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 of the stunning 1957 Adventurer, of course, with its graceful soaring lines and mighty Hemi engine, representing 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 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 examples of America’s greatest contribution to the automobile; the muscle car.
The CF Eight was created to appeal to an affluent and growing middle class. But unfortunately, work began on this lovely machine just prior to the Crash of ’29. By 1931, that class had been thoroughly decimated by the Great Depression. The DeSoto Eight lasted only two model years. There would not be another eight-cylinder DeSoto for another two decades.
The Airflow and its Turbulence
Automobile sales limped along in the early years of the Great Depression. Just like almost every other marque, DeSoto sold a mere fraction of its 1929 tally. Yet, the brand consistently remained around 12th place on the sales charts. Everything changed in 1934 with an extraordinary car that nearly sunk DeSoto, and the Chrysler Corporation along with it.
The story begins one summer weekend in 1927 when one of Chrysler’s chief engineers was out for a drive. Carl Breer, while touring with his family near Port Huron, Michigan, saw in the distance what at first he thought was a flock of geese flying low in the sky. As the flock drew closer it turned out not to be geese, but a squadron of Army Air Corps planes flying in formation. Breer got to thinking about how the plane’s shape helped them slip through the air with such grace and ease. Driving home, with his arm out the car window, he experimented with different angles and shapes and the way they responded to the wind. Upon his return to the office Monday morning, Breer sought out one of his engineers named Bill Earnshaw to discuss some of his conclusions. Earnshaw was acquainted with aviation pioneer, Orville Wright. At the behest of Breer and under the supervision of Earnshaw and Wright, Chrysler built the automobile industry’s first wind tunnel. Seven years later, out of that tunnel emerged one of the most significant cars in history, the Airflow.
Chrysler’s Airflow was not the first application of aerodynamics to the automobile. In 1921, a Hungarian named Paul Jaray went so far as to apply for patents in Germany on a streamlined car called the Ley T6. Jaray did not get far with the T6. Roads of the day did allow the speeds necessary to make streamlining worth the trouble. A quick look at the T6 suggests that other factors may have contributed to its rejection. Jaray's ethetic lapses aside, by late twenties highway improvements were such that speed had become an important selling point. A more aerodynamic shape would allow greater speed and efficiency without increasing engine size or output. With a reputation built on superior engineering, such an advance held great appeal among the engineers at the Chrysler Corporation.
At the same time Airflow was given the go ahead, the decision was also made to shift DeSoto’s position in the Chrysler Corporation’s brand hierarchy. For its first five years the division was slotted just above Plymouth and roughly level with Dodge, albeit a bit spicier. For 1934, DeSoto would leap ahead of Dodge to a position just below the Chrysler brand. As a coming out party to announce its advance in status, and to give the marque a unique identity, the revolutionary new Airflow design would to be a DeSoto exclusive.
That plan would change when the man whose name is on the building took a personal interest in the Airflow. Walter Chrysler founded his company on the principal of engineering excellence. What better way to mark its first decade than with this engineering tour de force? The revolutionary new car would be a symbol of his corporation’s great technological leap. In short, the Airflow had become bigger than DeSoto. Chrysler Corporation would now offer not one but three versions of the new car. Two eight-cylinder Airflows of varying engine size, wheelbase and opulence would carry the Chrysler and Imperial nameplates, while the DeSoto Airflows would be a little smaller and lighter and be powered exclusively by sixes. The Chrysler division hedged its bet somewhat by offering a conventionally styled six-cylinder car called the CA series, in addition to its Airflow Eights. Lower priced Plymouth and Dodge also stayed with more traditional designs. DeSoto, however, along with the top of the line Imperial, would be all-in on the Airflow.
The Airflow was like nothing that had come before it. One loses count of the car’s great leaps forward. It was not only a revolution in aerodynamics but also in construction, chassis dynamics and interior packaging. It was the first American car to employ unit-body construction. This was essentially a space frame welded to a conventional chassis. It had 40 times more structural rigidity than its contemporaries and vastly superior handling. The engine was moved 20 inches forward on the chassis allowing a more comfortable driving position. This move allowed engineers to shift the rear seat forward off the rear axle for a more stable, less bouncy ride. As a result, it was possible to have for the first time a full width rear seat for 3-across seating.
The car was promoted in a variety of ways. At Chicago World’s Fair, the Airflow’s handling stability was showcased as it safely maneuvered after having one of its tires shot out at speed by an Illinois State Police sharpshooter. At the Pennsylvania State Fair, Airflows were pushed off a 110 ft. cliff and then driven away under their own power, demonstrating the toughness of the unit-body design. Airflows piloted by AAA certified drivers set new records when they achieved 21.4mpg driving from New York to San Francisco, and 86.2mph on a 24hr, 2,000 mile closed course.
