The DeSoto (sometimes De Soto) was a brand of automobile based in the United States, marketed by the Chrysler Corporation from 1928 to 1961.
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 reversed the market positions of the two 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 pop up 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, but without the hidden-headlight feature, and with fender lines extending into the doors, like other Chrysler products of the immediate postwar period.
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 for 1956 as a hard-top coupe, became a full-range model in 1960.
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 tailfins fitted with triple taillights, and consumers responded by buying record numbers of the car. The 1957 DeSoto had a well integrated design, with two variations: the smaller Firesweep, based on the concurrent Dodge; and the Firedome and Fireflite (and its halo model Adventurer sub-series), based on the larger Chrysler body. As was conventional in the era, subsequent years within the typical three year model block were distinguished by trim, bumper, and other low cost modifications, typically by adding bulk to bumpers and grilles, tailight changes, color choices, instrumentation and interior design changes and often additional external trim.
The 1958 economic downturn hurt sales of mid-priced makes across the board, and DeSoto sales were 60 percent lower than those of 1957 in what would be DeSoto's worst year since 1938. The sales slide continued for 1959 and 1960, and rumors began to circulate that DeSoto was going to be discontinued. 1960 saw sales down 40 percent from the already low 1959 figures.
By the time the 1961 DeSoto was introduced in the fall of 1960, rumors were widespread that Chrysler was moving towards terminating the brand, fueled by a reduction in model offerings for the 1960 model year.
For 1961, DeSoto lost its series designations entirely, in a move reminiscent of Packard's final lineup. And, like the final Packards, the final DeSoto was of questionable design merit. Again, based on the shorter Chrysler Windsor wheelbase, the DeSoto featured a two-tiered grille (each tier with a different texture) and revised taillights. Only a two-door hardtop and a four-door hardtop were offered. The cars were trimmed similarly to the 1960 Fireflite.
The final decision to discontinue DeSoto was announced on November 30, 1960, just forty-seven days after the 1961 models were introduced. At the time, Chrysler warehouses contained several million dollars in 1961 DeSoto parts, so the company ramped up production in order to use up the stock. 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 cars through December, many of which were sold at a loss by dealers eager to be rid of them. After the parts stock was exhaused, a few outstanding customer orders were filled with Chrysler Windsors.
Despite being a successful mid-priced line for Chrysler for most of its life, DeSoto's failure is due to a combination of corporate mistakes and external factors beyond Chrysler's control.
The 1958 recession, which seriously affected demand for mid-priced automobile makes, hurt DeSoto sales particularly hard, and they failed to recover in 1959 and 1960. With falling sales, the 1959 and 1960 models were very similar to the concurrent Chryslers, and rumors began to circulate that DeSoto would be discontinued.
Chrysler's dealer network also had an effect on the termination of DeSoto. Following World War II, Chrysler had a large number of dealers that carried two or more Chrysler makes, with Plymouth—DeSoto and Chrysler—Plymouth relationships being the most common. However, as Chrysler attempted to spin Plymouth off into stand-alone dealerships, existing dealers typically chose to become higher-volume Plymouth dealerships over the slower-selling DeSoto brand, leaving the marque with a weakened dealer network and fewer outlets selling its cars. Also, Desoto Division's failure to adjust to changing market trends by introducing a new compact car model in 1960 as its GM and Ford counterparts, as well as its own Dodge and Plymouth siblings did, also hastened its demise.
But it was Chrysler's own brand management, which pitted each of the five marques (Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial) against one other, that did the greatest damage to DeSoto and, ultimately, to the company itself in long-range product planning. Rather than carefully managing the market relationship to specific price points for all consumers, as General Motors had done so successfully, Chrysler allowed its own divisions to develop products targeting markets covered by their own sister divisions. Dodge was, by far, the most successful when it introduced the lower-priced Dodge Dart in 1960, advertising for which compared the Dart to the "C" car, the "F" car, and the "P" car—Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth. While Dart sales soared in 1960, they did so at the expense of Plymouth, which lost sales to the Dart. Plymouth, traditionally one of the "low priced three" fell out of third place, only to regain it twice (1971 and 1974) before its own demise in 2001.
When Chrysler marketing showed that consumers were likelier to buy an entry-level Chrysler than a DeSoto, Chrysler, seeing the opportunity, introduced the Chrysler Newport as a 1961 model, selling more than 45,000 units in its first year. At less than $3,000, the Newport, along with the Dodge Custom 880 introduced in 1962 covered the small price range that DeSoto had filled. This move downmarket by Chrysler Division into DeSoto's price class was also fueled by the launch of the luxury Imperial as a separate make and division in 1955.
While various collectors claim to own the last DeSoto sold to the public, DeSoto's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) system was altered in its final days, showing that the "final" DeSoto could have been produced on any number of dates in the last half of November 1960.
(sources: The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1945. The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975. 1960-1961 DeSoto: The End of Adventure.)
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