(first posted 1/11/2013) Or deadly? One always has to question why Chrysler even bothered with DeSoto after a certain point. Five years after offering this befinned model, DeSoto would cease to exist. Did it have to happen?
In hindsight, the closest analogy is that DeSoto was ChryslerCorp’s Oldsmobile, especially in the early ’50s: Like Olds at GM, DeSoto was first to follow its manufacturer’s top-tier nameplate with a modern V8 engine, paralleling Oldsmobile’s ascent into performance stardom.
As the 1950s progressed, one major difference between them was that ChryslerCorp used only two body shells until 1957, which affected its entire range of offerings in very distinct ways. The smaller Plymouth/Dodge body was considered stubby and insubstantial compared with the ever-growing competition. Meanwhile, there was a lot of obvious similarity throughout the company line, from the cheapest DeSoto Powermaster to the most expensive Imperial. By 1954, one couldn’t honestly make a similar claim regarding an Olds 88 versus a Cadillac Sixty Special.
When Virgil Exner finally unleashed his full intentions with the 1955 Mopar line, DeSoto seemed more of an afterthought. Once again joined at Chrysler’s hip, DeSotos didn’t receive a true tail fin as the other brands did. I can never decide whether I like the “droopy butt” 1955 models or not. The look adds a bit of sporting character to the hardtop coupes, but looks humble on sedans or without two-toning.
Enter our befinned 1956 model. All the other Mopar brands accentuated last year’s tail lamp designs with more plumage, but DeSoto decided to try something new: the “Christmas Tree” tail lamp cluster, which would remain a DeSoto calling card for the next four seasons. The additional tail lamp also offered a subtle hint of increased prestige over a Dodge.
Up front, out went the toothy smile and in came a mesh grille with parking lamps mounted in the bumper guards. These subtle tweaks made the 1956 models more dynamic looking–and larger–than the previous year’s offerings. In comparison, a contemporary Oldsmobile 88 looks upright and stubby next to the long, flowing Firedome.
The Oldsmobile comparison doesn’t end there: The DeSoto Hemi was bumped from 291 to 330 cubes (similar in size to the Olds Rocket 324), and horsepower jumped to 230–on a par with the two-barrel 324. Of course, this was before the Highland Haulers offered the three-speed TorqueFlite. Transmissionpush buttons, although new, nevertheless commanded the slightly less dexterous two-speed Powerflite.
It all added up to one of DeSoto’s better years, as more than 110,000 Firedomes, Fireflites and Adventurers found homes. It’s best to ignore that that figure represents about one-fourth of Oldsmobile’s volume at the time, and a drop in the bucket versus Buick before that brand came crashing back down to earth in the late 1950’s.
One wonders why DeSoto wasn’t a real runner-up or even a contender. The reasons are numerous, but most point to the ascent of some Dodges and the descent of Chrysler Windsors into the DeSoto’s market niche. I also blame DeSoto’s lack of unique mechanicals for not being able to offer much difference in the driving experience. It’s also worth noting that while Buick Special prices were neck-and-neck with those of Olds 88s (and actually lower in some years), Oldsmobile at least had the Hydra-Matic, traditionally firmer spring rates and a completely different V8 to help fend off potential defectors to Buick. DeSotos had no such protective armor of their own.
The tailspin really took hold with the melodramatic 1957 models, whose poor quality control did drastic damage to DeSoto’s reputation. Additional factors, including a very nasty recession towards the end of the year, and the brand-diluting, line-blurring, Dodge-based Firesweep series, eroded whatever premium status the other DeSotos had. In 1958, one medium-price brand actually did worse than the new kid on the block named Edsel. I don’t think I have to tell you who that was.
Most American brand aficionados would say that Mercury was the ultimate stepchild, either a Lame Lincoln or a Fancy Ford. I’d have to say that DeSoto–especially in the second half of the 1950s–is a strong contender for that dubious gold medal. At least Highland Park had the decency to take DeSoto behind the shed and fire the gun 50 years before Ford did likewise with Mercury.
The American Auto industry is one vast wilderness. It takes a lot of exploring, planning and patience to understand it and stay alive in it. Unfortunately, DeSoto didn’t live up to the promise of its namesake.