Prosperity seemed endless in 1928 when the fast-rising new Chrysler Corporation purchased Dodge and issued its first DeSoto and Plymouth. Though good times soon turned to "hard times," DeSoto would be one of the few pre-Depression "expansion" makes to survive them.
DeSoto went on to build its most-exciting cars in the '50s, only to die in late 1960 after a flash recession and sibling rivalry obliterated its narrow, well-defined price niche. In between, DeSoto did good and sometimes great business as the medium-price "bridge" between Dodge and Chrysler, with design and engineering that usually owed more to the latter than the former.
Early DeSotos, though, were pitched just above Plymouth in size, power, and price. The make didn't settle into its long familiar "middle-middle" role until the late '30s. Even so, DeSoto history generally parallels Chrysler's with one key exception: While Chrysler offered a group of conventionally styled Sixes for 1934, DeSoto relied exclusively on that year's radical new Airflow. The result was a sales disaster that briefly threatened DeSoto's existence.
The 1930-33 DeSotos reflected general Chrysler Corporation trends. Styling was bolt-upright formal through '31, then smoothed a bit with barrel-like grilles. Sixes and eights were available through 1931. All were orthodox side-valve designs with cast-iron construction. The five-main-bearing eight was smoother and quieter than the four-main six, but neither was a powerhouse.
Eights cost around $1000, early-'30s Sixes around $800-$850. But Eights appealed to only about one in three buyers, so DeSoto offered nothing but sixes from 1932 until its hemi-head "FireDome" V-8 of 1952. Actually, the six was but a single engine that was periodically enlarged -- essentially a smaller version of Chrysler's six.
DeSoto started the '30s in the middle of the industry production pack, but moved upward through 1933 despite building fewer cars each year. Model-year volume totaled some 32,000 for 1930-31, then fell below 25,000 for '32. The tally dropped under 23,000 for 1933, by which time DeSoto had climbed from 15th in a field of 31 makes to 10th out of 26.
Reflecting this sales decline, DeSoto cut prices for 1933: as low as $665 for a standard sedan or coupe and $875 for the top-line Custom convertible sedan. All models carried an 82-horsepower 217.8-cubic-inch six. This became a 100-horsepower, 241.5-cid for 1934-36, after which a destroked 228.1 with 93 or 100 horsepower took over.
Though never exciting, DeSoto's six was sturdy and reliable, happily running for long spells with little maintenance other than an occasional quart of oil. It was also fairly thrifty, returning up to 22 mpg with gentle use. These traits made later six-cylinder DeSotos quite popular as taxicabs.
DeSoto first observed a model year with the January 1932 introduction of its SC-Series "All New Six." This wore chunky but attractive styling as a standard sedan, seven-passenger sedan, and Custom sedan, convertible, and phaeton. Additional coupes and a new brougham two-door sedan arrived for '33.
All the pros and cons of the 1934 Chrysler Airflow naturally held for the DeSoto versions, only they came in a single four-model series versus a multiplicity of Chryslers. Output now bottomed out to a prewar low of just under 14,000.
Following Chrysler in a hasty retreat from Airflows, DeSoto introduced more-conventional -- and salable -- "Airstream" styling for 1935. It appeared on seven companion models bearing a Plymouth-like raked grille, slab sides, and rounded deck.
Sedans were sold with either outside spare tire or "trunkback" styling that enclosed the spare in an integral luggage compartment. There was also a $35 two-tone paint option. Thanks to the Airstreams, production rebounded to 26,800, yet DeSoto dropped to 13th in the wake of Packard's highly successful new medium-priced One Twenty.
DeSoto Division rode out the last half of the '30s with increasingly larger and duller cars. Airflows disappeared after 1936, a year ahead of Chrysler's, but long sedans and limousines arrived that year on a 130-inch wheelbase; this grew to 136 inches for 1938.
