On 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 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 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.