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Mopars From Down Under



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.


Walter P Chrysler

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.

1929 Desoto

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 DeSoto tooling.

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.


1934 Airflow

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 to work.

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 overdrive transmissions!

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’ Plymouth-DeSoto-Valiant Division.

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.


1959 Desoto

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 lower-priced cousins.

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 history.

Models produced by year:
1929 DeSoto (Model K)
1930, 1931 DeSoto Six and DeSoto Eight
1932 DeSoto
1933 DeSoto Standard and DeSoto Custom
1934 DeSoto Airflow 1935 DeSoto Airstream and DeSoto Airflow
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 Firedome Eight
1953, 1954 DeSoto Powermaster and DeSoto Firedome
1955 DeSoto Firedome and DeSoto Fireflite
1956 DeSoto Firedome, DeSoto Fireflite, and DeSoto Adventurer
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
1961 DeSoto


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