Virgil Exner’s raft of 1957 models have rightfully earned their place in the pantheon of automotive design history, and everyone knows the story about how Exner one-upped GM and stole the mantle of design leadership only to have it wrested from his hands by poor quality control and questionable follow-ups. I’ll argue, however, that by today’s standards, his 1955 efforts are cleaner and more elegant than those highly prized 1957s, and that the 1955 Fireflite Sportsman is the best DeSoto ever.
The decade of the 1950s was tough for Chrysler; their prewar success, to the detriment of Ford, was not carried over into the early postwar era. The styling department was overshadowed by engineering, and sales reflected the cars’ staid image (although I still think Chryslers from that era are cool). Hiring Virgil Exner and giving him the power to completely restyle the 1955 models gave Chrysler the visual excitement it needed, and for a glorious two model years the entire line was as beautiful as it was well-built. I think that the pre-tailfinned 1955 models were Exner’s peak. All Chryslers were clean, elegant, and well-detailed without the exciting but quickly-dated tailfins.
Nevertheless, one thing that has always baffled me about Chrysler is their decision to build three different Hemi engines in the 1950s. I’ve never personally worked on one, but it’s apparent that few parts interchange among Dodge, DeSoto, and Chrysler Hemis, so the engineering budget must have been staggering. One must wonder if consolidating engine families would have saved enough money to improve the abysmal quality control of the 1957 models (I doubt it); at any rate, it’s an interesting “what if?”. Regardless, DeSoto lost its Hemi by 1958 when the new Chrysler B/RB engines were introduced, thus eliminating one more reason to keep DeSoto on as a unique product. Clearly, Chrysler’s (and Ford’s) attempt to imitate General Motors’ sales paradigm didn’t work without their volume, and that became clear as the 1950s elapsed. Fascinating stuff.
The 1955 DeSoto had a 291-cubic-inch version of the DeSoto Hemi, an engine that would see its peak displacement with the 1957 Adventurer’s 345 cubic-inch V8. The bore spacing of the DeSoto block was 4.3125″, less than a concurrent Chevy small-block’s, and that may be another reason why the engine was discontinued (aside from its manufacturing costs): There wasn’t any room to grow into a seven-liter future. At any rate, the 291 still produced 200 horsepower when topped with the Fireflite’s Carter WCFB, which was competitive with the middle-priced cars of its era.
The three-speed Torqueflite was not introduced until 1957 in the DeSoto line, so buyers had one option if they wanted an automatic behind their hemi, the two-speed Powerflite.
The 1955 model year was the last before “push-button drive” became a catchphrase at Chrysler. This Fireflite has the dashboard mounted range selector, which must have given Ralph Nader an eye twitch. Sticking straight out of the dash for maximum lethality, it’s a good thing that cooler heads prevailed for 1956. Aside from that questionable piece of design, the interior is downright clean for a 1950s car. Sportsman models wore genuine leather seat covers, and the clear gauges and stylish two-tone themes make this one of the most attractive interiors of its day.
All of that pales when compared to the exceptionally successful styling of the DeSoto and Chrysler models in 1955. Reminiscent of Exner’s Ghia concept cars of the early 1950s, these cars were the first to carry the “Forward Look” moniker.
This is one of those early Exner Chrysler concepts, the aptly named “Chrysler Special” that was once on display at the now defunct Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, MI. It’s easy to see its influence on the Fireflite’s quarter panels, for example.
Perhaps a sign that all was not well at DeSoto, however, was how similar the 1955 Chrysler looked. This one is a New Yorker St. Regis, and it was for sale a couple years ago no more than a half-mile from my house for $15,000 on Facebook Marketplace. It wouldn’t fit in the garage, so we’ll call it a near miss along with a missed opportunity. But I digress.
DeSoto’s demise might have been inevitable given hindsight, but that seems hard to imagine when looking at the beautiful 1955 Fireflite Sportsman, especially in its gorgeous green and white two-tone color scheme. With a surprisingly light shipping weight of 3490 pounds, over 10,000 Sportsman hardtops were sold in 1955. That was, unfortunately for DeSoto, fewer than the 11,076 St. Regis hardtops that Chrysler sold, even though the St. Regis cost over 700 dollars more. Uh-oh.
Still, even with the color scheme of our feature car reversed (as in the advertisement above), it’s clear that DeSoto’s claim that it was the “smartest of the smart cars” was not your typical Madison Avenue-based “expedient exaggeration.” Few remember DeSoto today, but for around $3000, one could buy a really nice, handsome car of quality construction that’s been somewhat overshadowed for years. It might be the best DeSoto ever.