The Last DeSoto

Front leadOn November 30, 1960, the final DeSoto rolled off the line at Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant. Here’s a brief look back at the Chrysler brand that, in 33 years of production, never quite found a niche.  

 

 

Toyota’s recent announcement that the automaker was killing off its troubled Scion brand, created in 2003, recalls some other automotive brands throughout history that never managed to carve out a spot in the marketplace. One such brand was Chrysler’s DeSoto division, which ended production halfway through the 1961 model year with around two million vehicles produced, but without nailing down a clear identity.

The introduction of DeSoto in the summer of 1928 was an odd sort of happenstance in itself. Walter P. Chrysler, locked in hardball negotiations with the investment bank Dillon, Read & Co. over the purchase of the Dodge Brothers Co., launched the DeSoto division of Chrysler Corporation in direct, head-to-head competition with Dodge. Just then Walter P. and the bankers hammered out an agreement, and Dodge became part of the Chrysler Corporation in a massive stock swap. And Chrysler found itself with two brands, Dodge and DeSoto, occupying a single market slot.

 

1961 DeSoto Front Seat 6001961 DeSoto two-door hardtop seating  

 

Realigning its product lineup in an attempt to correct the duplication, Chrysler cut the number of Dodge models to two and positioned DeSoto above price leader Plymouth but below Dodge in the corporation’s price hierarchy. But when Chrysler launched the ill-fated Airflow concept in 1934, DeSoto was then relocated above Dodge in the product line and given one model, the SE AIrflow. Advanced as they were, both the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows were sales disasters, but without any conventional models in its lineup, DeSoto was especially punished. Sales plummeted to to only 13,940 units in 1934. And for the rest of the brand’s history, sales at DeSoto lagged far behind Plymouth and Dodge, and usually behind the flagship Chrysler division as well.

 

1961 DeSoto dash 6001961 DeSoto dash with pushbutton Torqueflite and optional RCA Victor record player

 

DeSoto production hit its high-water mark at over 191,000 units for 1951-1952 (combined). But with few distinguishing features from the rest of the Chrysler lineup, sales continued to slide all through the rest of the 1950s, cracking the top 10 only once in 1957. The DeSoto retail network lacked a clear identity as well, with its franchises generally dualed with Plymouth dealerships. In 1960, sales amounted to a mere 26,000 cars.

For 1961, the product line was pared down to just one model, called simply DeSoto, and two body styles, a two-door and a four-door hardtop. (Both were closely based on the junior Chrysler Windsor platform.) Styling was nothing distinguished either, simply odd, with an awkward bifurcated grille and a pair of dated-looking tailfins. And now there was only a single available engine, the 361 CID V8, as much of DeSoto’s engineering and management staff was reassigned to the new compact Valiant program. Only 3,040 cars were produced for the 1961 model year, 911 two-doors and 2,123 four-doors, when the DeSoto division was officially ended once and for all on November 30, 1960.

Oddly enough, the DeSoto name lives on to this day, but with a truck maker in Turkey that no longer has any connection to Chrysler Corporation or its current iteration, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

 

DeSoto side view

8 thoughts on “The Last DeSoto

  1. It’s always tough to see a marque end. DeSoto was a good car; it just couldn’t find a place to fit in the Chrysler family. My uncle always drove DeSotos, despite the fact that my other uncle (his brother) sold Plymouth Chrysler. It’s interesting that this article mentions DeSoto being paired off with Plymouth. I always saw it paired off with Dodge, and Plymouth with Chrysler. When DeSoto was retired, Dodge dealers got the Chrysler franchise as well…

    • In later years, after the Late 30’s, DeSoto Actually Shadowed Chrysler, If you look at Post war Chrysler Corp you will find DeSoto right behind the 6 cyl Chrysler cars, ie Windsor…

  2. I think upward pressure from Dodge shoved DeSoto into junior Chrysler territory, which was not tenable. That, and its odd looks for ’61 pretty much spelled the end, especially since you could spend the same money for a lower-line Chrysler and get more options.

  3. The greatest legacy of DeSoto might be the sponsorship of Groucho Marx’ “You Bet Your Life” from 1950-58. “Tell ’em Groucho sent you!”

  4. DeSoto hits a memory with me, as well. My dad had a ’59 DeSoto in ’60 or ’61 ( and his business partner had one too, only fancier than the old man’s, with “swivel out” bucket seats and console. The old man’s was pretty plain 4 door, but it’s the first car I remember riding in. I remember the speedometer changed colors the faster we went. I was just a kid, so don’t remember much of the mechanical’s, but it seemed to have a huge back seat and I remember laying down on the rear package tray ( I know, horrors) I never knew they even made a ’61 DeSoto until not too long ago. Got to say, while I like late 50’s and 60’s Mopars, the ’61 DeSoto was a bit odd, but I still like it. ( That dash is fantastic) Just another marque in “car heaven” now.

  5. In Annapolis, MD All the Mopar Dealers sold Plymouths along with their main brand, Chrysler, Dodge and Desoto. When Desoto quit the car business so did the dealership Cecil Knighton Desoto on West St.

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