Like most failing car lines, DeSoto went out with a whimper, and not a bang. Unlike some other defunct brands that promptly sent their final vehicle straight to a museum (such as Oldsmobile and Studebaker), Chrysler did not even deem the final DeSoto produced to be worth saving: It was sold off to some (likely unknowing) dealership and eventual customer, just like any other DeSoto. So what exactly happened to the last DeSoto? Let’s investigate.
Things weren’t looking so bright for DeSoto as the 1960s dawned. While as recently as 1957 DeSoto had cracked the list of top 10 selling brands, a one-two punch of quality problems and the 1958 recession caused sales to drop 70% by 1960. But the biggest threats to DeSoto were coming from inside the house: On the low end, DeSoto was getting squeezed by Dodge going upmarket with the Matador and Polara, and on the high end by Chrysler dipping downmarket with the Windsor followed by the Newport. A commonly heard refrain was “Why buy a DeSoto when you can buy a Chrysler for just a few hundred dollars more?” Why indeed?
While we may never know the exact timing of the official decision, Chrysler had clearly already decided to terminate DeSoto long before the start of the 1961 model year. The convertible and station wagon models were both eliminated for 1960, along with the longer wheelbase “Senior” models. But the final nail in the coffin what the introduction of the virtually identical-looking (and identically priced) Chrysler Newport, slotting below the Windsor, the former entry-level Chrysler.
As part of this planned phaseout, 1961 DeSotos were offered in only two body styles: A two-door hardtop coupe, or a four-door hardtop sedan, sold in a single, unnamed series. The sole engine choice was a 2-barrel 361 “Wedge” V8, paired with either a 3-speed manual or a 3-speed TorqueFlite transmission (although very few, if any, were built with the manual). Also eliminated for 1961: Storied model names like Fireflite and Adventurer. All 1961 DeSotos we bereft of any model or trim badging, and went simply by “DeSoto,” although occasionally you will see them referred to as “RS 1-L,” their internal designation at Chrysler.
Chrysler went public with their intentions to ax the DeSoto brand on November 18, 1960, in the form of a terse telegram sent to dealers, a surviving copy of which is pictured below.
True to their word, the last DeSoto rolled off the assembly line on Wednesday, November 30, 1960, after a scant 32 years of production.
There is one rumor about these final cars I would like to dispel: Over the years, I have seen various people state that these final DeSotos were “bitsa” cars, assembled with random Chrysler pieces as the DeSoto-specific pieces were used up (for example a Chrysler steering wheel in place of the DeSoto piece). However, the DeSoto experts I consulted for this story say that more likely the opposite is true. By this time, some dealers were refusing orders and shipments of DeSotos, especially after the November 18th announcement, fearful that they would be stuck with unsellable cars. Chrysler more than likely actually had leftover unused DeSoto parts after their self-imposed November 30th production cutoff. Any mismatched parts you may now see on a 1961 DeSoto were likely installed years after the car was manufactured.
For decades after it was assembled, the identity of the last DeSoto was unknown: The body style, color, and even the VIN were all mysteries. Not helping matters was an arcane vehicle production and identification system that Chrysler employed at the time, leading many a ’61 DeSoto owner over the years to falsely conclude that theirs was one of the last models (if not the last) just based on the body number on the data plate (recall that Chryslers and DeSotos rolled down the same assembly line and that their serial numbers are therefore mixed together).
Around 2002, Dean Mullinax, DeSoto aficionado and former president of the National DeSoto Club, decides to get serious about locating the final DeSoto and starts compiling a registry of every surviving 1961 DeSoto.
In an effort to break open the case, Dean reached out to Wayne Graefen and Kit Foster for assistance in decoding the data plates and build sheets that he had collected so far. Wayne provided a copy of the punch card for the last DeSoto, pictured above, that he had recently requested from Chrysler. This was a fortunate break, as Chrysler now no longer provides production records for any vehicle unless you can produce proof of ownership. Together, they spend six months trying to decode the body plates Dean had collected.
Thanks to their efforts we now know a fair amount about the final DeSoto. Paint code WK2 indicates a two-tone paint job of Surf Turquoise Metallic with a Glacier White roof, while a trim code of 104 would have specified a silver vinyl interior with teal cloth inserts. And perhaps most importantly, we now know it had a serial number of 6113135102, and that it was a two-door coupe. It was built on November 30, 1960, and shipped to the purchasing dealer on December 29, 1960. The final DeSoto also appears to have been well equipped, including such options as a pushbutton radio, Deluxe steering wheel, TorqueFlite transmission, power steering, and power brakes.
Fast forward to 2020. Eighteen years into his quest, Dean has cataloged about 130 surviving 61 DeSotos from a multitude of countries, including Australia, England, Germany, Norway, Canada, Finland, and Sweden (which is home to an astonishing 31 1961 DeSotos). While 130 sounds like (and is) a small number, given that total production for 1961 was just 3,034 units, this actually means that Dean has cataloged about 4% of the total production. By Dean’s reckoning, he’s cataloged less than half of all the remaining 1961 DeSotos, indicating a potential survival rate of around 10%. This is actually pretty incredible, as I would have guessed the number to be far smaller.
Alas, DeSoto number 6113135102 remains elusive, not having turned up despite the collective efforts of Dean and his coterie. Realistically, with just a 10% survival rate, odds are the last DeSoto most likely has long since been scrapped, probably decades ago. But Dean remains optimistic: He is hopeful that it is still in a barn or field somewhere, just waiting to be discovered. Maybe even one of our readers will give him a fresh lead on a 61 DeSoto that will turn out to be that magical final turquoise coupe.
So what is the last production DeSoto that is still in existence? According to Dean, the “newest” surviving DeSoto in his database is 6113134667, which was produced on the final day of DeSoto production (11/30/1960), likely within a few hours of the actual ultimate car. It was last seen in Texas on eBay in 2011, in rough shape and half sunk into the ground, but otherwise fairly complete. It was sold to an owner who may not have even realized what it was (the final surviving DeSoto). After that eBay sale, it disappeared off of Dean’s radar, and its current whereabouts are unknown.
There are still a lot of surviving 1961 DeSotos out there that Dean has not cataloged. Dean contacts the owner of every 1961 he sees for sale online, but surprisingly many do not respond to his inquiries, leaving their vehicles (any one of which could be the actual last DeSoto) uncataloged.
If you would like to join Dean on his unicorn hunt for the last DeSoto, feel free to reach out to him at desotodean(at)gmail.com. I would like to thank Dean Mullinax and the National DeSoto Club (desoto.org) for their invaluable and generous support in researching this article.