The great Ray Dietrich of coachbuilding fame was hired to direct Chrysler's corporate design in this period, so DeSoto looked as conservative as its sister makes, though in tune with contemporary tastes. A national recession limited 1938 output to just under 39,000, but DeSoto still finished 12th. The industry recovered in 1939, but fared much better than DeSoto, which again ran 13th despite higher volume of over 54,000.
The DeSoto lineup assumed a consistent pattern by 1938: DeLuxe and Custom models selling at around $900 and $1000, respectively. Both rode the same orthodox chassis with standard 119-inch wheelbase. Open styles were conspicuously absent for 1939, though a sliding sunroof was offered on selected closed models.
Styling still left something to be desired. A '39 DeSoto looked like a Plymouth with goiter. Dumpy appearance would remain one of the make's sales handicaps until well after World War II.
For more on defunct American cars, see:
The DeSoto Custom Town Sedan and DeSoto Suburban
For 1940 came more-attractive Dietrich styling abetted by longer wheelbases of 122.5 inches standard, 139.5 extended. Chrysler's Fluid Drive, which allowed the driver to start and stop without using the clutch, became available on DeSotos.
The Custom convertible coupe was reinstated, but not the convertible sedan. Though model-year output rose some 11,000 units, DeSoto again placed 13th. Like other Chrysler makes, it might have done better had the firm not suffered a crippling strike at the start of 1940 production.
Volume soared for '41, jumping from 65,500 to over 97,000 and moving DeSoto up to tenth -- its best placing ever. Much of this success was owed to a heavy facelift that made for good-looking cars with lower hoods and bolder fronts. Grilles smiled with the prominent vertical "teeth" that would remain a DeSoto hallmark through 1955.
Standard-chassis models lost an inch in wheelbase but measured 5.5 inches longer overall than the '40s; they were lower and wider, too. There was a new model: the Custom Town Sedan, a formal but pretty adaptation of the standard issue with closed or "blind" rear-roof quarters, priced about $50 higher. DeSoto wooed buyers with numerous extras including underseat heater, pushbutton radio, and streamlined fender skirts.
A more-extensive restyle for 1942 introduced "Airfoil" hidden headlamps that were "out of sight, except at night." Though not an industry first (the 1936-37 Cord 810/812 had something similar), they were Detroit's only hidden lamps that year, and imparted a cleaner look. Emphasizing them was a grille placed entirely on the lower half of the car's "face." A sculpted lady was introduced as a hood mascot.
Model choices held firm for '42, but there was a "squarer" six, bored out to 236.6 cid. Somewhat detuned and rated at 115 horsepower, it would continue through the rest of the decade. There wasn't much time for specials in that war-shortened model year, but DeSoto managed a plush Custom Town Sedan called "Fifth Avenue" (a name much later resurrected at Chrysler).
Identified outside only by small nameplates and inside by luxurious leather and Bedford cloth trim, it sold for about $75 more than the regular Town Sedan. Production was low everywhere in Detroit for '42, and DeSoto was no exception at less than 25,000 -- fewer than 1000 of some individual models.
DeSoto returned to civilian sales with an abbreviated 1946 line, though drivetrain and chassis combinations were the same as '42. Cancelation of the long-wheelbase DeLuxe sedan left only three extended-chassis models, all Customs: limousine, seven-seat sedan, and an intriguing newcomer called Suburban.
The last was designed for the ultimate in stylish hauling for hotels, airports, and well-heeled individuals. A fold-down rear seat sans trunk partition made for a huge cargo hold. Completing the package was a metal-and-wood roof rack. Not surprisingly, the Suburban was the costliest '46 DeSoto at $2093, a healthy $200 above the seven-seat sedan.
As with all Chrysler makes, the 1947-48 DeSotos were largely the same as the '46s; serial numbers are the only guide to model years. All wore a mild facelift of prewar styling with headlamps reexposed, fenders extended back into the front doors, a wider and heavier-looking grille, and reshuffled medallions and parking lights. Rated horsepower was 109, down six from '42, though this reflected a new rating method, not mechanical changes.
