History of the Chrysler DeSoto 1928 to 1949 (part one)
In May 1928, Walter P. Chrysler launched the DeSoto program to compete with Oldsmobile, General Motors and Pontiac lines of mid-priced cars. Production began in July 1928, and the DeSoto was introduced to the public August 4, 1928.
Chrysler immediately gained the attention of 500 dealers. At the peak of production the new 1929 DeSoto Six was being sold by approximately 1,500 sales agencies. Demand for this hot new model had sky rocketed. During the first year of production DeSoto built a record of 81,065 units. This was more than Chrysler, Graham-Paige and Pontiac combined. By November 1929, Chrysler sold its 100,000th DeSoto, a sales record that would not decline until 1960. The automotive world would see the DeSoto as a fixture in the industry for 33 years.
DeSoto was named after the 16th Century explorer Hernando de Soto. He was a Spaniard who had explored North American territory and discovered the mighty Mississippi River. The DeSoto name would represent the Americana theme established by Plymouth, Chrysler’s other new make. All across the southern United States, towns, cities, and counties were named DeSoto.
In the beginning
The 1929 Model K DeSoto Six was a six-cylinder, 55 horsepower, mid-priced vehicle that offered style, economy and modern engineering. DeSoto was manufactured with modern equipment such as “Lockheed” hydraulic brakes and an oil filter. In other contemporary brands these engineering advantages were optional or not available at all. DeSoto also offered a variety of standard features which included: brake lights, ignition locks, tool kits with grease guns, full instrument panel displays and headlights with steering hub controls.
Chrysler produced seven different DeSoto models that made up an appealing line of vehicles. This line of hot cars included a roadster named the Roadster Espanol and a deluxe sedan named the Sedan de Lujo.
In 1930, America saw its first full year of the Depression. Even with this obstacle in its path, DeSoto came back with bigger and better models. The DeSoto CF, more commonly known as the DeSoto Eight, was the top of the line model available and it accounted for 20,075 DeSoto units built for that year. It offered a 114-inch wheelbase and an inline eight-cylinder, 70 horsepower engine that the consumer anticipated to have in a luxury automobile. It was dubbed “the world’s lowest-priced straight-eight." Chrysler promised the public “a vast reserve of power when needed,” and the DeSoto proved to have just that. It provided what every car owner yearned for, speed and stamina.
In 1934, the DeSoto Airflow was introduced to the industry. This was the product of a top-secret experiment that had been in the making since 1927. Chrysler pioneered automobile airflow and wind tunnel tests alongside world famous Orville Wright of the Wright Brothers. A trio of engineers had a theory that the high grilles, squared lines, long hoods and large fenders were limiting speed capabilities and fuel economy. To sum it all up, the cars of that time were aerodynamically “backwards.”
Chrysler engineers designed a DeSoto sedan to drive backwards in 1933. This experimental model produced greater cruising speeds and higher gas mileage. With these results the design team went to work and created the 1934 DeSoto and Chrysler Imperial Airflow. It sported a controversial teardrop aerodynamic shape. Aerodynamically it was a success, but press in the industry seemed to be skeptical of the car’s appearance calling it “odd.”
Walter P. Chrysler believed the company to be “engineering king” from the start of the idea. He rushed production of the autos and ignored warnings from his head designers. The cars were simply too advanced for normal manufacturing lines, and this only added to the poor quality of production and caused delays. They seemed to be on a set course for failure.
In an effort to disguise the unpopular profile of the Airflow, Chrysler produced a companion line for 1935 called the Airstream. The smart decision paid off, and sales nearly doubled, giving the credit to the excitement over the new model.
In 1937, Chrysler restyled the DeSoto. Production rose to 81,775 units placing DeSoto 12th in the industry. By 1938, DeSoto began producing trucks targeted for the military and export markets. Chrysler was enjoying the success of being the second largest automobile manufacturer in the US.
The Hollywood style DeSoto would make its debut in 1939. Chrysler Corporation invested $15,000,000 for retooling and new dies for the new models. Millions of dollars were spent on the DeSoto body itself. The Hollywood DeSoto featured curved fenders, chrome details, and a newly designed front prow. The car’s appearance didn’t take away from its engineering. It featured a gearshift mounted to the steering column called a “Handy Shift.” The lever controlled the three-speed transmission, “Syncro-Silent,” with overdrive options. It also sported a color-changing speedometer and a fully adjustable front seat. The total number of 1939 units built was 54,449.
In 1941, the semi-automatic transmission was made available to DeSoto’s already long list of options. This model was named the DeSoto Simplimatic. The transmission, with minor improvements, would be standard in all DeSoto vehicles into 1953. Chrysler also designed the “Rocket” body during this time, which would define DeSoto and become the styling trademark throughout 1955. Production peaked for the Simplimatic, reaching 99,999 units manufactured.
The 1942 Airfoil was praised for its headlight covers in the “Motors and Motoring” column of the New Yorker. The front end featured a low waterfall grille, and had a “solid well-knit look.” Chrysler also included whitewall trim rings due to a short supply of whitewall tires.
On December 7th, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war. Material excess such as style became unimportant. DeSoto joined in the war effort by putting civilian manufacturing aside on February 9th, 1942, to produce Martin B-26 Marauder fuselage sections, Sherman tank parts, Navy Helldiver wing sections, Bofor anti-aircraft gun parts, and B-29 Superfortress nose sections. At home, a 1942 DeSoto would travel the United States to sell war bonds.
In spite of postwar material shortages, labor problems and the inability to fill orders, consumers were starved for new DeSoto models.