Curbside Classic: 1956 DeSoto Fireflite – Yeah, It’s Got A Hemi


Actually, they all had Hemi’s that year, at least the ’56 DeSoto Fireflite sedans like this one did.  I drove past it on the way back from an appointment and I thought, “wait, that’s not a ’55 Chevy,” so I turned around and went back.  I happened to have my camera with me since Vancouver has such a bewildering number of old cars and I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping it stashed in my car.


I knocked on the door and asked the owner, Chuck, permission to shoot some pics (telling him about the website, naturally).  He suspiciously asked if I even knew the name of the car about which I was inquiring, but his attitude softened when I correctly identified it as a ’56 Desoto.  I told him about some of the Mopars my family’s had as well, including a ’70 Plymouth Fury, a ’79 B200 van and my mother’s ’62 Dart.  By then, he said I was a true believer and started listing the many, many Chrysler products he’d owned, including, most notably, a Super Bee with a race-spec 426 Hemi.


His DeSoto, however, has to be nearly as rare–I wonder how many still exist.  18,207 four-door Fireflite sedans were sold for 1956 and at 3860 pounds, not including six seats filled with one’s wife and kids, along with a trunk full of vacation luggage, buyers needed that Hemi.  Desoto offered a decent variety of options that year and the base price of the car with the standard 330 was $3,119.

DSCF0242V mesh grill with emblem still attached!

I couldn’t tell whether or not this example had A/C, but since this is Vacouver, I suspect not; in any case, Airtemp air conditioning was $567.  Other options (and their prices) included: heater and defroster for $92; a power front seat at $70; $102 for power windows ($32 if you wanted them made of tinted glass); a $24 electric clock; power steering and brakes for $97 and $40, respectively; and whitewalls for $30.


The interior needs some work, but it looks like nothing’s missing.  Chuck said he bought the car a couple of years ago and he’s slowly getting it in shape.  He mentioned an ignition problem that’s been bugging him but he’s able to bypass it by hot wiring the car.


I was quite fond of the V-8 emblem on the fuel filler door.  It’s a reminder to be generous with the premium and to forget about the ol’ MPGs.  Anyone out there know the mileage these cars got?  My guess would be 10 in the city and maybe 15 on the highway.


The standards means of motorvation for all Fireflites was a 330.4 CID Firedome Hemi making 255 hp in front of a Powerflight auto, the latter in its third year of service at DeSoto.  Chuck didn’t offer to open the hood for me and I didn’t want to seem pushy, so this pic is from the ‘net.  The following is cribbed from American Cars 1946-1959:

Several engineering advances appeared on the 1956 DeSoto line. Most important was a change to a 12-volt electrical system, necessitated by the proliferation of electrically powered accessories in recent years. As if to prove the point, new options for 1956 included a power radio antenna, Highway Hi-Fi record player and front power seat with more adjustment options. The powerful V8 engine was again enlarged, this time into two new versions. Firedome and Fireflite models received a 330.4 CID version with up to 255 horsepower output. A higher output 341 CID version was created for a special new model, the Fireflite Adventurer.

DSCF0243I like the headlight ring.  It’s a nice detail you don’t really see anymore.

The Adventurer was powered by the new 341 CID engine with dual exhausts, custom interior appointments and trim, and special exterior finishes. Also called Golden Adventurer, the sporty 2-door hardtop was technically a subseries of the Fireflite and DeSoto’s lower-priced, lower-powered cousin of the Chrysler 300, offering a padded instrument panel, power front seat, power windows, power brakes, and a heavy-duty suspension as standard over lesser Fireflites.

Screenshot 2014-08-13 22.54.581955 shown at left; 1956, at right

For 1956, the vertical bar grille used since 1946 was gone, replaced by a mesh style grille with a large “V” centered within, and the large front bumper guards now incorporated the parking lamps. Other changes included a hooded headlight ring, a short-lived styling craze seen on some other ’56 models. Around back, the rear fender line was slightly raised with a new taillight design capping off the raised tailfin.


Set into a hooded quarter panel, stacked “Control Tower” tail lamps set atop a large U-shaped bumper end that housed the exhaust outlet defined the rear.  Full-length bodyside trim (or the upper trim piece on two-tone models) was changed to an upswept section that ended at the tip of the hooded rear fender, with an aim to emphasize the length and leanness of the overall shape.


It worked; while it would be gone in a few short years, customers bought the DeSoto in record numbers now that the dowdiness which defined its 1949-1954 predecessor had been banished, and although the 1957 redesign would cement the car as an even more stylish, high-performance trendsetter, cars like Chuck’s ’56 represent the brand’s final high water mark.  As a rather basic pillared sedan, it might have seemed slightly ordinary compared to the more expensive the Adventurer and dramatic Sportsman hardtops when new, but its styling has worn quite well thanks to Exner’s initial expression of Forward Look styling.


Chuck told me he didn’t have a computer, but I hope he sees this someday and thinks that I gave his car some righteous justice. It seems to be complete (except for hubcaps) and should be easy to restore without an exhaustive, potentially fruitless search for trim pieces; it’s truly remarkable that all the chrome trim and lettering is still on the car after fifty-eight years. As a long-term labor of love, Chuck deserves to show off his baby and I hope to see this pink DeSoto streaking through a Vancouver Friday night soon.