The DeSoto automobile was launched in 1928 as part of a new and rapidly expanding Chrysler Corporation. Conceived to do battle in the fast growing mid-priced range, DeSoto‘s position in the price/prestige strata was between the budget-minded Plymouth and the luxurious Chrysler. Through a series of events, DeSoto was also wedged sometimes awkwardly alongside a newly acquired but well-established Dodge brand. Throughout its 33-year history, DeSoto struggled for recognition. Ask any DeSoto devote’ and they will rattle off half a dozen delightful models. But to the average car buff, the name is but a blip on the screen of automobile awareness. DeSoto’s anonymity is especially true for those of us born after 1960, the marque’s final year. We know the stunning 1957 Adventurer, of course, with its graceful soaring lines and mighty Hemi engine, arguably the apex of 1950s American automotive design. After that, the marque is mostly remembered in B&W images of 1940s taxicabs from old movies on the late show. Such was the DeSoto lot in life; a middle child forever fighting for its rightful place within the Chrysler family of cars.
Hernando de Soto
Viewed through the lens today’s society, we can’t even imagine a brand of any kind named after a brutal colonial conqueror. But in a time when Old Glory had barely received its 48th star, the European who discovered the mighty Mississippi river, sparked images of romantic exploration and adventure, two of the early automobile’s greatest selling points. So when Walter P. Chrysler picked up an American history encyclopedia in search of nomenclatural inspiration for a stylish new mid-priced car he would introduce later that year, the spirit of adventure associated with the name De Soto was irresistible.
Hernando de Soto was a Spanish conquistador who first came to the New World in 1512. For the next 20 years, de Soto became fabulously wealthy plundering Central America and later Peru, where he was a major force in the conquest of the Incan Empire. He returned home to Spain and the easy life of a rich nobleman. Alas, gentility and ease did not suit Hernando. He became restless for new adventure. Soon he was using his Incan gold to finance another expedition to the New World, this time to explore what is now the southeastern United States. De Soto’s objective was to find Native American civilizations with which to trade: Failing that, to pillage. Landing at Tampa Bay, Hernando and his army of 700 men made their way north to the Savanna River before pushing westward into the interior of the continent. They found no cities, only savage lands inhabited by fierce peoples. They battled hostile native warriors and the fevers of countless swaps. Almost three years after they had set out, the much decimated party reached the banks of the lower Mississippi River where de Soto himself, succumbed to the ravages of his journey. Somewhere in the bottom of the Big Muddy lay his remains. Back in Spain, his mission was deemed a failure. It did however open the way for the kingdom’s claim on the entire of America’s Gulf Coast. For his trouble, Hernando de Soto was credited with the discovery of North America’s greatest river.
From the promise of riches, to lost in the swaps, and finally buried in the mud, it could be said that the man and the automobile named after him shared a similar tale.
Walter Chrysler's Big Bluff
Four centuries after Hernando de Soto’s demise, Walter P. Chrysler’s eponymously named corporation was just 4 years old and was itching to expand. The Chrysler and Imperial lines, with their growing reputation for performance and engineering excellence, had staked their claims in the medium and upper price ranges. A new car called the Plymouth was being readied to do battle with Chevrolet and Ford in the low-priced arena. This left the fast-growing lower-medium range to be covered by the old Maxwell line, a remnant of the days before Mr. Chrysler took over a languishing Maxwell-Chalmers Company. The Chrysler brand was viewed by many as the “car of the future.” Imperials were winning endurance races around the world. Big plans were in store for the new Plymouth. But Maxwell, with its diminished reputation for quality and style, was a car in decline. To compete in this important segment, Walter Chrysler would need something new and exciting. He would get that and more.
Six years earlier, in 1920, brothers John and Horace Dodge, builders of the well-regarded Dodge motorcar, both suddenly, independently and just months apart, died. The Boston investment bank, Dillon Read & Company, was now running the firm for the brother’s widows. Moneymen tend to make lousy carmakers (just ask the folks at Cerberus Capital Management circa 2008.) By the mid-twenties, Dillon Read had had enough and wanted out of Dodge. Walter Chrysler was keenly aware of the situation. He knew the bankers were incapable of running Dodge to its potential. Before long, he surmised, they would come calling with a deal.
In the meantime, Mr. Chrysler decided to apply some pressure. He ordered his engineering team to begin work on a new car that would compete directly with Dodge. He went so far as to hire Dodge’s sales manager to promote this car and sign up dealers. Naturally, his new executive inquired the name of the vehicle he’d be selling. Already settled on the Plymouth moniker, with its connotations of pioneering spirit and frugality, another dip into Americana seemed fitting. That is where legend has Chrysler reaching for the U.S. history book and kicking off de Soto’s next great adventure.
It was in April 1928 when Dillon Read finally approached Walter Chrysler about buying Dodge. By then, the Chrysler Corporation was expanding fast and bumping up against its production limits. Dodge had plenty of unused capacity and an excellent foundry. This last would allow Chrysler to bring its engine production in-house. The huge Dodge Main plant on the banks Detroit River could even be seen from Mr. Chrysler’s office high atop the Maxwell building. Both parties knew it was a good match. It was just a question of price.
The price Dillon Read first demanded was a healthy one. But Walter Chrysler was not a man to be rushed into a deal unless he had the advantage. Letting the bankers squirm a while, Chrysler proceeded with his plans for the DeSoto. When Chrysler did buy Dodge three months later, for a price more to his liking, it was still at the time the largest corporate merger in history.
Several weeks before the Dodge deal closed, DeSoto began producing cars. Shipments to 1,500 newly signed dealers were about to commence. Things were much too far along to pull the plug on the upstart brand. Chrysler was also not about to turn its back on the well-established and highly regarded Dodge marque. They had no choice but to move forward with both DeSoto and Dodge. So, in a fashion typical of Walter P. Chrysler, each was each pursued vigor and optimism… even though the marketplace arguably had room for only one. DeSoto’s new fight for survival had begun.
The Automobile de los DeSoto
The first DeSoto was called the Series K. Needing to develop this car quickly meant Chrysler engineers had to borrow the platform they had developed for the new Plymouth. To differentiate DeSoto, the lesser brand’s 45hp 4-banger was swapped for the more sporting feel of a 55hp 6-cylinder engine.
DeSoto was targeted at a new segment of consumer that had emerged since the end of WWI. They were younger, hipper and more affluent than at any time in American history thus far. Had the roaring twenties been the go-go eighties, we might have called them Yuppies. DeSotos were also among the first cars marketed extensively to women. They were equipped with such period finery as automatic windshield wipers and steering wheel mounted headlight controls. They had stylized bodies that resembled the larger Chrysler, and eye-catching colors and trim to set the DeSoto apart from its less frivolous siblings, Plymouth and Dodge. Individual models had delightful names meant to evoke the passion associated with their Spanish namesake. There was the Sedan de Lujo (deluxe), the Cupe de Lujo, and the Roadster Espanol.
DeSoto sold 81,000 cars in an extended 1929 model year. It was a record for a new car brand that would stand for more than 30 years.
A new DeSoto arrived in 1931. Called the Model CF, it had a barrel style radiator, reminiscent of the successful Miller racing cars that were dominating the Indy 500. The stylish cowl covered a brawny new eight-cylinder engine. Since the CF was based on an updated but still light-weight Plymouth frame, the CF Eight’s big-engine-in-a-light-car formula would make it one of the very first ancestors of one of America’s greatest contribution to the automobile; the muscle car.