Classic Mopars: DeSoto


The DeSoto (1928-1961)




The DeSoto (sometimes De Soto) was a brand of automobile based in the United States, marketed by the Chrysler Corporation from 1928 to 1961. 1942 promotional art cover for the DeSoto line, which Chrysler called its "style leader". The 1942 model was the first use of hidden headlights in a mass produced car for the North American market. The DeSoto make was founded by Walter P. Chrysler on August 4, 1928, and introduced for the 1929 model year. It was named after the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. Chrysler wanted to enter the brand in competition with its arch-rivals General Motors, Studebaker, and Willys-Knight, in the mid-price class.
Shortly after DeSoto was introduced, however, Chrysler completed its purchase of the Dodge Brothers, giving the company two mid-priced makes. Had the transaction been completed sooner, DeSoto never would have been introduced. Initially, the two-make strategy was relatively successful, with DeSoto priced below Dodge models. Despite the economic times, DeSoto sales were relatively healthy, pacing Dodge at around 25,000 units in 1932. However, in 1933, Chrysler flipped the marques in hopes of boosting Dodge sales. 
By elevating DeSoto, it received Chrysler's streamlined 1934 Airflow bodies. But, on the shorter DeSoto wheelbase, the design was a disaster and was unpopular with consumers. Unlike Chrysler, which still had more traditional models to fall back on, DeSoto was hobbled by the Airflow design until the 1935 Airstream arrived. Aside from its Airflow models, DeSoto's 1942 model is probably its second most memorable model from the pre-war years, when the cars were fitted with hidden headlights, a first for an American mass-production vehicle. DeSoto marketed the feature as "Air-Foil" lights "Out of Sight Except at Night".


After restrictions on automotive production were ended, DeSoto returned to civilian car production when it reissued its 1942 models as 1946 models, and without the hidden-headlight feature. Until 1952, DeSoto used the Deluxe and Custom model designations. In 1953, DeSoto dropped the Deluxe and Custom names and designated its six-cylinder cars the Powermaster and its V8 car the Firedome.
At its height, DeSoto's more popular models included the Firedome, Firesweep, and Fireflite. The DeSoto Adventurer, introduced in 1955 as a hard-top coupe and in 1956 as a convertible, became a full-range model in 1959. DeSotos sold well through the 1956 model year. In 1957, they, along with all Chrysler models, were redesigned with Virgil Exner's "Forward Look". Exner gave the DeSoto soaring tail fins fitted with triple taillights, and consumers responded by buying record numbers of the car. However, sales of the 1958 DeSoto were 60 percent lower than those of the preceding year—DeSoto's its worst year since 1938. The 1960 model, almost identical to the re-styled Chryslers, saw sales down 40 percent from 1959 figures.


In its final model year, DeSoto lacked any model names and was simply marketed under its brand name. By the time the 1961 DeSoto was introduced, in the fall of 1960, rumors spread that Chrysler was moving towards terminating the brand; these were fueled partly by the reduction of model offerings for the 1960 model year.
For 1961, DeSoto lost its series designations, a move reminiscent of Packard's final lineup. And, like the final Packards (often derisively called Packardbakers), the final DeSoto was of questionable design merit. Again, based on the smaller Chrysler Windsor wheelbase, the DeSoto featured a two-tiered grille (each tier with a different texture) and revised shark-nosed taillights. 
Only a two-door hardtop and a four-door hardtop were offered. Cars were trimmed to 1960 Fireflite standards.
While the decision to discontinue DeSoto had been made earlier, Chrysler warehouses, by the time of the announcement, contained several million dollars in DeSoto parts, so the company ramped up production in order to rid itself of the otherwise unusable parts. Without internal support and dealer interest, and lacking in customer confidence, the DeSoto was discontinued on November 30, 1960, forty-seven days after the 1961 model year was announced.  
Chrysler and Plymouth dealers, which had been forced to take possession of DeSotos under the terms of their franchise agreements, received no compensation from Chrysler for their unsold DeSotos at the time of the formal announcement. Making matters worse, Chrysler kept shipping the DeSoto back-stock through December 1960; much of this was sold at a loss by dealers eager to be rid of the cars themselves.
The DeSoto name survived on a line of heavy trucks built overseas, particularly in Turkey.
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