Besides "civilian" cars, DeSoto built 11,600 taxicabs in these years -- its fifth best-selling model. Suburban production was also quite satisfactory: 7500 for the period.
DeSoto was fully redesigned for '49, as were other Chrysler makes that year. Standard wheelbase was four inches longer at 125.5, but boxy, upright styling hid the fact. This was typical of Chrysler's new postwar look, which was very dull compared to Ford's and GM's.
A vertical-bar grille was retained, similar to the 1942-48 design, but the lady mascot was replaced by a bust of Hernando DeSoto. Like any "proper" hood ornament of the time, it glowed when the parking lamps or headlights were on. Horsepower rose by three, to 112. Fluid Drive with "Tip-Toe" semiautomatic shift became standard on Customs and a $121 option for DeLuxes.
For more on defunct American cars, see:
The DeSoto Custom Sportsman and DeSoto FireDome
The '49 DeSotos arrived in March of that year after a brief run of old-style cars to fill the gap. Among them were some interesting new utility models. Besides a $2959 woody wagon, the DeLuxe line included the all-steel Carry-All, similar to the Custom Suburban but on the standard wheelbase. It was also quite a bit cheaper at $2191.
The Suburban itself returned at $3179, up over $500 from '48 (postwar inflation was affecting car prices all over). As before, the Suburban shared the long chassis with an eight-passenger Custom sedan (but not the limo, which was dropped), and offered vast cargo space, roof-top luggage rack, plus rear jump seats giving true nine-passenger capacity.
The Carry-All handily sold 2690 copies for the model year, but the wagon did only 850, the Suburban a mere 129. The woody lasted only through 1950, the Suburban and Carry-All through '52.
Overall, 1949 was a less-than-spectacular DeSoto year. Volume remained at the '48 level -- about 92,500 -- and the make again finished 12th. However, Customs outsold DeLuxes by 3-to-1, a sign of growing buyer preference for greater luxury.
The 1950 line arrived with somewhat sleeker rear ends and two new models. DeSoto bowed its first hardtop coupe, the Custom Sportsman, at $2489, and moved the DeLuxe woody wagon up to Custom trim before replacing it with a slightly cheaper all-steel model at midyear. Despite the relative lack of change, model-year production leaped to nearly 134,000 for 1950, a gain of almost 45 percent.
Styling was touched up again for '51, when the venerable L-head six was stroked to 250.6 cid, though that yielded only four extra horses. Chrome was very evident, perhaps more than on any other Chrysler line, especially in those toothy fronts.
Production eased to 106,000, dropping DeSoto from 12th to 15th, as Kaiser sailed past with its beautiful new '51 design and Hudson did the same with its powerful new six-cylinder Hornets. Government-ordered production cutbacks for the Korean War also played a part.
DeSoto's big event for 1952 was its first-ever V-8. Called "FireDome," it was an overhead-valve hemi-head design -- a smaller, 276.1-cid version of the brilliant Chrysler 331 introduced the previous year. Packing 160 horsepower, it put DeSoto firmly in Detroit's escalating "horsepower race."
The FireDome powered a new like-named top-of-the-line 1952 series that duplicated Custom offerings save the Suburban. Though it immediately garnered nearly 50,000 sales, DeSoto as a whole could do no better than 88,000 for the model year. However, it rose a bit in the production ranks, finishing 13th.
For 1953, remaining Custom/DeLuxe models were combined into a new Powermaster Six series that still lagged behind FireDome in sales, this time by a margin of 2-1. Both lines included Sportsman hardtops.
The growing influence of newly recruited styling chief Virgil Exner was evident in an update of DeSoto's more-massive '52 look, with new one-piece windshields and more-liberal chrome accents. Model-year volume jumped back to 130,000 and DeSoto moved up to 11th, its best finish since banner '41.
For more on defunct American cars, see:
The DeSoto Adventurer and 'Forward Look' Models
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.
