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AUTO-BIOGRAPHY

1958 DeSoto: Fins and All

Beginning Of The End

1958 DeSoto
1958 DeSoto

In 1958 the DeSoto brand was barely hanging on financially. During the previous year all production facilities for the Firesweep had been moved to the Dodge plant, becoming nothing more than a re-badged Dodge Royal. That same year the Firedome, Fireflight and top-of-the-line Adventurer models continued to be stand-alone cars but were built side-by-side with Chrysler Windsors and New Yorkers. It was important to DeSoto's management that the company stay solvent at least through 1959, as that would mark its 30th year as an automaker.

By June of 1958 over 5 million Americans were out of work, the highest number since 1941. The deep recession which started that year would eventually be a significant factor in the demise of DeSoto, as well as Ford's new Edsel, Studebaker and Packard. DeSoto's sales were down by nearly two--thirds, far worse than the competition, and the lowest output since 1938. Overall, Chrysler's production was cut in half and the corporation dipped to 11th place in the industry. Imports were beginning to show up on American roads, accounting for a little over 8 percent of auto sales, as the first Datsuns and Toyopets arrived on the west coast.

Oldsmobile's High-Value Competition

Chrysler positioned the DeSoto lineup to compete with the likes of Mercury, Buick and Oldsmobile. In fact, DeSotos were priced a few hundred dollars below the other entries in their market segment and that made them a good value (remember, they were nearly identical to the higher-priced Chrysler Saratogas and New Yorkers).

The most notable styling detail on the DeSotos was the stacked taillights. The rear fin was large, of course, and the tail lamp lenses were arranged three-high up the back of the fin. This styling cue served to make the fin look much larger than it really was. Up front, quad headlights rested deep under "eyebrows" formed by the front fenders. Along the side was an accent area formed by body-length chrome strips. Many models were painted a contrasting color inside these strips ("two-tone") and a few - done locally by dealers - sported "three-tone" paint jobs, with one color at the bottom of the car, a second inside the chrome strips and a third on the top. Pinks. mauves and greys were the popular colors of the day.

All of this style could be bought for about $2900 (base Firesweep); $3200 for the Firedome and $3700 for the Fireflite. Adventurers came in two-door hardtop and convertible models only, and were powered with a twin four-barrel carbureted version of the 361 cubic inch V8. Convertibles, in all model ranges, cost $300 more. In all cases these cars could be had for $100-$500 less than comparable GM, Ford or Chrysler models. A hundred bucks was a lot of money in 1958.

Windshields And Hemi's

Chrysler's now-famous hemi-head V8s were about to be shelved for some years. They were expensive to build and costs were of primary concern. Instead of the hemi head design, a simpler - and cheaper - wedge-head configuration was adapted. Replacing the 345 c.i.d. hemi was a 361 c.i.d. engine which not only saved the company $74 over the old hemi but was nearly 50 pounds lighter. All DeSoto transmissions were Torqueflite 3-speed automatics with dash-mounted push buttons

DeSoto (and Chrysler, for that matter) featured what was called "Double compound, triple-curve Control-Tower" (huh?) windshields for 1958. Not only did it wrap around to the door opening, it also curved up and over, partly into the roof area. It was a lot of glass area, which meant lots of heat and lots of visual distortion when looking out. It did look 'jet-age', though, and anything that looked like a fighter plane had a good chance of selling.

Not Enough And Too Late

1958 DeSoto
1958 DeSoto

It didn't really matter whether the DeSotos were a good value or not. Sales, and therefore production, just kept slipping away. 1959, the company's 30th anniversary year, saw dismal sales and 1960 dropped that figure by 43 percent. Finally, on November 18, 1960, the announcement was made: DeSoto production would be halted at the end of the month.

Perhaps the DeSoto would have done better if it had not shared its models with Chrysler, but that's unlikely. It would seem that there just wasn't a large enough market for upper-middle range cars back in the late '50s. That's what killed the Edsel and, 40 years later, the Oldsmobile. Both were perfectly good automobiles, it's just that there weren't enough people to buy them.

Today

DeSoto cars have never become major players in the collector-car world, but there is a stable - if not small - following. As time goes on, however, these cars are showing more and more appeal, due almost entirely to their outrageous styling. Convertibles generally are worth twice what the hardtops bring. Sedans are worth 50% less than hardtops, in keeping with most collectible cars.

Restored or excellent condition convertible Adventurers will set you back $31,000-plus, while the hardtops can be had for $19,000 (the same value as an equal-condition Firedome convertible). Firesweep hardtops can be found for $8,000. Restoration project cars in all models range from about $400 to $2000, making them great candidates for hobbysts, as long as all the trim parts are there.

We think they look really cool!





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