One of the forgotten names of the American car business is DeSoto. First launched by Chrysler in 1928, DeSoto was an all-new brand that would compete with Buick and Studebaker in the mid-market segment.
Due to their affordable price, DeSotos were popular right from the start. The 1929 models set a first-year sales record that stood for 31 years! DeSoto hit the peak of their popularity in 1956, when they had grown to become the 11th largest US automaker.
One of the cars that propelled DeSoto up the sales charts was this 1955 DeSoto Fireflite. It caught my eye on a recent visit to the Martin Auto Museum in Phoenix.
Although DeSotos had done well in the past, Chrysler had some big changes in store for 1955. As a result, all Chryslers (and all DeSotos) debuted that year with a brand new look. They put designer Virgil Exner in charge of the new look for DeSoto, which he called the “Forward Look.” Exner loved fins and was eager to incorporate them wherever he could. Consequently, this ’55 has some very long, tapered fins at the rear.
In 1955, DeSoto stopped offering the PowerMaster 6-cylinder engine when it was discovered that the FireDome V8 with its hemispherical combustion chambers outsold it nearly 2 to 1. This car features the 325 cubic inch FireDome engine which makes a respectable 200 horsepower with a 4-barrel carburetor. It is coupled to a PowerFlite fully automatic transmission.
With this configuration, the car could do 0 to 60 in 11 seconds and had a top speed of 110 mph! With seating for six, it was the perfect vehicle for post-war American families.
Customers responded positively to the new look and the FireFlite was a hit! DeSoto sold over 110,000 cars in 1956, most of them FireFlites. For the first and only time in its history, a DeSoto was used as the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1956.
Everything seemed to be going well for DeSoto. So what happened to them? Like many car companies, DeSoto watched their sales get taken away by the competition. But I’m not talking about Ford and GM here, I’m talking about competition from within Chrysler itself.
You see by the mid-1950s, Chrysler was actually five different brands: Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, and Imperial. DeSoto was the mid-market brand and it ended up losing sales to the other divisions as they moved up-market or down-market. DeSoto sales plunged 60% in 1958 and continued downward in 1959. With so much overlap within the Chrysler family, there really wasn’t a reason for DeSoto to exist anymore. Chrysler discontinued the DeSoto name in November 1960.
I think this is a shame because the FireFlite is a really cool looking car. Although they are considered a design fad today, this car and its rounded fins were the height of automotive design when it came out. It was among the first Chryslers to feature the legendary HEMI engine and I think it pulls off the two-tone look better than a lot of other cars from the era.
Imagine how different the automotive world would be if it were Plymouth or Dodge that got the axe instead of DeSoto!