Collection in action: DeSoto


In with a bang, out with a whimper. DeSoto could have been one of America’s leading brands until something dodgy took place…

The Roaring Twenties was quite a time in America, a period of dramatic social and political change. The nation’s wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, helping to turn the population into a ‘consumer society’ albeit one that did not automatically appeal to everyone, but as the end of the decade approached the flapper era was in full swing. For American motor manufacturers, it was a time of rapid growth to meet the increasing demand for personal transportation, and the Chrysler Corporation was busy in this regard. On 4 August 1928, Walter Chrysler created Plymouth as an affordable family car brand to take on the likes OldsmobileBuickMercuryStudebakerHudson and Willys in the mid-price class. Around this time, Chrysler also bought Dodge to bridge the gap between the Chrysler products, which was also partly what DeSoto was aimed at doing…


The story goes that Walter created DeSoto to frighten the bankers controlling Dodge into selling the company to him, but by the time Dodge was acquired DeSoto was on the production line, leaving Chrysler with two house brands competing with each other, with DeSoto the marginally lower-priced of the two. However, this duplication would ultimately be the undoing of DeSoto…


Before I go any further, what’s in a name? For some reason there are a number of ways this American brand’s name gets spelt, but DeSoto is the accepted correct version. That it often gets split into De Soto (as stamped on an under-bonnet plaque) is because the brand is named after a Spanish explorer and conquistador named Hernando de Soto. Why? Well, in the early-1530s De Soto is credited with leading the first European expedition into Peru (which he helped conquer) and Central America, and for discovering the Mississippi River. In the 1920s Chrysler was launching new brands to fill niches in the marketplace and was adopting an ‘Americana’ approach and must have felt DeSoto fitted the bill without perhaps taking cognisance of Hernando’s warring tendencies. But the official reason is a matter of conjecture. As an aside, in 1913 a de Soto (note spelling) was launched in Auburn, Indiana but the company closed down the following year.


Back to the future. I doubt even Walter would have anticipated the impact DeSoto had when it hit the showrooms. Upon the introduction of the 2 866 cm3 six-cylinder Series K on 6 August 1928, Automobile Topics described the brand as “Most emphatically it is not just another model to be dragged along by the tractive effort of Chrysler advertising, prestige and popularity”. By the end of the year over 34 000 cars had been shipped to a1 500-strong dealer network, and in its first full production year – 1929 – no less than 81 065 cars were sold, eclipsing the record set by Graham-Paige the previous year and setting one that would last for 30 years.


As became fashionable in America for many years, auto manufacturer model years began months before each New Year’s Day and DeSoto was well ahead of the game when the 1930 model year began in July 1929 with a practically unaltered Series K. In January 1930 it was joined by a 3 404 cm3 eight-cylinder Series CF, then in May the range was increased further with the introduction of a Series CK – dubbed a Finer DeSoto – powered by a 3 110 cm3 version of the cast-iron-block, in-line, L- head six-cylinder. Its looks were little altered from the Series K, save for a deeper radiator shell and cowl headlamps mounted on top of the front fenders. Now standard with Delco-Remy ignition, the Series CK’s engine delivered 45 kW at 3 400 r/min and 163 N.m of torque at a low 1 200. It was mated with a three-speed sliding gear gearbox with a conventional clutch and shaft drive to the semi-floating rear axle with a 4,7:1 final drive ratio. Lockheed hydraulic brakes were fitted all round.


As a brief aside, 1930 was a landmark year for DeSoto. During the calendar year the company produced 34 889 vehicles and in the process built its 100 000th car. A total of 35 267 sales were registered and it was ranked America’s 15th largest auto maker. 1930 model year production was 32 091.


Affectionately known as ‘butternut’ due to its main bodywork colour, FMM’s two-tone, two-door, four-seat 1930 Series CK roadster certainly has an eye-catching appearance, a far cry from the often monochromatic paint schemes of many of its rivals. The motor swings into life with ease and as soon as I pull away it is soon apparent why the car was so popular – it’s lively performance. Having recently driven a number of popular cars from the period, the 1 300 kg DeSoto’s ‘get up and go’ personality was something of a revelation by comparison. Steering, pedals and gear change are all relatively easy to operate and such is the engine’s torque that reaching and maintaining a comfortable cruising gait is fuss free. For sure, the brakes need a firm shove but nothing to ache calf muscles. I did not try the car’s optional freewheel function as I was too busy enjoying the drive.


DeSoto was clearly onto a winner but then suffered a major setback in 1933 when Chrysler reversed the market positions of the DeSoto and Dodge in the hope of boosting the latter’s sales. As a result of its elevated status, the following year DeSotos sported Chrysler’s new, advanced streamlined Airflow body style approach, but on the shorter DeSoto wheelbase “the design was a disaster and was unpopular with consumers”. Without any other, more traditional-looking models to offer the public, DeSoto struggled until the following year when Chrysler’s conventional Airstream look was introduced.


With his permission, the Cole Porter song It’s De-Lovely was paraphrased in DeSoto’s advertising campaign between 1955 and 1957, the lyrics revised to say “It’s delovely, it’s dynamic, it’s DeSoto”. But the melody could not prevent DeSoto production ceasing on 30 November 1960, with more than two million vehicles sold during the company’s lifetime. After a record-breaking beginning, it was a sad end to a brand that got lost in the Chrysler empire.