The automotive press sung the Airflow’s praises. Why wouldn’t they? In aerodynamics, in driving dynamics, in ergonomics, performance, efficiency and construction, the Airflow was superior to every other car on the road, and even those still on the drawing board.
With simultaneous advances in so many different technologies, it was inevitable that problems would arise. The Airflow’s space frame required sweeping changes in Chrysler’s manufacturing process. These lead to production delays. Many early customers - those early adopters crucial to generating word of mouth excitement for a new product - grew impatient and went elsewhere. Rumors were spread by competitors that the new frames were brittle, even though the exact opposite was true.
To the engineer’s eye the Airflow was a masterpiece of form and function working in harmony. For everyone else, it took some getting used to. The car-buying public did not seem to share the same enthusiasm for the Airflow’s art deco style as did the engineers and journalists. This was understandable. The nation was just beginning to emerge from the longest and deepest economic collapse it its history. People were not yet in a mood to take chances. And why take a chance when there was a conventionally designed Chrysler across the showroom, or a competitor across the street. Either of which could be had for 15-20% less than the complex and expensive to build Airflow. Chrysler Corporation’s sales tally was up only 15% in 1934, while the rebounding broader market rose 31%. DeSoto dealers, who did not have a conventional car across the showroom, saw sales plunge more than 20% in 1934. Credit management with quick action. A more traditional car was added to the DeSoto line in 1935. Called the Airstream, it was based on a new Plymouth/Dodge platform. It used some of the Airflow’s aerodynamic principals, but was built using a cheaper body-on-frame design. The Airstream out sold the Airflow by 3:1 that year. By 1937 the Airflow was gone from the DeSoto line.
One cannot help but wonder what would have happened had Chrysler introduced the Airstream first. As a transitional design, the less radical Airstream might have softened up the public up to streamlining before launching the more radical Airflow. The latter certainly could have used an extra year to work out the new manufacturing techniques. The American automobile might have evolved quite differently had Chrysler eased into the concepts of aerodynamic design.
Long in the Teeth
Walter P. Chrysler retired in 1937 along with the Airflow. The founder’s hard working, hard driving lifestyle took its final toll three years after that. The Airflow disaster, coupled with the loss of its inspirational leader, sent the company into a design torpor. It is not that DeSoto or Chrysler’s other three brands began making bad products. Not at all. Its cars of the late 30s were sturdy, reliable and beautifully engineered. A nascent styling department headed by Raymond Dietrich did the best it could with a basic car that just wasn’t terribly interesting. Chrysler Corporation had become risk averse.
There was, of course, the occasional gem. The 1939 DeSoto Hayes-body Club Coupe was a lovely precursor to the hardtop craze that would sweep the industry a dozen years later. But generally, what distinguished a DeSoto from any other car of the day mostly involved bits of chrome.
Speaking of chrome, the 1941 DeSotos were the first to showcase the brand’s famed toothed grill. Holding as few as 8 chrome choppers and as many as 40, DeSoto’s toothy grill would continue to grin for another 15 years.
Behind that chrome smile, DeSoto also introduced a new fluid drive semi-automatic transmission in 1941. The marketing men called it the “Simpli-Matic”. This was essentially a 4-speed transmission, having two gears, each with a high and low range. Under normal circumstances the driver used the clutch to shift into “high” range. Off he went, using the torque of the tried and true “PowerMaster” Six to smoothly and quietly gather momentum. Once under way, the fluid drive would shift automatically between the two gears as the driver pressed down or lifted off the throttle. He wouldn’t need the clutch again unless reverse was required. The set up was not fully automatic like Buick’s new Dyno-drive but it came close, and it was far more robust.
If operated properly, the Simpli-Matic could also wring surprising acceleration from the old flathead six’s 109hp. By selecting “low” instead of "high," and then punching the accelerator, an enthusiastic driver could evoke a smoking burnout, followed a fast, deafening trip to the rev limit. There was no tachometer on DeSotos - or any 1940s American car for that matter. Redline was signaled when the noise got too loud or the speed ran out. At that point a sharp lift off the gas would produce a quick upshift, bringing more noise and more speed. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective. Quite a few drivers of more powerful cars found themselves surprised and embarrassed at an impromptu stoplight drag race.
The following year DeSotos featured “Airfoil” retractable headlights. While not quite as sleek and exotic as the mid-30s Cord 810 that first wore this feature, the Airfoil DeSoto did offer a distinctive pose. At least it did for a few months before WWII closed down automobile production.
