 10.25:1, compared to 10.00:1 in Fireflites, and the Adventurer got a hotter camshaft and heavier valve springs, dual-breaker distributor, cooler spark plugs, and 1/4-inch larger exhaust piping. Axle ratios ranged from 2.92:1 to 3.91:1.

Optional on the '58 Adventurer was a Bendix fuel-injection setup similar to the system offered on the 300-D, Dodge Super D-500, and Plymouth Fury. It churned out 355 bhp, but was fraught with problems and cost a hefty $637.20. Fewer than a dozen units are believed to have been installed on Adventurers -- all eventually factory recalled and replaced by carburetors.

The 1958 DeSoto Adventurer featured a 361-cid wedge that was easier to tune.
In lieu of a hemi, the 1958 DeSoto Adventurer
featured a 361-cid wedgehead that was
easier to tune.

While Adventurer's engine was still markedly different than other DeSotos', its suspension was not. Motor Trend reported that the '58 used the softer Fireflite ride components, though the Adventurer's front sway bar was apparently thicker and there was an extra rear leaf spring. The magazine also said stiffer export" shocks and springs were optional.

"Our approach to designing the Adventurer was to have a car with an appeal of its own," George Gale, assistant chief engineer for DeSoto, told Motor Trend. "Not a competition car -- but performance-proved transportation that would be pleasant to drive every day of the year."

The Adventurer was again marketed as a limited-edition model. Prices increased to $4071 for the coupe and to $4369 for the ragtop, and production dropped to just 350 hardtops and a mere 82 convertibles. DeSoto's overall health was in terminal decline. Division sales dived nearly 70 percent, to 49,445 -- 13,000 less than Edsel.

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Things got worse for 1959 and 1960 DeSoto Adventurer models. Chrysler relieved DeSoto of its own headquarters and plant in 1959. The entry-level Firesweep had always been built by Dodge, but now the Firedome, Fireflite, and Adventurer were assembled at a Chrysler factory. Quality control was improved, but rumors of DeSoto's demise grew, and the division could ill afford to retain Adventurer's full exclusivity. For the first time, the car appeared in the fall brochure. "Pure gold... in ride, pride and pleasure," said the spread.

Exterior color options for the 1959 DeSoto Adventurer included black (shown here) and white pearl.
Exterior color options for the 1959 DeSoto
Adventurer included black (shown here) and
white pearl.

Gold anodized wheel covers and aluminum side sweeps were again reserved for the Adventurer. They contrasted with available black or white-pearl exterior colors. To simulate grained leather, the coupe's roof was covered in "Leather-tone," a textured vinyl-base paint in matching body color. No other DeSoto got the gold and white vinyl upholstery with "Nylon Casino Corde" inserts. Fireflite and Firedome could, however, be ordered with new swivel front semi-buckets. They were standard on Adventurer and touted in a DeSoto press release as "the greatest seating development in automobile history."

Stiffened rear springs were the only Adventurer suspension advantage. Like all '59 DeSotos, it was offered with a load-levelling rear air suspension, another failure that ended with standard shocks being retrofitted.

Most significant. Adventurer's dual-quad engine was now available in any DeSoto model, even the Firesweep wagon. Pictured in the brochure painted a gleaming gold with red valve covers and accessories, the "Fabulous Adventurer Engine" was priced from $142 in the Firesweep to $108 in the Fireflite.

­This V-8, a bored version of the Firesweep's 361-cid, shared its 383-cid displacement and 10.1:1 compression ratio with the standard Firedome and Fireflite engines. But it had a special camshaft and valve gear, and a modified distributor. It was rated at 350 bhp, 25 more than the single-four-barrel version standard in the Fireflite. Acceleration remained strong, with the Adventurer's 0-60 mph time again in the low 10-second range.

Prices increased to $4427 for the coupe and to a hefty $4749 for the convertible, but Adventurer production rose slightly, to 590 hardtops and 97 convertibles. That total was just three short of the 1959 300-E, which had finally relinquished its hemi V-8 for a 380-bhp 413-cid wedge. The Chrysler coupe cost $892 more than the Adventurer hardtop, and the letter-series ragtop listed for a full $1000 more than the DeSoto convertible.

Chrysler publicly denied it, but by the start of the 1960 model year, DeSoto's fate was all but sealed. The division dropped any pretense that the Adventurer was a special performance model. In fact, all top-trim-level DeSotos were now "Adventurers." The only other models were called Fireflites. Both were offered as two- and four-door hardtops and a four-door sedan, all with unibody "Fleetwing" styling on the Firesweep's previous 122-inch wheelbase.

The 1960 DeSoto Adventurer could be ordered with an optional Ram Charge ram-induction system.
The 1960 DeSoto Adventurer could be ordered with
an optional Ram Charge ram-induction system.

Fireflites came with the 295-bhp 361, Adventurers the 305-bhp two-barrel 383 from the '59 Firedome. A four-barrel version of this engine was an $85 option on Fireflites and a $54 feature on Adventurers. Called the Mark I, it was fitted with dual exhausts and was rated at 325 bhp. In a final bow to its high-performance past, the Adventurer could be ordered with a ram-induction system that used specially tuned manifold pipes and two four-barrel carburetors. Called the Ram Charge option, this $283 extra was exclusive to the Adventurer and boosted its 383 to 330 bhp at 4800 rpm.

Adventurer prices ranged from $3579 for the four-door sedan to $3727 for the hardtop sedan. DeSoto production sunk to 26,081 units, of which 11,597 wore the Adventurer badge. Independence took another hit with the creation of the Chrysler-DeSoto-Plymouth Division.

Even model distinctions dissolved for 1961, when the once-proud line consisted of nothing more than a two-door coupe and hardtop, both badged simply "DeSoto." Powered by a 265-bhp 361-cid V-8, the garish-grilled cars bowed on October 14, 1960. On November 18, Chrysler issued a 165-word statement announcing that DeSoto was ceasing production. Just 3034 had been built for the '61 model year.

There were intermittent reports that the marque would resurface. Motor Trend featured drawings of a proposed DeSoto version of the '62 Dodge Lancer compact. With a V-8 engine, it was to have been a real high-performance threat. The name of the this flight of fancy was, in a cruel twist, the "Adventuress."

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Like the proverbial middle child, DeSoto had for years lived in the shadow of more prestigious Chrysler on one side and busier Dodge and Plymouth on the other. Then along came a factory hot rod that should have been a can't-miss proposition. Find prices and production for the 1956-1960 DeSoto Adventurer in the following chart.

This 1960 DeSoto Adventurer was among the last of a dying Adventurer breed.
This 1960 DeSoto Adventurer was among the
last of the dying Adventurer breed.

1956-1960 DeSoto Adventurer Prices and Production:

1956 Adventurer (wb 126)
hardtop coupe
Total 1956 Adventurer

1957 Adventurer (wb 126)
hardtop coupe
convertible coupe
Total 1957 Adventurer

1958 Adventurer (wb 126)
hardtop coupe
convertible coupe
Total 1958 Adventurer

1959 Adventurer (wb 126)
hardtop coupe
convertible coupe
Total 1959 Adventurer

1960 Adventurer (wb 122)
4d sedan
hardtop coupe
hardtop sedan
Total 1960 Adventurer


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