1960-1961 Desoto


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.

1960 DeSoto
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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DeSoto in the Fifties

DeSoto in the Fifties frequently finished in 11th or 12th place in the sales race, depending on the year and state of the market. DeSoto production was always ranked a spot or two behind Chrysler. Among direct competitors, it always trailed Oldsmobile, but sometimes bested Mercury. Production ran typically in the low-100,000 range, although in model year 1958, a disaster for much of the industry, output sank to 49,445, a trend that would thereafter prove the rule rather than the exception.

1960 DeSoto
The 1960 DeSoto lineup was much smaller than
those in the Fifties, a sign of impending doom.

The DeSoto line had been broadened in 1957 with the addition of a lower-priced Firesweep line on the shorter 122-inch Dodge wheelbase. At this time, the high-line Adventurer hardtop coupe was moved into a separate series, where it was joined by an Adventurer convertible. Thus DeSotos, previously priced from $2,678 to $3,728, now ran the gamut from $2,777 to $4,272, crowding Dodge on the bottom and Chrysler at the top.

This arrangement continued through the 1959 model year, but with the 1960 model introductions came a slimmed-down catalog of just two series with three body styles in each. Gone were the Firesweep and Firedome series. That left just the Fireflite and top-of-the-line Adven­turer, both of which traded in their former 126-inch wheelbase on the 122-inch chassis shared with Dodge, Chrysler's Windsor, and Plymouth station wagons.

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1960 DeSoto

The 1960 DeSoto line exhibited a fresh, new look. The second generation of the "Forward Look" cars, dramatic when introduced in 1957, had become fussier in the course of being freshened for 1958 and 1959. The 1960 model year brought "Unibody" construction to all domestic Chrysler Corporation cars except Im­perials.

1960 DeSoto
Despite signs that the marque was on the way out,
DeSoto had a fresh redesign for 1960.

Virgil Exner's styling for the unit-body senior 1960 Mopars had sweeping, outwardly canting fins, rising from a point midway on the front door and ending in "boom­erang" taillights. A wide-mouth grille incorporating triangular parking lights at its lower far corners looked a bit like it had just visited the orthodontist, but the overall effect was harmonious, just a bit flashier than that of the similarly shaped Chryslers.

Suspension continued to consist of front torsion bars and rear leaf springs. Period magazine reports generally liked the effect the combination of the new body construction and "Tor­sion-Aire" suspension had on ride. "The springing seems to be a good compromise which is not too soft to cause objectionable swaying on the open road nor too harsh for comfort in town," Motor Life reported.

Motor Trend's Walt Woron said the '60 Adven­turer "acted fine" at highway speeds, but added, "[A] few times we felt that the front end had a rotating motion, instead of just the normal up-and-down movement that most cars have after they come out of a dip."

For the first time since 1948, there were no DeSoto station wagons. Neither were there any convertibles, leaving just a hardtop coupe, four-door sedan, and pillarless hardtop sedan in each series. The market segment was compressed, too, with the lowest-priced DeSoto, the Fireflite four-door sedan, selling for $3,017 and the most expensive, the Adventurer four-door hardtop, for $3,727.

Both series used the Chrysler B-series engine, Fireflites the 361-cubic-inch version, Adventurers the 383. Both had 10:1 compression and Carter BBD two-barrel carburetion, rendering 295 horsepower for Fireflites and 305 for Adventurers. Either series could be ordered with a four-barrel 383, good for 325 horsepower.

A version of Chrysler's ram induction system, using tuned, extended manifolds mounted with dual quads, was available on the Adventurer. It yielded a scant five bhp more than the single-quad job, but produced a hefty 460 pound-feet of torque. (The package also included dual exhausts and, quite wisely, larger 12-inch-diameter brakes.) Published road tests found that this "Ram Charge" engine served the car well across a wide rpm range. Motor Life and Motor Trend both cited 8.8-second 0-60-mph times for a two-door hardtop with the dual-quad engine; Motor Trend covered the quarter-mile in 17.2 seconds at 85.5 mph.