Wartime mobilization, thankfully, came to an end in mid-1945. Civilian production soon resumed. DeSoto was one of the very few makes that offered 1946 cars that looked much different from the ‘42s. That was fortunate or not, depending on whether you liked those nifty Airfoil headlights. In the sellers-market of the late 40s there was no incentive to justify their extra cost and complexity. Too bad. Should this writer ever find room in his driveway for a classic DeSoto, one of the 489 Airfoil Convertible Coupes built in 1942 would top the wish list. The rest of the pre-war design, including the PowerMaster Six and semi-automatic fluid-drive, carried over with little changed. The latter was now called a “Gyrol Fluid Drive with Tip-Toe Shift.” Apparently “Simpli-Matic” was too simple for the dawning Jet Age. Whatever the Mad Men ad men called it, the Jekyl-and-Hyde nature of the gearbox endured. It still provided fodder for drag racing legend.
A whiff of gear-head lore must have made its way to Hollywood and the writers of a TV sitcom called Happy Days. Debuted in the fall of 1974, Happy Days was aimed at an audience weary of recession, scandal and war. The show bought audiences back to the simpler, happier time they imagined the 50s to have been, where high school kids were innocent and their politicians were as dependable as their dads.
The show’s production people were astute in picking as their fictional family’s ride a 1947 Model S-11 DeSoto Suburban. The show portrayed an image that was frozen in time, and so to was this car. For more than half a decade, little changed on the S-11 save the year indicated on the VIN. Its functionality, however, was all that probably mattered to Howard Cunningham, the suburban Milwaukee hardware store owner and head of the Happy Days family. For the show’s 10 seasons on the air the DeSoto is mostly in the background, all except one memorable episode from the second season when the car is the star.
One fine day, teenage son Richie Cunningham and his two buddies, Ralph and Potsie, are trying to win the hearts of three attractive young ladies they meet outside a malt shop. The girls, feeling neglected by their hot-rodder boyfriends, turn their attentions to Richie and his friends. Said boyfriends take note of the interlopers and challenge our lads to a drag race later that night. Desperate to impress the girls but having only the family DeSoto as prima material, they turn to their mechanic friend, the 50’s cool Fonzie, for help. The Fonz works his magic on the S-11s mill. He then briefs Richie on the proper operation of the Simpli-Matic for optimum acceleration. Low and behold, the DeSoto wins! The victors’ elation, however, quickly turns to deflation when they go to claim their pretty prizes. The girls renege. As it turns out, they were only trying to make their boyfriends jealous. It seems that even in the idyllic fifties, that part of high school still sucked.
There was another DeSoto S-11 that made a rather memorable on-screen appearance. This time it was on the big one. Starting with the 1936 Airstream and into the early 50s, DeSoto was the preferred brand of the big west coast taxicab fleets, especially Los Angeles. Old-movie buffs saw plenty of liveried DeSotos prowling for fares on the black-and-white streets of Hollywood’s sound stages. As such, when French director, Luc Besson made his 1997 semi-noir, sci-fi action flick, The Fifth Element, he sought the 1940s film noir inspiration of the DeSoto for the flying taxicabs of an imagined 23rd Century New York City.
DeSoto was not alone in falling into a post-war state of suspended animation. None of the established makes (with the exception of Studebaker) offered new designs during those first few years. They didn’t need to. Manufacturers could sell anything they wanted to a car-starved consumer, as long as the odometer read “0.” But by the fall of 1948, this ‘sellers-market’ was showing signs of peaking. All the carmakers had recently or were just now introducing their first post-war designs.
All except Chrysler Corporation, which seemed to be suffering from a troubling lack of urgency. It wasn’t until the spring of 1949 their new cars finally arrived. They were called the 1949 Second Series, to distinguish them from the warmed over ‘48s that made due for six months as the 1949 First Series. Like the whole of Chrysler’s revised lineup, the Second Series DeSoto was several inches lower than its predecessor and a little shorter. Yet it sat on a longer wheelbase and so was much roomier inside. The proven PowerMaster Six was up to 112hp from the previous year. More power and less bulk improved performance and handling while giving up nothing in economy. The car was better than the old pre-war design in every way.
Every way but one. The Second Series was essentially evolutionary. It didn’t look all that different from the First Series ‘49s, which themselves weren’t much different from what Chrysler had offered way back in 1942. That was a problem. The 1930s had been scarred by the Depression, the 1940s by war and its aftermath. By the dawn of the 1950s Americans were ready to turn the page, and look forward to prosperous times ahead. They were in no mood for evolutionary designs…or smaller more efficient anything.
