1961 DeSoto
1961 DeSoto. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Nineteen twenty-eight was a momentous year for the Chrysler Corporation that had been formed by Walter P. Chrysler from the Maxwell Motor Corporation only three years earlier. In 1928 Chrysler scored a triple play by purchasing the Dodge Brothers Company, and introducing the low-priced Plymouth and the mid-market DeSoto. It was a momentous undertaking for a young corporation.

The DeSoto could be called almost an accident that was created by Walter Chrysler as a medium priced car when the banks refused to let him buy the Dodge company. By the time the banks changed their minds and decided to sell Dodge to him, the DeSoto was already on the assembly line. Whether this was the real reason for the birth of DeSoto or not, it had a remarkably successful first year.

DeSoto was introduced in August, 1928 as a 1929 model, and within a year Chrysler had sold 81,065 of them. It was an industry record for a first-year model that would stand for more than 30 years.

The name came from the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto, discoverer of the Mississippi River. It was intended to convey a spirit of “travel, pioneering and adventure.” Usually it didn’t, although for a few years in the 1950s DeSoto did have a hot model called the Adventurer.

The Depression saw DeSoto’s 1930 sales fall to 34,889, in spite of the introduction of a straight-eight engine to go with the six. But the eight was discontinued 1932, although DeSoto did get free-wheeling (it allowed the car to coast without compression braking when the accelerator was released) and the “Floating Power” engine mounts that Plymouth pioneered in 1931.

For 1933 the DeSoto was moved into a higher price bracket, closer to Chrysler and away from Dodge. Then for 1934, DeSoto and Chrysler introduced their controversial streamlined Airflow models. DeSoto went over totally to the Airflow styling, but Chrysler wisely hedged its bet and continued the conventional model, designated as the Airstream. Although they were basically good cars, Airflows never sold well and DeSoto reintroduced its conventional Airstream model for 1935.

DeSoto’s fortunes, like the economy, gradually improved through the 1930s, and were given a considerable boost when DeSotos proved to be very good taxis. Many New York City DeSoto cabs were driven over a million miles during the interruption of car production during the Second World War.

The Airflow was allowed to die, and DeSoto returned to conventional styling in 1937. The peak of 1940s elegance was reached in 1942, just before production ceased for the Second World War. The ’42 was liberally decorated with chrome and had its “Airfoil” headlights hidden behind metal doors.

After the war, Chrysler Corp. got the DeSoto back into production in early 1946 with what was essentially its 1942 design, although with some changes in the fenders, doors and bumpers. The hidden headlamps were gone. As with the other Chrysler Corp. cars, DeSoto had to wait until 1949 for its all-new styling.

That was when Chrysler Corp. took what many consider to be a wrong turn by offering cars that appeared high and stubby compared with the sleeker looking competition from Ford, General Motors and the smaller companies.

In 1951 Chrysler introduced its sensational new hemispherical combustion chamber, overhead valve “Firepower” V8. Soon nicknamed the “Hemi,” it developed 180 horsepower out of 5.4 litres (331 cu in.), the most powerful engine available from the American industry.

DeSoto got its smaller 4.5-litre (276 cu in.) 160-horsepower version, which it dubbed the “Firedome,” midway through the 1952 model year. It was DeSoto’s first eight since 1931.

The Chrysler Corp. finally abandoned its stodgy styling with the 1955 “Forward Look” models on which vestigial fins started to make their appearance. They grew higher for 1956, and then really went wild the following year.

Chrysler was determined to match General Motors with chrome and fins in what would turn out to be the “Decade of Decadence.” The term “rolling juke-boxes” was not without justification.

In the face of a squeeze on mid-priced cars, DeSoto continued to lose market share through the 1950s. It always seemed to suffer in Chrysler’s shadow, and even the introduction of the high performance Adventurer series in 1957 didn’t turn the tide.

The corporation continued to try, however, and for 1959 launched a full line of DeSotos: 22 models in four series. Alas, this attempt to resuscitate a dying marque was a losing cause.

For the restyled 1960 models, now with unit construction, only two series were offered, the Fireflite and the Adventurer. And the Adventurer had lost its performance car fangs; horsepower was down from 350 to 305.

New DeSoto models were introduced for 1961, but the writing was well and truly on the wall. Production ceased in November, 1960 after only about 3,000 1961s had been built. They were not marketed in Canada.

DeSotos were known as solid if unspectacular cars that provided good value for conservative buyers. Except for the short-lived “real” Adventurer models, they never did have a strong performance reputation.

During the DeSoto’s 30-plus years existence just over two million were built. Ironically, the year in which it was killed, 1960, was the year its first-year sales record would be broken. It was a sign of the changing times that the car that did it was the compact Ford Falcon.

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