Bill Vance: De Soto caught in marketing squeeze

When Walter P. Chrysler created the Chrysler Corp. from Maxwell Motor Corp. in 1925, he certainly didn’t anticipate how fast his empire would grow. Even he must have been surprised.

In 1928, Chrysler purchased Dodge Brothers Co. and continued the momentum by introducing both the low-priced Plymouth, an evolution of the four-cylinder Chrysler 52, and the mid-market De Soto.

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De Soto’s creation came about almost accidentally. In 1928, Walter Chrysler’s initial attempt to buy Dodge Brothers was refused by the banks that controlled it, so he created the medium-priced De Soto.

Then, when the bankers changed their minds and agreed to sell Dodge to Chrysler, the De Soto was already on the assembly line.

The 1929 De Soto was introduced in August 1928 to an enthusiastic acceptance. Within a year, 81,065 were sold, a first-year model sales record that stood for more than 30 years.

Named for Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, discoverer of the Mississippi River, De Soto was intended to convey a spirit of “travel, pioneering and adventure.” Usually it didn’t, although for a period in the 1950s it did build the hot0performing Adventurer.

The Depression reduced De Soto’s 1930 sales to 34,889 in spite of a straight-eight engine joining the six. The eight was discontinued in 1932, although De Soto added free-wheeling that allowed coasting without compression braking. It also got the soft “Floating Power” engine mounts pioneered by Plymouth in 1931.

For 1933, De Soto was moved to a higher price range closer to Chrysler and away from Dodge. When De Soto and Chrysler introduced their controversial streamlined Airflow models in 1934, De Soto went totally to the Airflow but Chrysler wisely hedged by also continuing the conventional “Airstream.”

Airflows were well-engineered cars, but their radical style did not sell well, so De Soto revived its conventional Airstream model in 1935, but also kept the Airflow until 1936.

De Soto’s fortunes gradually improved through the 1930s, given a considerable boost when they proved to be very good taxis. Many New York City De Soto cabs covered more than a million miles during the Second World War car shortage.

With the Airflow discontinued in 1936, all De Sotos had conventional styling for 1937. The peak of its 1940s elegance was reached in 1942 just before production ceased for the war. The ’42 was liberally decorated with chrome, a bold vertical bar grille and “Airfoil” headlights concealed under metal covers.

After the war, De Soto returned to production early in1946 with their 1942 design with some changes to fenders, doors and bumpers. The hidden headlamps were gone.

Chrysler Corp. introduced its all-new styling in 1949 and many thought they took a wrong turn with taller, more conservative cars than the competition.

In 1951, Chrysler Corp. scored a coup with its sensational new hemispherical combustion chamber overhead valve Firepower V-8. Soon nicknamed the Hemi, Chrysler’s developed 180 horsepower from 5.4 litres (331 cu in.), the most powerful engine in the American industry. De Soto got its smaller 4.5-litre (276 cu in.), 160 horsepower Firedome Hemi midway through the 1952 model year, its first eight since 1932.

Chrysler Corp. finally abandoned the stodgy styling with its 1955 Forward Look. Vestigial fins made their appearance, grew higher for 1956 and really went wild the following year.

Chrysler seemed determined to match General Motors with chrome and fins in what would be called the Decade of Decadence. The term “rolling jukeboxes” was not without justification.

In the face of a squeeze on mid-priced cars caused by low-priced cars growing larger, De Soto lost market share through the 1950s. Also, it always seemed to suffer in Chrysler’s shadow; even the high- performance Adventurer series beginning in 1956 didn’t turn the tide.

But the corporation continued trying, launching a full line of 22 De Soto models in four series for 1959. Alas, the resuscitation attempt was a losing cause.

For the restyled 1960 models, now with unit construction, only the Fireflite and Adventurer series were offered. The Adventurer lost its performance-car fangs when horsepower dropped from 350 to 305.

New De Soto models were introduced for 1961, but the writing was clearly on the wall.

Production ceased in November 1960 after only about 3,000 1961s had been built. They were not marketed in Canada.

De Sotos were almost always known as solid if unspectacular cars that provided good value for money for conservative buyers. Except for the short-lived “real” 1950s Adventurer models, they didn’t have a strong performance reputation.

During De Soto’s 30-plus years, just over two million were built. The year in which it died, 1960, was the year its first year sales record was broken.

Reflecting the changing times, the car that did it was the new compact Ford Falcon.

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