DeSoto’s competition wasn’t slowly evolving; they were charging ahead. An expressive new Studebaker had burst onto the scene in 1947 as the first new post war car. The low-slung, sweet handling Hudsons followed in ’48. And nearly a year before the Second Series DeSoto debuted, with its conservative lines and six-cylinder engine, came a fresh sleek Mercury and a powerful new Oldsmobile, both sporting V8s. These cars and others spoke to an exciting and optimistic future, leaving DeSoto looking like yesterday’s news.
Undaunted, DeSoto boosters described the new Model S-13 as having “handsome lines, strong and correct.” They were probably referring to a new 2-door pillar-less hardtop that appeared in 1950 called the Sportsman, which featured a handsome V-shaped C-pillar. Non-enthusiasts of the marque might have also favored the Sportsman… had its body been longer, lower, and had a V8 lurking under its hood.
Unfortunately, lower and slimmer were not preferred attributes of Chrysler president, K. T. Keller. Like Walter P. Chrysler before him, Keller was an engineer by training. He preferred his company’s offerings be simple to manufacture, efficient and sturdy in both look and feel, be easy to get in and out of, and have plenty of room inside. Keller was a big man, 6’4” and over 300lbs. A lot of room for K.T. was a lot of room. The new Chrysler products were roomy indeed, but they looked narrow, tall and ill-proportioned.
On the sales front, all seemed well enough at first. Chrysler Corporation’s 1949 volume was up 35%, while the industry as a whole grew by 40% in a very strong year for the industry. The Korean War loomed and consumer were snapping up cars in anticipation of future shortages. This artificial demand masked trouble brewing. DeSoto was the canary in the coal mine. While the division sold 26% more cars in 1949, direct rival Oldsmobile’s output rocketed 54%.
Over its 25-year history, Chrysler products were renowned for their quality, durability and style. The former two were still alive and well in Highland Park, but the latter had atrophied. Styling had become an afterthought to manufacturing, involving not much more than hanging chrome decorations on great lumps of steel. In a company that had lived through the Airflow debacle, followed by the loss of its dynamic leader, the instinct to play it safe had become deeply ingrained. Chrysler was now facing the future looking backwards.
As if to express this stance symbolically, DeSoto offered a hood ornament in the early 50s that was a chrome and plastic bust of Hernando de Soto. The Spaniard’s likeness lit up when the headlights were illuminated. One wonders just how comforting it was to be guided through the night by an explorer who ended his days lost in the Bayou and buried beneath the Mississippi’s mud.
Ex, Tex, and the Great Leap Forward
K.T. Keller was a conservative man but he wasn’t a stupid one. He could look out the Second Series’ antiquated 2-piece windshield, over Hernando’s chrome-plumed helmet and see trouble on the horizon. Chrysler Corporation could not continue on its current path. The company needed a drastic reinvention of itself if it was to have a future. That kind of change does not come from within. Even if it did, K.T. knew that he wasn’t the man to do it. New and dynamic forces were needed to shake the carmaker from its stupor.
In mid-century automotive design there were few more dynamic forces than Virgil M. Exner. In the late 30s, Exner became General Motors’ youngest ever design chief. He led a revival at Pontiac, which began with the famous Silver Streak styling theme that drove the division’s look for another 20 years. Just before the war, he moved to Studebaker, where he penned a radical new look for 1947 that, for a while at least, propelled the independent maker to new sales heights.
First at GM and then at Studebaker, Exner worked under two of the industry’s design luminaries, Harley Earl and Raymond Loewy. But Exner was a rising star with his own ideas about the future look of the automobile. His views did not always jive with those of his renowned mentors. Clashes were inevitable, and at times acrimonious. By early 1949 Exner found himself looking for new opportunities.
On the surface, it seemed like a step down from his positions at Pontiac or Studebaker. Exner would have no influence over the next generation of Chrysler Corporation’s offerings. These designs due out in about 18 months were already frozen. They were the responsibility of the existing design department, which still reported to the V.P. of manufacturing. Ex would run a new entity called the Advanced Design Studio. He would operate with complete autonomy and report to the President.
That president would not be K.T. Keller, who had at the end of 1950. He called on his hand-picked successor, Lester L. (Tex) Colbert to lead Chrysler into the second half of what would be a tumultuous decade. Tex Colbert was the first Chrysler president in its 25-year history not trained as an engineer. Colbert began in the auto industry as legal counsel to Mr. Chrysler before moving into operations and then marketing. He was a modern manager to lead the company into modern times. Over the next four years, Colbert gave Exner free reign to build a series of 18 concept cars that would lay the groundwork for Chrysler’s revival. Ex called them Idea Cars. Their purpose was to show that form did not have to be subservient to function, that the two properties could operate in harmony.