The basic transmission on Fireflites was, at least theoretically, a three-speed manual, though probably few cars were so equipped. The three-speed Torque­Flite automatic was standard on Adven­turers and a $227 option on Fireflites. The two-speed PowerFlite automatic, entering its final year of service, could be ordered on Fireflites for a mere $189.

Among the quirkier factory options was the "Ultra-Fi." Fifty-two dollars would add this RCA-developed record player to the AM radio, itself an $89 extra. In contrast to the earlier Highway Hi-Fi, which required special 162/3-rpm records, the new unit played standard 45s. Another $106 would fetch front seats that swiveled to the side automatically when the doors were opened to ease entry and exit.

In a year that saw auto production rise to 6.6 million cars -- better than 1957's pretty-good 6.1 million, though no match for the 7.9 million of 1955 -- DeSoto suffered. Just 26,081 cars came off the line in the 1960 model year, for a very disappointing 14th place. DeSoto's market share was barely one-third of 1 percent. Only Imperial, Lincoln, Checker, and the euthanized Edsel fared worse. (One consequence of DeSoto's slide was that its Warren Avenue plant was taken over by Imperial at the end of 1958; DeSoto production was moved to Jeffer­son Avenue, mixed with Chryslers and Dodges.)

Poor performance rarely goes unpunished, and when the 1961 model year began, it was obvious that DeSoto had been to the woodshed. The product line was pared yet again. Gone were the Adventurer and Fireflite. There was just a single series with no name, though it was roughly equivalent to the 1960 Fire­flite. In it were a hardtop coupe and a hardtop sedan.

The marque's precarious position didn't go unremarked. In its '61 new-car previews, Motor Trend could hard­ly contain its surprise. "Many observ­ers seriously doubted whether DeSoto would introduce any car, let alone a new car for 1961," it said. "Generally speaking, most persons thought that if the car did come out, it would be a luxury compact."

Powertrains began with a single engine choice, a two-barrel 361. Thanks to full-point compression-ratio reduction to 9.0:1, power output was down to 265 horsepower. The carburetor was improved and intake valves were enlarged, however. A manual transmission, Chrysler's new heavy-duty three-speed unit, was listed as standard, but most, if not all, cars were equipped with the optional TorqueFlite.

The styling had become arresting, Motor Trend complaining that the front and rear looked like they had "come from different styling studios." While only the taillights and trim had changed on the rear, the front bore canted headlamps and a two-section grille with a cyclopslike upper section that was widely considered unattractive.

Chrysler vehicles all made a switch in '61 from DC generators to AC alternators for better electrical-current output at low engine speeds -- all the better for operating power convenience features. There were still options aplenty for DeSotos: air conditioning (for $501), power brakes, power steering, six-way power seat, and a couple of convenience and style groups. The Ultra-Fi record player returned, called simply "RCA Automatic Record Player" in the catalogs. The pivoting seats were no longer offered, though.

It's tempting to contrast the seemingly sudden death of DeSoto with the slow, excruciating demise recently doled out to Plymouth and Oldsmobile by starvation of new-product development. With 20/20 hindsight, however, we can see that the end of DeSoto, from the time of the decision to the assembly of the last car, was anything but swift. The knell had been sounded by the time the 1960 product plans were hatched, and canny observers of the industry could have seen the signs: overt pruning of the DeSoto product line and gerrymandering of the Chrysler catalog to take up the slack.

If the condensed 1960 DeSoto lineup did not catch their attention, surely the expanded Chrysler line for 1961 did. The Windsor, for a decade the entry-level Chrysler, was pushed upmarket by half a notch. Below it appeared a new series, the Chrysler Newport, with a full line of body styles from four-door sedan to hardtops, to station wagons, to a convertible, at prices from $2,964 to $3,622, about where the DeSoto Firesweep had been in 1959. DeSoto was being replaced by a new Chrysler.

