It was one of the success stories of the mid-20th century. American families drove it. Hollywood stars and game-show hosts shilled for it ( though only in the most innocent, '40s and '50s way). Boardroom struggles and an economic recession doomed it. It's the Chrysler DeSoto.
Why was the DeSoto so popular? First of all, it was a mid-priced car, perfect for the US's growing middle class. DeSoto was born as a competitor to the Dodge Brothers' reasonably priced cars. Interestingly enough, Chrysler was able to buy out Dodge not long after the DeSoto line began -- yet this didn't render DeSoto redundant. Indeed, the line was to motor on (excuse the pun) for another three decades. Another thing DeSoto owners loved about the car was its comfort. This brand prided itself on both roominess and and smoothness of its ride. The latter was a result of an industry-changing engine placement, right between the front wheels, which let passengers ride in comfort over the wheelbase.
But sometimes DeSoto tried too hard to innovate, rolling out one of the very first aerodynamic cars in the 1930s. Car buyers, used to straight-edged cars modeled on horse-drawn carts, couldn't quite get with the new program. (They'd be shocked to see today's Camaros and Corvettes). Then, in the 1950s, DeSoto was caught up in the "horsepower wars," rolling out cars with Hemi V8 engines -- and the two-tone paint jobs and whitewall tires the '50s are classically known for. Finally, as financial troubles overtook Chrysler, the DeSoto had its swan song.
We're remembering the DeSoto with a 35-question quiz you're bound to learn a thing or two from. Slide behind the wheel now!
The Chrysler car was named for Hernando De Soto, the first European to cross the Mississippi River. Like "Plymouth," another Chrysler line, the name is an homage to early America.
The DeSoto debuted in 1928. This was at the tail end of the Jazz Age, a time when a car symbolized the increasing "speed" of American life.
If you said "the 1950s," you were close. The DeSoto barely made it into the "Mad Men" era. The announcement that it was being canceled came in 1960, with the last models sold in 1961.
DeSoto was a Chrysler product from the start. There were plenty of occasions in which smaller carmakers were folded into larger companies as the 20th century went on, but this wasn't one of them.
We'd like to believe that the Six was named by a prescient engineer for the sexy Cylon on 2003's "Battlestar Galactica." But it appears to have been named for the number of cylinders.
That wasn't a whole lot, considering it had to power a rather heavy and non-aerodynamic body. By comparison, a Honda Civic today gets at least 150 horsepower from its four-cylinder engine.
Walter Chrysler began his career at Buick, where he was a key man. He struck out on his own in the mid-1920s.
Dodge was the main competitor for the mid-price DeSoto. Tuckers had their very brief day in the late 1940s, long after the early DeSotos rolled out.
Fans of the car suggest that Chrysler was not aware of the full extent of DeSoto's heritage. His expeditions spread smallpox and other European diseases to a native population with no immunity, causing great suffering.
This first-year record stood until 1960! It's a testament to America's economic health in the Jazz Age that so many people could afford cars, which were still relatively new on the scene.
The name says it all. The Airflow moved away from the boxy, hard-edged styles that dominated cars of that day.
The Airflow moved the engine forward, between the front wheels instead of behind them. With passengers sitting over the wheelbase and not the engine, the Airflow offered a smoother ride.
The Airflow's aerodynamic design was just a little too ahead of its time. The car did well in Europe, but not in the States.
The grille of the Airflow started high on the hood and curved over the top edge to fall toward the front fender. Because it was also narrow in width, it resembled a waterfall.
It's easy to remember this name if you think of "Airflow" + "mainstream." That's pretty much what the Airstream was: a more conventional-looking Airflow.
A prototype car had used them, but the 1942 DeSoto was the first mass-produced car to have them. By the 1970s, these were practically mandatory on sports cars.
Of course, he didn't do this because he just loved the brand; it was part of a sponsorship deal. Marx urged viewers to take a test drive: "Tell 'em Groucho sent you."
The Firedome replaced the Custom line, which was discontinued in 1952. A Firedome would set you back about $3,000 -- a little more if you wanted the AM radio.
DeSoto had not produced cars with a V8 engine for nearly 20 years. The Firedome's was a Hemi.
Tail fins were the classic car-design flourish of the 1950s. In that, the Fireflite was right on trend.
The Adventurer was the top-line model in the late 1950s. It offered a V8 engine, gold wheel covers and an electric clock. Swanky!
Incredibly, this actually happened. It was a result of Chrysler's budding realization that the car was actually more aerodynamic, and got better mileage, when driven backward. This led to radical design changes.
Ginger Rogers was one half of the famous dancing duo, with Fred Astaire. She claimed in the ads to drive a DeSoto. Astaire, meanwhile, drove a Rolls-Royce -- evidence that the gender pay gap has been with us a long time.
Full automatic transmission wasn't really a thing yet, but the "Simplimatic" transmission meant drivers didn't have to shift once the car was in motion. They still needed a clutch to get the car moving, however.
DeSoto's factories were making Sherman tank parts during WWII. Chrysler wasn't the only carmaker to suspend production during the war, of course -- all domestic car production ceased.
Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Of course, as the "again" hints at, the statistic came from a survey of DeSoto owners. Always read the fine print, people!
In 1949, DeSoto was still riding the wave of car demand that got started with the end of WWII. It made than 130,000 cars that year. Unfortunately, consumer tastes were shifting, and DeSoto's popularity had peaked.
We can't explain it either, but this early 1950s car had a small hood ornament of DeSoto with a little lightbulb behind the plastic face. It illuminated whenever the headlights were also on.
Exner was the chief stylist of Chrysler, overall. He was a fan of tail fins, which the Adventurer was known for.
Though people who look back fondly at '50s cars think of them as a design element, tail fins had a purpose. They improved stability at high speeds. So do spoilers, popular in the '80s and beyond.
We're not even sure we can *think* of 190 color combinations. If you can, please list them in the comments!
Chrysler aimed to please with the DeSoto line. Over the life of the brand, you could buy any of the above three types, as well as a sedan.
Economic downturns are never good for car sales, especially in the mid-price range. That's squarely where the DeSoto landed.
The Newport name had been used by Chrysler before. It was reintroduced as a low-priced alternative to the mid-price DeSoto.
Ten states have DeSotos, and there are also counties and national parks with the name. This is thought to be a reason Chrysler chose it: "Plymouth," too, is a very popular municipal name. Both names are easily recognized as "American."