By: Bill wa3ra Gallagher
Offering a balance of style, advanced engineering,
and economy, the DeSoto was a fixture of the
automotive world for a mere thirty-three years.
Walter P. Chrysler launched the Plymouth and DeSoto
lines in an effort to compete with the GM mid-priced
lines, Pontiac and Oldsmobile in May of 1928. Joseph
E. Fields was appointed as president of the new
DeSoto Motors Corporation.
By July of 1928, production of the first 1929 Model
K DeSoto 6’s had started in the Dodge Highland Park
plant, and the car was introduced to an enthusiastic
public on August 4th of that year Within a year
80,000 of the new model have been sold.
In November of 1929, the 100,000th DeSoto is sold;
setting a sales record for a new model introduction
that won’t fall until almost 1960!
Production was such that a new plant needed to be
opened for DeSoto, and her sister line, Plymouth.
This plant was opened in 1929, and was the beginning
of the Lynch Road facility of today.
In January of 1930, DeSoto introduced the Model CF,
with a straight-eight engine, The DeSoto
straight-eight was too expensive to produce for a
mid-priced car, however, and a year later, Chrysler
introduced its own straight-eight…based on the
Dodge, Chrysler, and DeSoto each had their won
dealers at this time, and the DeSoto’s sister, the
Plymouth, was sold through all three dealerships,
with the majority being sold in the DeSoto
showrooms. By 1933, DeSoto and Plymouth had outgrown
their Lynch Road home, and production was shifted to
the Jefferson Avenue Plymouth plant.
Throughout this time, the Chrysler/DeSoto engineers
(sometime called the Three Musketeers… Carl Breer,
Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, brought over from
Maxwell by Walter P himself!) were convinced that
there was something wrong with the contemporary car
designs. The high grills, squared-off lines, and
long fenders and hoods were limiting economy and top
speeds. The Chrysler engineers even pioneered wind
tunnel testing of automobiles, with none other than
Orville Wright (of the Wright Brother’s fame)
manning the controls. Their conclusion was that cars
of the time were ‘backwards’!
In 1933 the engineers modified a DeSoto sedan to
drive backwards. Aimed with back to the wind, this
oddball experimental DeSoto provided better gas
mileage and higher cruising speeds! Armed with the
results of this testing, the styling department went
The ongoing experimentation indicated that a
teardrop shape would be the most aerodynamic it was
applied to the 1934 DeSoto, Chrysler and Chrysler
Imperial Airflow automobiles. The resulting vehicles
was an aerodynamic success, but the motoring press
was less than enthusiastic, with many writers
extolling the virtues of the engineering, but
panning the ‘odd’ appearance.
Walter P. Chrysler bred a feeling of ‘engineering as
king’ into the company right from its inception. The
Airflow Models for Chrysler, DeSoto and Imperial
were certainly not a designer's car. They were
engineer's cars. According to Mr. Chrysler himself,
a vehicle with this many improvements needed to be
on the street…right away! Disregarding his styling
heads, he ordered the cars to be rushed into
production. The look was simply far too advanced for
regular production models. Add to that the poor
production quality, the delays brought about by the
rushed introduction, and General Motors underhanded
advertising and rumor-mongering, and the cars were
doomed to failure.
Most of the potential buyers shunned the radical new
looks, and never got to experience the
improvements…many of which we take for granted
today. The new cars had great weight distribution,
making them extremely stable, the passenger
compartment was located in front of the rear wheels,
which offered more room and superior comfort, and
these were also the first cars with unibody
construction, simplifying production and increasing
body strength tremendously. The recessed headlights,
triple-bar bumpers, rear fender skirts and sloping
V-type windshield were just too much for the
motoring public of the 30’s to accept.
These cars truly were thirty years ahead of their
time. The DeSoto Airflow sedan could safely have
been considered the world’s first mini-van, fifty
years before the first Dodge Caravan rolled off the
line! Airflow cars even came equipped with automatic
Unfortunately, the Airflow signaled the end for
Walter P. Chrysler himself. After two dismal years
of sales, he turned the corporate reins over to K.T.
Keller, himself an engineer and long-time protégé of
Chrysler. Keller immediately began work on bringing
styling up front, but including as many of
Chrysler’s improvements as could be. The Airflow’s
commercial failure forced Chrysler into a
conservative styling direction that it wouldn’t
break out of until the Virgil Exner era of the late
50’s and 60’s.
The DeSoto Airflow was dropped after the 1936 model
year; the Chrysler version held out until 1937.