The DeSoto product line had not been the only casualty. DeSoto management also felt the ax. In June 1959, Chrysler Corporation's DeSoto Division was rolled into a new Plymouth-DeSoto Division, under Plymouth general manager Harry Cheseborough. In November, this be­came Plymouth-DeSoto-Valiant with the addition of the new compact car, which was sold initially as a separate make.

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1961 DeSoto

If the corporate managers had decided years earlier to put DeSoto down, and all the groundwork was in place by the beginning of the 1961 model year, why did they bother to build 1961 DeSotos at all? Eugene Weiss, a retired Chrysler engineer, gives some insight into this puzzle.

1961 DeSoto
DeSoto continued building cars into 1961, until the
manufacturing momentum ran out.

"I was working at Plymouth, and later Plymouth, DeSoto, and Valiant Division," Weiss told the magazine Collectible Automobile®. "The issue was a budget crisis about how to fund and staff the new Valiant Division. The answer was not to, and to transfer the overhead and staff of DeSoto Division to Plymouth, and to fold Valiant into the Plymouth brand.

"The DeSoto decision was delayed and delayed, but in the meantime, parts for a 1961 DeSoto had to be ordered because the production schedule was for three months into the future for parts, and a fourth month for raw material. The decision finally came, and, as I remember it, the DeSoto plant was never reopened for 1961. But by then, there were millions of dollars worth of DeSoto parts that had been made. The DeSoto cars were worked into the Chrysler Jefferson production schedule until all the DeSoto material was used up."

To be sure, there were contingency plans for a 1962 De­Soto. One was an all-new design based on the same theme that resulted in the production 1962 Plymouths and Dodges. Another little-known and discarded possibility, described in some detail by Jeffrey Godshall in the December 1994 issue of Collectible Automobile®, was a 1962 DeSoto that was a Chrysler Newport in all but nameplates. All these plans were, of course, stillborn after the demise of DeSoto.

On November 30, 1960, the last DeSoto emerged from the Jefferson Avenue plant. Only 911 hardtop coupes and 2,123 sedans had been built, and the last of them didn't leave the shipping yard until after Christmas. The fallout continued for some time. Nine DeSoto dealers in New Jersey sued Chrysler for breach of their dealer agreements, and eventually won. Most, however, simply took the Chrysler franchises they were offered.

While loyal DeSoto owners were bereft, Chrysler managers saw nothing but success. Nearly 60,000 people bought new Chrysler Newports, more than had purchased DeSotos in any year since 1957.

The DeSoto name continued to be used overseas, and DeSoto trucks are still produced in Turkey, although the company no longer has ties to DaimlerChrysler nor uses any Chrysler components. In a way, DeSoto didn't really die in North America, either. It lived on under a pseudonym, and very successfully, too.

The Chrysler Newport, née DeSoto, albeit a bit downmarket in its appointments, was in such demand that Dodge dealers insisted on one, too, to help overcome the poor reception accorded their own smaller "plucked chicken" 1962 models. Thus was born the Cus­tom 880, launched in January 1962 with a new Chrysler body fronted by the nose from a 1961 Dodge. Total production of New­ports and Cus­tom 880s in the 1962 model year topped 100,000 units, satisfyingly close to sales of Mercury's full-size series.

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The Last Days of DeSoto

These days, automobile manufacturers often save the last of a particular model, sometimes for a museum and sometimes just stored away for posterity. In the last days of DeSoto, however, Chrysler Corporation did not save the final copy, and enthusiasts have been looking for it ever since. The trouble is, if you found it, how would you know?

1961 DeSoto
The identity of the last 1961 DeSoto
remains a mystery.

DeSotos for the 1961 model year were built in the same plant as Chryslers and big Dodges, and their vehicle identification numbers were interspersed with other cars' VINs. The easiest way to date a DeSoto is to examine the firewall-mounted data plate. In the lower left corner is a group of digits known as the "SO number." This is the "schedule order," comprising a four-digit date (e.g. 1021 would be October 21) and a four-digit sequence number, long believed to be the body number (i.e. higher numbers represent bodies built later).

