Curbside Classic: 1958 DeSoto Fireflite: The Forward Look Falls Flat On Its Face

(originally posted 3/6/2014)    Finned, fresh and fantastic: The Forward Look Mopar cars shocked and awed both the buying public and the competition in the fall of 1956–but by the fall of 1957, it was all over. Despite both significant and superficial advances, a number of teething and quality issues led one of them, the Conquistador of the Mopar family, to fall on its sword.

I can’t help but think of DeSoto in the 1950s as the Mopar Oldsmobile. It packed a smaller hemi, much like the Olds Rocket V8 was simply a smaller version of the 1949 Cadillac V8 and born of the same school of thought. It shared the levels of attention to detail and engineering for which Oldsmobile was legendary. (Granted, Fluid Drive was woefully out of touch, and Powerflite was only slightly better at what it could do versus a host of other two-speed automatic transmissions.) And while Chrysler Corporation products of the 1950s, from the lowliest Plymouth to the most regal, disc brake-equipped Imperial, had a reputation for solid engineering, at General Motors only Oldsmobile projected a similar image of  engineering prowess.

There was another, and unique, problem afflicting DeSoto: Created as a bet-hedging brand in case Dodge didn’t bow to a 1928 buyout by Chrysler, the two sibling brands fought mostly for the same market, often acrimoniously. DeSoto eventually moved (somewhat) out of the “$50 more than the ‘Popular Brands'” bandwidth that became a two-decade-long meal ticket for both Dodge and Pontiac, but now found itself bouncing up against Chrysler, which could never decide if it wanted to be a rival to Buick, Cadillac or Oldsmobile.

Flash forward to 1955. With somewhat of a brand identity (toothy grille) DeSoto launched, along with the other Mopar brands, their first Forward Look cars.

But even the most casual glance tells you that this is nothing but a retrimmed Chrysler Windsor. There weren’t as many of the detail differences in styling or engineering that separated, say, an Olds 88 from a Buick Century. The Chrysler (arguably) came off better looking while offering the snob appeal/brand cachet of being expensive. Combined, these elements would work themselves into a complete meltdown following a stunning performance in 1957.

Even today you can see why the styling feat Virgil Exner pulled off for 1957 was so breathtaking. Sure, the Plymouth fins are a bit stubby, the Dodge suffers from a bit too much bric-a-brac, and the Imperial shows some radius curves, but free of the fussy details and radius curves of Harley Earl’s creations, the Forward Look cars are pretty sharp and athletic.

The look works best on the Chryslers, with their simple “Cathedral” tail lamps, although it can come across as a bit austere on more basic trim levels, including this Windsor Sedan.

The fact that I like a little bit more jewelry on cars makes the DeSoto variants more appealing to my eye. The “Christmas Tree” tail lamps. The dart-shaped, two-tone panel. The ellipse exhaust outlets that match the jet intake grille. The whole look seems at once dated yet timeless.

The unique retrimming was enough to send nearly 118,000 DeSoto cars out the door in 1957, before the Eisenhower Recession sent people scrambling to buy Bel-Airs and Impalas, to get glamour in gargantuan sizes on the cheap, and to Ramblers for the more sane (in more ways than one).  Nor were De Soto’s problems due solely to the recession.

The 1957 Chryslers were the second act of Chrysler’s willing self-mutilation right before the public eye. For all the advances, from the brilliant and influential Torqueflite automatic, the tight handling (for the times) Torsion Aire ride, and Total Contact brakes, came issues with workmanship, rust, and torsion bars snapping in half due to road salt. Quality in general suffered at all medium-price brands in the late 1950s, but it hit DeSoto, legendary for its rugged and respectable place in the automotive world, especially hard. Many mid-price buyers stayed away from the fatal beauty of DeSoto.

While it’s hard to believe the baroque barge that is the 1958 Oldsmobile could have been that better assembled (wouldn’t you forget to put a few washers where all that chrome has to attach?), it held onto its sales in the quarter-million range in 1958.

DeSoto did worse than even the all-new-for-1958 Edsel. Edsel sold 63,000 rattle traps (with flaming Tele-Touch Drive controls) versus DeSoto’s 49,500 better sorted-out 1958 line. More the pity, as the Fireflites that year were blazing performers. An often quoted figure in an old magazine test pegged a 305 hp, 361-equipped Fireflite as hitting 0-60 in 7.7 seconds, with a top speed of 115 mph. Pretty heady stuff when you consider a Super 88 from the same period was around a second slower (albeit faster all-out), and the massive 410 Cube-equipped Edsel Citation was a flat-out slouch, taking a full two seconds longer to reach 60 mph. Add in that crisp Torsion-Aire helm, and I probably would have been one of those 49,000 risk takers in 1958.

By this point, DeSoto was caught in a witches’ brew.  Like the overlap of Ford, Edsel, and Mercury, DeSoto’s overlap was twofold: The bargain basement, Dodge-based Firesweep made no sense, especially considering that in 1958, Chrysler moved the Windsor to the same 122″ wheelbase Dodge chassis. What’s more, the poor Fireflite didn’t carry the marketing gravitas of an Olds Ninety-Eight or Buick Super, or even its New Yorker cousin.

A rather chunky 1959 face lift did no Mopar car any favors (except, perhaps, Dodge). De Soto’s identity was stripped even further with the unibody 1960s, just when DeSoto could have made a real impact with an all new body. Instead, it ended up what it was back in 1955: a fussier Chrysler.

And so that was DeSoto, a vegetable crosstown version of Oldsmobile. Just as Oldsmobile was staging a minor renaissance in the early 1960s, DeSoto had no control of its own fate, thanks to an ongoing conflict with Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler. In the end, Chrysler pulled De Soto’s feeding tube full of gruel in the fall of 1960. Did it have to happen? It’s a question open to debate. Chrysler never gave its brands the engineering autonomy that would produce unique driving experiences that developed buyer preferences like a Rocket/Hydramatic Olds versus a Nailhead/Dynaflow-equipped Buick.

After work today, it was on Dolores Street that I found the ruins of a lost empire of finned trendsetters that once roamed the highways in such glorious technicolor wonder, you’d think Douglas Sirk had designed them. I walked away remembering this Fireflite as a testament to the fickle nature of the American consumer: one mistake, and you might lose them forever.