The Idea Cars were styled to get the public thinking about Chrysler in a different way; not as a frumpy collection of relics, but looking forward to the future. And they were built on existing Chrysler, DeSoto, Dodge or Plymouth chassis. This was so that the company’s own engineers and managers could see that these were not just flights of fancy. They could be built on existing assembly lines.
Nearly all of the Idea Cars were built in partnership with the Ghia design house of Italy. After the war’s devastation, there was little work for the talented coach builders of Turin and Milan. These were the best in the business at fabricating beautiful bodies, and at the moment their artisan talents could be had on the cheap. The way the Chrysler-Ghia partnership worked was that Exner’s studio in Michigan would produce renderings and a 3/8th-scale model in clay. These were shipped off to Italy, along with a production chassis and drivetrain, where the craftsmen at Ghia fashioned steel bodies and leather-clad interiors. The bodies and interiors were mated with the working chassis, and then shipped back to Detroit where they hit the circut of auto shows and promotional events.
Chrysler’s show cars were similar to the concept cars of GM’s famous Motorama. But unlike Motorama, Ex’s creations were more than just dreams. All of the early cars were built to be driven. Journalists could not only ogle Chrysler’s concepts, they could them for a spin. Chrysler engineers could also see what their solid platforms could look like when a little imagination was added. It would take a few more years but a new design thinking was emerging at Chrysler.
And none too soon. Chrysler’s restyled cars for 1952, ones which Virgil Exner had no input, hit the market with a resounding thud. Despite offering its first ever V8 engine that year, Chrysler was passed by Ford as the world’s #2 carmaker. It would be three rocky years before the Idea Cars’ influence would appear on the showroom floor.
The first Idea Car was the 1951 Chrysler K-310. In addition to highlighting design themes like full wheel cutouts, flush door handles and “bomb-sight” taillights, the K-310 was also meant to showcase Chrysler’s new OHV hemispherical head V-8 engine. The K-310 was a favorite of K.T. Keller, which led to a joke circulating the design studio suggesting the name of the car referenced Mr. Keller’s legendary heft. Perhaps he had inspired the “K”, but the “310” stood for the prodigious horsepower rating of the soon to be legendary Hemi V-8.
There were six more Idea Cars based on the K-310. Only one was badged a DeSoto. The 1952 Adventurer I, a low-slung 2+2 with fine European proportions and potent Hemi V8, was said to be Ex’s favorite. When the Adventurer I’s show duties were over, he claimed the car for his personal use and drove it for 3 more years. A second of those K-310 based cars was called the Chrysler Ghia Special. This one actually made it into limited production as the Chrysler GS-1. An estimated fifty cars were assembled by Ghia and sold France.
The DeSoto Adventurer II bowed in 1953. It was based on a second series of Ideas Cars that started with the 1952 Dodge Fire Arrow. The Adventurer II was a 4-place personal luxury coupe that showcased curved windshield glass, hooded headlights and a budding pair of tailfins, all of which would appear within a couple of years on production DeSotos. (The Fire Arrow platform also saw production in a slightly altered form when Dual Motors of Detroit teamed with Ghia studios to produce a total of 116 Dual-Ghias in the mid 1950s) After several rounds of the show circuit in Europe, Chrysler’s Moroccan distributor bought the Adventurer II. He hoped to sell it to that country’s king. The deal fell through when Hassan II, survivor of multiple assassination attempts, realized his beefy bodyguards would not fit in the backseat.
There was a third Idea Car that bore Hernando’s marque. The Flight Sweep of 1954 was futuristically sexy, and enticingly buildable. It showed off a 2-tone paint scheme, upswept rear fenders, tail fins, and other sumptuous design ques that would begin appearing across the completely new lineup of Chrysler Corporation cars the following year.
The Forward Look
While Virgil Exner was designing and building a case for a game-changing new car, Tex Colbert set about remaking the company that would build it. Every one of Chrysler’s 52 manufacturing plants was retooled, and its brand structure was reorganized into five distinct marketing units. Add to that design and development costs, and Chrysler would spend $600 million (about $7 billion today) bring out an entirely new lineup for 1955.
The Ad Men dubbed it the Forward Look, and this time the moniker wasn’t hype. For the past 30 years, automotive design had been focused around the engine. Sure, the cabin and sheet metal had gotten steadily more integrated, the shape of the body sleeker. But it was still the engine that visibly pulled the rest of the car forward. With Exner’s Forward Look, it was the whole car that seemed to leap ahead.