Wayne Graefen, an eclectic car collector always on the lookout for interesting vehicles, discovered a 1961 DeSoto in Texas that seemed to carry higher numbers than any known in the National DeSoto Club. Its SO was 1130 3064, meaning it was built on November 30 (the last day of DeSoto production) and might be the 3,064th DeSoto body. But only 3,034 DeSotos were built for the model year. How could this be?

Although Chrysler Corporation did not keep the last DeSoto, it did keep track of its numbers: VIN 6113135102, schedule order 1130 3083. When Wayne obtained the build record from the Chrysler Historical archives, he knew he had not found the last DeSoto. The real last car, however, had a sequence number even higher than his find. This only added to the puzzle.

Dean Mullinax, president of the National DeSoto Club, Inc., has been collecting information on 1961 De­Sotos for years, amassing a database of more than 70 cars. From this, some patterns can be discerned. Sequence numbers were often repeated, but apparently never on the same day.

Furthermore, all the sequence numbers in his sample started with "3." This explains why so many people thought they owned "almost the last DeSoto." It seems that numbers were started over every day, probably at 3001. A unique schedule order number must contain both the date and the sequence. Another fact gleaned from Dean's database is that 1961 DeSoto production began on August 30, 1960.

There's still much to learn, so Dean is anxious for more data. If you have an unreported 1961 DeSoto, he'd like to hear about it. He can be contacted in writing at 1369 Woodlock Road, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464, or via email at DeS4me@comcast.net.

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1960-1961 DeSoto specifications

DeSoto had a promising beginning, but internal competition within Chrysler Corporation would lead to its demise. However, other internal factors caused the marque to linger after the decision to drop it had been made, which meant that DeSoto's last two model years were built with its short-lived future a foregone conclusion. Here are the 1960-1961 DeSoto specifications, covering the brand's ill-fated last two years.

1961 DeSoto coupe
The 1961 DeSoto was available as a coupe (shown)
or sedan, but without a model name.

1960 DeSoto


Weight (lbs.)
Price (new)
Number built
Fireflite 4-door sedan
3,865
$3,017
9,032
Fireflite hardtop coupe
3,885
$3,102
3,494
Fireflite hardtop sedan
3,865
$3,167
1,958
Total Fireflite


14,484
Adventurer 4-door sedan
3,895
$3,579
5,746
Adventurer hardtop coupe
3,945
$3,663
3,092
Adventurer hardtop sedan
3,940
$3,727
2,759
Total Adventurer


11,597
Total DeSoto


26,081

1961 DeSoto

Weight (lbs.)
Price (new)
Number built
Hardtop coupe
3,760
$3,102
911
Hardtop sedan
3,820
$3,167
2,123
Total


3,034

1961 DeSoto Selected Specifications

General
Wheelbase (in.) 122.0
Overall length (in.) 215.6
Overall height (in.) 54.8
Overall width (in.) 79.4
Tread, front/rear (in.) 61.0/59.7
Construction layout front-engine, rear drive
Type unitized body with box-section engine mount
Body material steel

Powertrain
Engine type 90-degree overhead-valve V-8
Material cast-iron block and heads
Bore and stroke (in.) 4.13x3.38
Displacement (cubic inches) 361
Horsepower @ rpm 265 @ 4,400
Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm 380 @ 2,400
Compression ratio 9.0:1
Main bearings 5
Carburetor 2-barrel Stromberg downdraft
Valve lifters hydraulic
Standard transmission 3-speed manual, synchromesh on top two gears, column-mounted shifter
Standard transmission ratios 1st, 2.55:1; 2nd, 1.49:1; 3rd, 1.00:1; reverse, 3.34:1
Optional transmission 3-speed automatic with torque converter, dashboard-mounted pushbuttons
Electrical system 12-volt

Chassis
Front suspension independent with torsion bars, tubular shock absorbers
Rear suspension solid axle, semielliptic leaf springs, tubular shock absorbers
Brake type 4-wheel hydraulic internal-expanding, cast-iron drums
Drum diameter (in.) 11
Tire size 8.00x14

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