For more on defunct American cars, see:
The DeSoto Firesweep and New DeSoto Designs
DeSoto shared in the industry's general 1956 retreat, building about 4300 fewer cars. However, it returned to 11th place due to fast-fading sales at Nash and Hudson, Studebaker and Packard. The division finished in that spot again for '57 even though volume jumped to about 110,500 -- as near as DeSoto ever came to passing Chrysler (ending about 7200 units behind).
No wonder. The '57s were not only all-new for the second time in three years, but superbly engineered and strikingly styled. A low-cost Firesweep series based on the 122-inch Dodge platform joined the line in an effort to extend DeSoto's market territory. It helped.
The Firesweep sedan sold for only $2777, where the cheapest Firedome was $2958. Firesweeps also included two-and four-door hardtops and six-seat Shopper and nine-passenger Explorer four-door wagons. Fireflite offered all these plus a convertible; Firedome was the same but had no wagons.
All were big, heavy, powerful cars. The two upper series used the 341 V-8 from the '56 Adventurer with 270 and 295 horsepower, respectively. Firesweeps had the previous year's 330 debored to 325 cid and tuned for 245 horsepower standard, 260 horsepower optional. Last but not least, a soft-top Adventurer joined the hardtop coupe in a separate series above Fireflite. They packed 345 bhp from a modestly bored 345 Hemi.
Virgil Exner's dramatic new styling made finned fantasies of all '57 Chrysler products. DeSoto's version of this second-generation Forward Look was quite handsome: dartlike profile, tri-tower taillamps attractively integrated into the soaring rear fenders, simple but pleasant side moldings, prominent bumper/grille, and acres more glass.
DeSoto also benefited from Chrysler's corporatewide switch to torsion-bar front suspension, which made these heavyweights uncannily good handlers. Aiding performance was the arrival of quick, responsive three-speed TorqueFlite automatic as an optional alternative to PowerFlite. Also controlled by Highland Park's pushbuttons, it was a great transmission that would way outlive DeSoto.
Indeed, for all this excitement, DeSoto was now threatened again, only this time by an upwardly mobile Dodge and a downward expansion of the Chrysler line. As if on cue, production plunged to 50,000 units the following year -- the make's lowest total since 1938. A sharp national recession, poor workmanship after '56, and several marketing mistakes all contributed to a downward spiral from which DeSoto would never recover.
Predictably, the '58 DeSotos were much like the '57s save busier grilles and trim, and standard quad headlights. (Some states hadn't approved "quadrilights" for '57, so DeSoto front fenders were designed to accept one or two lamps each, the latter where law permitted. By '58, four-lamp systems were legal nationwide.)
The '58 lineup returned along with a new Firesweep convertible. At $4369, the '58 Adventurer ragtop was the most-expensive DeSoto ever, though Chrysler's convertible 300D cost nearly $1300 more.
Engines and power ratings swelled, but the complex Hemi was ever costly to build, so Chrysler began switching to cheaper wedgehead V-8s for '58. Among them were two new "Turboflash" DeSoto engines.
Firesweeps had a 350-inch mill with 280 horsepower standard or 295 with optional four-barrel carb. Other models carried a big-bore 361 with 295 bhp in standard Firedome tune, 305 with twin four-barrels in Fireflites (optional on Firedomes), 345 in high-compression Adventurer guise, and a smashing 355 for Adventurers with optional Bendix fuel injection.
Injection cost a hefty $637.20 and few were ordered. Fraught with problems, all were probably replaced with carburetors. With all this, the '58 DeSotos were quite quick even without the Hemi, helped by fast-shifting TorqueFlite, now standard on Fireflites and Adventurers. (Firesweeps again came with three-speed manual and offered Firedome's standard PowerFlite at extra cost.) A 305-horsepower Firedome could scale 0-60 in 7.7 seconds, 0-80 mph in 13.5 seconds, and reach 115 mph.
DeSoto claimed its towering tailfins of this era "added stability at speed," but that was pure propaganda. The fins did little from an aerodynamic standpoint under 80 mph. Their main purpose was to make Chrysler products stand out from the crowd -- which they most definitely did.
For more on defunct American cars, see:
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.