The Forward look came in three sizes. Dodge and Plymouth got the value leaders that competed effectively with new Fords, Chevys and Pontiacs that also debuted in ’55. There was an impressive new Imperial, big and stylish enough to hold its own against Cadillac, Lincoln and Packard. But it was the middle sized Chrysler, and especially the DeSoto, that Ex hit the bullseye. They were stunning.
These cars weren’t just pretty faces either. The great looks were backed up by the company’s spectacular high compression V8 engines, and for the first time a fully automatic transmission. The package was supported by a new chassis and suspension that took Chrysler from laggards in the handling department, to industry leader. One would be hard pressed to find another instance where a car company was so utterly transformed in a single model year. The 1955 DeSoto’s only visible remnant of its old look was the grill. Like the fairytale Cheshire Cat, just a toothy grin lingering a while, before it too would be gone.
The Forward Look cars of 1955 propelled Chrysler’s overall sales up 66%, more than double the industry’s 30% year-on-year gain. Over at the DeSoto Division, things looked pretty good too, on the surface. On the strength of the Forward Look, DeSoto sales were up 53%, setting a mark as the second best year in the division’s history. The King of Morocco may not have bought that DeSoto, but a lot of ordinary Americans did.
But If you looked closely, that canary in the coal mine, DeSoto, looked a little wobbly. Dodge division, which occupied the price range just below DeSoto, saw their sales leap 84% in 1955. Dodge introduced a line-topping Custom Royal series that year. While the Custom Royal was slightly smaller than a base DeSoto Firedome, it was better equipped and more lavishly chromed, all the while costing less. Dodge sold 90,000 of them. Many likely would have been DeSotos.
Once lowly Plymouth division introduced its own range topper that year. The stylish Belvedere was powered by the marque’s first ever V8 engine. Plymouth’s sales jumped 70% in 1955. With Plymouth now encroaching on Dodge’s territory, and Dodge responding by reaching upmarket, it was only natural for DeSoto to pursue richer pastures as well. The trouble was that those pastures were already being grazed by the flagship Chrysler Division, whose entry-level Chrysler Windsor was virtually indistinguishable from DeSoto’s range topping FireFlight series. DeSoto management argued that the senior division should drop the Windsor, allowing them to go upscale ahead of Dodge’s advance. Fat chance. The Windsor accounted for nearly two thirds of every car carrying the founder’s name.
Did we really need all four?
DeSoto was being squeezed into irrelevancy by its own siblings. But, like Hernando de Soto’s struggle with native warriors of the American south, the DeSoto Division was not going down without a fight. And in that fight it had a powerful ally. Of all the Chrysler makes, DeSoto was said to be Virgil Exner’s favorite. The designer always seemed to save his best for DeSoto. Borrowing the name from Ex’s favorite Idea Car, the 1956 DeSoto Adventurer was a gentleman's version of the brutally powerful, critically acclaimed Chrysler 300 factory hotrod. The Adventurer featured a 320hp twin carb Hemi V8 engine, mated to a new TorqueFlite transmission that would become the gold standard of automatics for years to come. Production was limited to just 996 Adventurers, all of them 2 door hardtops with tri-tone paint schemes.
That same year DeSoto bid farewell to their now infamous teeth. In their stead, DeSoto received its first application of the tailfin. This lovely upsweep at the rear gave the car the sense flight even when parked at the curb.
DeSoto sales declined 16% in 1956. While not what division brass had hoped for, it was a better showing than any of its corporate siblings. Indeed, in a down year DeSoto's decline was smaller than any other major American marque save Cadillac. Perhaps it was the knocking out of teeth, or the grafting on of fins, maybe there was room DeSoto after all.
The Forward Look cars of 1955-56 were unquestionably a great leap forward. In one fell swoop they propelled Chrysler from a languishing laggard in style and performance, to the head of the pack. But the Forward Looks of 1955-56 were only stepping stones. As the rest of the industry was scrambling for a response to Chrysler's cutting edge offerings, Virgil Exner was preparing another salvo that would send the competition reeling. Ex called his styling theme for 1957, Flight Sweep. The Ad Men called it “The New Look of Motion.”