In 1938, DeSoto began building trucks for the export
(mostly military) market. Some of these trucks were
also sold domestically, with slightly different
front-end treatments, under the Plymouth banner.
Engineering remained at the fore at DeSoto, however.
In 1941 the DeSoto Simplimatic Fluid Drive
semi-automatic transmission became available on all
models. After the war, it would be updated, as the
Tip-Toe Hydraulic Shift. In 1954, the semi-automatic
would be upgraded to a full automatic transmission,
the Powerflite, which would receive the famous
‘pushbutton’ shifter the next year. (editors note:
I think the pushbuttons came in 1956 and that
the 55s had a shifter on the dash)
In 1951, the Warren Avenue plant was expanded to
include engine production, and production began on
the new for 1952 Firedome Hemi, a 276 cid V8. At the
same time, 6-cylinder engine production was moved to
the Trenton plant.
At this same time, Virgil Exner came to the Chrysler
Corporation from Studebaker, K.T. Keller became
Chairman, and L.L. Colbert gave up the presidency of
Dodge to become the corporation’s president. L.I.
Woolson became president of DeSoto.
Keller would remain as Chairman, and support Walter
P. Chrysler’s ideals, until the spring of 1956. With
his retirement, and the rise of L.L. Colbert through
the corporate structure, the handwriting was on the
wall for DeSoto.
In 1957, even though the DeSoto was still an
independent marque, the newly introduced DeSoto
Firesweep might just as well have been a Dodge. It
consisted of a DeSoto body on Dodge chassis, with
Dodge doors, Dodge engines, Dodge front end clip
with a different DeSoto grille treatment, and it was
built at the Dodge Main facility in Hamtramck.
In June of 1958, the individual companies would be
downgraded to divisions of the parent Chrysler
Corporation, and the presidents ‘demoted’ to general
managers, Harry E. Cheseborough at Plymouth
Division; M.C.Patterson at the Dodge Division; Clare
E. Briggs for both the Chrysler and Imperial
Divisions, and J.B.Wagstaff at the DeSoto Division.
Then, in October, DeSoto was downgraded form an
independent division, and Harry E. Cheseborough was
named general manager of the ‘new’
By 1959, the once-proud DeSoto line had been reduced
to the Fireflite and the Adventurer, and the marque
was merged with the Plymouth line. This year also
saw the 2 millionth DeSoto sold. In April, L.L.
Colbert was named the new Chrysler Chairman of the
Board, and by the end of June, he had displaced
William Newburg as corporate president, as well.
Colbert removed the DeSoto production from Dodge,
and shifted it to Plymouth, but did not allow the
development of a ‘new’ identity for the DeSoto cars,
which by now had become virtually identical to the
Plymouths that they stickered for several hundred
more dollars than.
In 1960, the same two models, with virtually no
changes, we held over. Sales, as could be expected,
were dismal, especially given the fact that the cars
were being sold in the same showrooms as their
The final DeSoto design was transformed into the
Chrysler Newport before production even started, and
the 1961 model year was the end for DeSoto. The
remaining stock of 1960 parts was used to build the
last few cars, and the marque was relegated to
Models produced by year:
1929 DeSoto (Model K)
1930, 1931 DeSoto Six and DeSoto Eight
1933 DeSoto Standard and DeSoto Custom
1934 DeSoto Airflow 1935 DeSoto Airstream and DeSoto
1936 DeSoto Deluxe Airstream, DeSoto Custom
Airstream, and DeSoto Airflow
1937, 1938 DeSoto
1939 through 1948 DeSoto Deluxe, DeSoto Custom, and
the DeSoto truck
1949 through 1951, DeSoto Deluxe and DeSoto Custom
1952 DeSoto Deluxe, DeSoto Custom, and DeSoto
1953, 1954 DeSoto Powermaster and DeSoto Firedome
1955 DeSoto Firedome and DeSoto Fireflite
1956 DeSoto Firedome, DeSoto Fireflite, and DeSoto
1957,1958 DeSoto Firesweep , DeSoto Firedome, DeSoto
Fireflite, and DeSoto Adventurer
1959 DeSoto Firesweep DeSoto Firedome, DeSoto
Fireflite , DeSoto Adventurer
1960 DeSoto Fireflite (Standard or Optional levels),
DeSoto Adventurer (Standard or Optional levels), and
yet a third DeSoto Adventurer option, which was
basically a high-end Plymouth