1956 DeSoto Adventurer
1956 DeSoto Adventurer. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The DeSoto was always known as a staid and solid car, never flashy or garish and always seeming to live in older brother Chrysler’s shadow. It was for the conservative banker or high school principal seeking Chrysler quality and luxury, but with less ostentation, like the person who bought a Bentley rather than a Rolls-Royce. Then suddenly in 1956, DeSoto stepped out of character with the most powerful and flamboyant DeSoto ever offered: the Adventurer.

DeSoto had arrived on the scene in 1928 when the young Chrysler Corp. (formed by Walter Chrysler out of Maxwell in 1925) developed it to fit between the Chrysler and its new low priced Plymouth. When Chrysler was unexpectedly able to acquire Dodge in 1928, the DeSoto suddenly seemed redundant. Although Chrysler made a place for it at the corporate table by dropping a Dodge model, the DeSoto never seemed to fully get over its forgotten child identity.

That’s why the Adventurer was such a surprise. It was named after DeSoto concept cars of the early 1950s, and came out a year after Chrysler’s new 1955 “Forward Look” cars rescued it from years of stodgy styling.

Along with the advanced 1955 styling, Chrysler launched a new mid-year image car, the stunning Chrysler C300, named for its 300 horsepower hemispherical combustion chamber “Hemi” engine. It was the first real muscle car, and corporate siblings Plymouth, Dodge and DeSoto wanted one too. So for 1956 came the Dodge D-500, Plymouth Fury and DeSoto Adventurer.

DeSotos came in two series, the Firedome and the more upscale Fireflite. The two-door hardtop Adventurer bowed in February 1956 based on the Fireflite. It was related to the Fireflite “Pacesetter” convertible which paced the 1956 Indianapolis 500, the only time DeSoto would get that honour at the famous race.

The Adventurer’s appearance was set apart by gold plating on its mesh grille, rear quarter panel badges, and turbine-style wheel covers. It was sometimes referred to as the Golden Adventurer.

DeSoto engineers enlarged the cylinder bore of its Hemi V8 slightly, increasing displacement from 5.4 to 5.6 litres (330 to 341 cu in.). Raising compression from 8.5:1 to 9.5:1, fitting larger valves with stiffer springs, and adding two four-barrel carburetors and dual exhausts upped horsepower from 230 to 320. It also received the corporation’s new-for-1956 12-volt electrical system.

To go with the extra performance, the springs and shock absorbers were stiffened, and power brakes were made standard, although power steering was still an option.

DeSoto purchasers could order the corporation’s optional new “Highway Hi-Fi,” a small 16-2/3 rpm record player carried in a glove box-like cubby under the instrument panel. It was never very satisfactory and was discontinued the following year.

Gear selection for the two-speed Powerflite automatic transmission was by Chrysler’s new mechanical push buttons at the left end of the instrument panel. DeSoto sold 996 of its 1956 Adventurers.

For 1957 DeSoto received the huge, sweeping fins that were the corporation’s mark that year. DeSoto’s version carried triple stacked taillamps in the fins, a feature used until 1959. The Adventurer added a convertible for ’57.

Mechanical changes included Chrysler Corp.’s new torsion bar front suspension. Also, the Adventurer Hemi’s cylinders were again slightly enlarged, bringing displacement from 5.6 to 5.7 litres (341 to 345 cu in). Power was up from 320 to 345, or one horsepower per cubic inch for a standard engine. Chevrolet was trumpeting its 283 horsepower, 283 inch optional engine, but DeSoto didn’t have Chevrolet’s money to advertise its feat.

Despite a limited advertising budget the Adventurer was becoming known for its outstanding performance. Contemporary reports recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in about 10 seconds and a top speed of over 225 km/h (140 mph). This, plus the addition of a convertible, helped DeSoto sell 1,950 1957 Adventurers, almost twice the 1956 sales.

Several factors, including an economic recession, were against DeSoto in 1958. Popular priced cars such as Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth were growing and moving up-market, and high-line cars such as Chrysler were offering lower priced versions. Mid-market DeSoto was squeezed from both ends, and total sales dropped from more than 130,000 ’57s to 49,000 ’58s, including only 423 Adventurers.

Some 1958 mechanical changes also impacted DeSoto’s image. Because Chrysler Corp.’s heavy Hemi engine was expensive and complicated to manufacture, it was being replaced with a cheaper-to-build wedge-head design, although the Adventurer’s still produced the same 345 horsepower. DeSoto offered fuel injection in Adventurers for 1958, but it proved troublesome and was recalled and replaced by carburetors.

The ’59 Adventurer got standard swivel bucket seats and some exclusive trim and paint treatment, and the Adventurer engine was now offered across the DeSoto line. Sales rose to 687, but it was apparent that Chrysler Corp. was losing interest in DeSoto. As a harbinger of the future, Chrysler had eliminated the DeSoto assembly plant and moved the DeSoto operation to a Chrysler facility.

The Adventurer, as good as it was, always seemed to be overshadowed by Chrysler’s famous “Letter Car” series. Nineteen-sixty was the last year for the Adventurer name, which had now been diluted by being used on almost all DeSotos.

Although 1961 DeSoto models were introduced in October 1960, Chrysler Corp. discontinued the marque on November 18, 1960, after just 3,034 ’61 DeSotos had been built.

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