If one had to pick a single car representing all that was wrong with American cars of the 1950s, it would have to be the Edsel: symbol of ineptitude and victim of bad timing, an answer to a post-industrial age riddle that no one ever asked. But if the objective was to display all that was right about those insolent chariots (to borrow the title of John Keats' book on the subject), look no further that the 1957 DeSoto. The Flight Sweep DeSotos featured a low hood and beltline, a light airy greenhouse, and the most beautiful expression ever of that 1950s staple, the tail fin. From the near mid-point of the car the graceful wings begin to form, gently spreading outward as they rise to the sky. Every line, every surface of the long low body takes the eye on a sensuous journey into flight.
In a press statement Exner explained, “Tail fins are a natural and contemporary symbol of motion appearing in nature’s creatures and on aircraft, speed boats, racing cars, guided missiles and rockets.” He wrote a paper for the Society of Automotive Engineers entitled “Styling and aerodynamics” where he described the positive effect tail fins have on a vehicles high speed stability. The inspiration for those soaring wings is often cited as the lethally sleek new jet fighters that were entering service in the mid-fifties, like the MacDonald F-101 “Voodoo” or the Douglas F-5 “Skylancer.” But it may be that the originating influence was more organic.
Whatever his inspiration, the Industrial Designers Institute recognized Virgil Exner, along with his associates, Cliff Voss, Henry King, H.T. Bannister, Carl Reynolds and Robert Bingman, for the design of the 1957 Chrysler Corporation cars. A DeSoto Fireflight Sportsman was chosen as representative.
The advanced styling was backed up with some serious engineering. A new Torsion-Aire front suspension allowed the engine to be mounted down on the chassis for not only a lower hood and fender line but a lower center of gravity. Nose-dive on braking and squat on acceleration were more controlled and cornering stability was much-improved. Motor Trend magazine named the entire Chrysler lineup their 1957 Car of the Year.
Not everyone was pleased with the revolutionary look of the Flight Sweeps. A Detroit legend has it that a group of designers from General Motors were on the way to lunch one day in late 1956. They passed by a storage lot where several hundred newly built 1957 Chryslers and DeSotos were awaiting shipment to dealers. Those graceful, soaring fins beckoned them. They never made it to lunch. Within the hour the GM design rotunda was in an uproar, and by the end of the day dozens of designers and executives had come out to the lot to have a look. Not only were their about to be released ‘57s now obsolete, but so were the ‘58s and ‘59s. It was too late to cancel the 1958 program, but incoming design chief, Bill Mitchell immediately ordered at extraordinary cost a crash redo of GM’s 1959 cars.
Chrysler was almost as unprepared for the frenzy caused by the Flight Sweeps as their competition. Demand was stronger than expected. Plant capacity quickly maxed out, leaving management scrambling to meet orders. The expedient solution was to speed up the assembly lines and crank out more cars. Predictably, build quality suffered. Shoddy paint jobs, rough edges, and missing trim pieces were the norm. It was said that the gaps in door panels and window sealing were so prodigious that if you were driving a new DeSoto and it started raining hard, you had better get out fast or risk drowning. Buyers who had been dazzled by the Flight Sweep’s good looks came to be disillusioned by its poor workmanship. The company’s reputation for superior quality took a serious hit.
Sales for the 1957 model year were strong. But in September, just as the ‘58s were arriving in showrooms across the country, America tipped into its worst recession in two decades.
The Deathwatch Begins
DeSoto did not enter the recession well provisioned. After the breathtaking pace of change over the past 3 years, the company had planned a breather. The previous year’s cars were such a visual triumph that the minor tweaks for ’58s were a letdown.
The only real news was the availability of a Bendix-supplied electronic fuel-injection system called Electrojector, which bumped output of DeSoto’s hemi V8 to 355hp. Besides a power boost, the $637 option (on a $3900 car!) promised smoother power delivery through a wider RPM range and faster starts on cold days. The unit also provided faster stops, but this was not a good thing. Electrical emissions from any nearby radio transmitter or power substation confused the Electrojector, causing the car to stop dead in its tracks. They had to be recalled and re-fitted with dual 4bbl carburetors. A total of only 35 fuel-injected DeSotos, Dodges and Chryslers were built before the problem was discovered. But the bad publicity added to Chrysler’s floundering reputation for quality.
The Ford Motor Company chose 1958, of all years, to introduce the aforementioned Edsel. This direct competitor to DeSoto was greeted with spectacular ambivalence by the car buying public. From literally the moment Edsel was released, rumors were flying that the brand would be cancelled. Before the year was out, it was dubbed the greatest debacle in automotive history. But despite its well-chronicled failures in the marketplace, Edsel still managed to outsell DeSoto . While overall car sales fell a steep 22% for 1958, the brand of the conquistadores was pillaged, plunging by more than half. The writing on the wall was beginning to spell out DeSoto’s fate.
The brand’s 30th anniversary year of 1959 saw the two-millionth DeSoto built. The parent company however, was not in a celebratory mood. The dual milestones were ignominiously marked by stripping DeSoto of its independence and merging it into a newly formed Chrysler-Plymouth division. DeSoto was also evicted from its Detroit factory on Wyoming Ave, which had held the rather hollow distinction of being the only assembly plant completed during the Great Depression. The latest DeSotos were heavier looking than before, less poised to take flight. Even so, the 3-year old design was still better looking than just about anything on the road that year. Such was the triumph of Exner’s Flight Sweep look.
Forty years later, popular culture would deal another donk to DeSoto. In the brilliant late-90s soon-to-be-cult classic TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, creator/writer Joss Wedon gave audiences a character they could really sink their teeth into. Spike was a vampire capable of considerable menace, who was also somehow quite endearing. Cross an English soccer thug with rocker Billy Idol, give him a poet’s fragile heart, and a propensity to fall for unattainable women, and you have a pretty good picture of Spike. Could Joss Wedon have chosen any more perfect car for this undead antihero than a 1959 DeSoto 4-door hardtop? Black, of course.
Undead, indeed. Booted from its own plant, the DeSotos of 1960 were screwed together almost as an afterthought on Chrysler and Dodge assembly lines, now riding - like all non-Imperial Chrysler cars - on a unit-body frame. Virgil Exner’s winged wonder appeared to have wilted. Its proud grill drooped, those once magnificent tail fins now flaccid. DeSoto sales sunk to their lowest level since 1934, when no one was buying Airflows.
DeSoto was back for one more model year, but it needn’t bothered. Dave Duricy points out in his piece in the September 2008 Car Parts magazine a dealer brochure that valiantly tries to define the car’s place in the world. “The 1961 DeSoto is not a former middle priced car scaled down in any way to attract the mass market of lower priced buyers. Nor is it for those who are willing to pay a premium for a status symbol. Rather, the 1961 DeSoto has been deliberately designed for a particular kind of person who appreciates the additional roominess, the distinctive refinements, and the reassuring feel of an automobile in DeSoto’s class.” Even those Mad Men of Madison Avenue were stumped when it came to DeSoto's role. Two months after the 1961 model year began, while everyone was still talking about the colossal failure of the Edsel, Chrysler Corporation quietly announced it would halt DeSoto production. A total of 3034 customers paid tribute to the brand’s 33rd and final showing.
When the last DeSoto rolled off the line in late December of 1960, the tears this author shed admittedly were less for the loss of a storied marque than the misery of a full diaper. Far too young then to appreciate the legacy of DeSoto: the barrel nosed 1932 Custom Eights, precursor to the muscle car; the ahead of its time art deco 1934 Airflow; the unique face of the 1942 Airfoil; or the gentleman’s muscle car, the 1956-58 Adventurers. I do now, and thus have too much respect for this brand, Chrysler’s style leader throughout its 33 years, to go to the well one more time for a Hernando metaphor. The simple fact was, by 1960, Chrysler corporation was too small to support five brands. The company wasn’t going to kill one of its legacy marques; Chrysler or Dodge. Plymouth was its volume leader, and for all intents and purposes Imperial was a separate make in name only. There was only one choice, and it was a sad one. DeSoto, we hardly knew you.
Copyright@2017 by Mal Pearson
Sources and Further Reading
It’s Delightful! It’s Delovely! It’s DeSoto Automobiles, by Dennis David. Iconografix (Hudson, WI, 2006)
Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius, by Vincent Curcio. Oxford University Press (New York, 2000)
1929-1942 DeSoto: Excess Baggage, by Arch Brown. Collectable Automobile, August 1990
1946-1961 DeSoto: Dynamic, Delightful, and Destined for Disaster, by Arch Brown. Collectable Automobile, August 1988
Something in the Air: The Story of the 1957-59 DeSoto, by Dave Duricy. Collectable Automobile, June 2014
It’s Not a Good-bye when a Good Car Sells Badly, by Dave Duricy. Cars & Parts, September 2008
Looking back at Chrysler's Forward Look, by John Gunnell. Old Cars Weekly, June 25, 2015
Fashioned by Function, by Terry Shea. Hemmings Classic Car, September 2013
A Belated Obituary for DeSoto, by Mike Davis. Wheels, Fall 2011
Collectable Classic: 1952-54 DeSoto FireDome, by Rusty Blackwell. Automobile, September 2011
DeSaga: A Brief History of DeSoto, by Dave Duricy. www.Duricy.com
www.Allpar.com The source for everything Chrysler