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The DeSoto (sometimes De Soto) was a brand of automobile based in the United States, marketed by the Chrysler Corporation from 1928 to 1961. The DeSoto logo featured a stylized image of Hernando de Soto.
The DeSoto make was founded by Walter P. Chrysler on August 4, 1928, and introduced for the 1929 model year. It was named after the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. Chrysler wanted to enter the brand in competition with its arch-rivals General Motors, Studebaker, and Willys-Knight, in the mid-price class.
Shortly after DeSoto was introduced, however, Chrysler completed its purchase of the Dodge Brothers, giving the company two mid-priced makes. Had the transaction been completed sooner, DeSoto never would have been introduced.
Initially, the two-make strategy was relatively successful, with DeSoto priced below Dodge models. Despite the economic times, DeSoto sales were relatively healthy, pacing Dodge at around 25,000 units in 1932. However, in 1933, Chrysler flipped the marques in hopes of boosting Dodge sales. By elevating DeSoto, it received Chrysler's streamlined 1934 Airflow bodies. But, on the shorter DeSoto wheelbase, the design was a disaster and was unpopular with consumers. Unlike Chrysler, which still had more traditional models to fall back on, DeSoto was hobbled by the Airflow design until the 1935 Airstream arrived.
Aside from its Airflow models, DeSoto's 1942 model is probably its second most memorable model from the pre-war years, when the cars were fitted with pop up headlights, a first for an American mass-production vehicle. DeSoto marketed the feature as "Air-Foil" lights "Out of Sight Except at Night".
After restrictions on automotive production were ended, DeSoto returned to civilian car production when it reissued its 1942 models as 1946 models, and without the hidden-headlight feature. Until 1952, DeSoto used the Deluxe and Custom model designations.
DeSotos sold well through the 1956 model year. In 1957, they, along with all Chrysler models, were redesigned with Virgil Exner's "Forward Look". Exner gave the DeSoto soaring tailfins fitted with triple taillights, and consumers responded by buying record numbers of the car. The 1957 DeSoto had a well integrated design, with two variations: a full-size hardtop Sportsman coupe body based on the corresponding Dodge and a larger four door hardtop and conventional sedan based upon the chassies of the Chrysler models. Between the two levels there were variations in the front end design, primarilly around the headlight area, with the Sportsman using two dual beam headlights and a less aerodynamic front end and the larger models using the then popular quad design. As was conventional in the era, subseqent years within the typical three year model block were distinguished by trim, bumper, and other low cost modifications, typically by adding bulk to bumpers and grilles, tailight changes, color choices, instrumentation and interior design changes and often addtional external trim. The two 1957 designs were close to ideal in their balance of design elements, and the 1958 model was not at all an improvement (especially in the front bumper design), reflected by the fact that sales of the 1958 DeSoto were 60 percent lower than those of the preceding year—DeSoto's worst year since 1938. The 1960 model, almost identical to the re-styled Chryslers, saw sales down 40 percent from 1959 figures.
By the time the 1961 DeSoto was introduced, in the fall of 1960, rumors spread that Chrysler was moving towards terminating the brand; these were fueled partly by the reduction of model offerings for the 1960 model year.
For 1961, DeSoto lost its series designations, a move reminiscent of Packard's final lineup. And, like the final Packards (often derisively called Packardbakers), the final DeSoto was of questionable design merit. Again, based on the smaller Chrysler Windsor wheelbase, the DeSoto featured a two-tiered grille (each tier with a different texture) and revised shark-nosed taillights. Only a two-door hardtop and a four-door hardtop were offered. Cars were trimmed to 1960 Fireflite standards.
While the decision to discontinue DeSoto had been made earlier, Chrysler warehouses, by the time of the announcement, contained several million dollars in DeSoto parts, so the company ramped up production in order to rid itself of the otherwise unusable parts. Without internal support and dealer interest, and lacking in customer confidence, the DeSoto was discontinued on November 30, 1960, forty-seven days after the 1961 model year was announced. Chrysler and Plymouth dealers, which had been forced to take possession of DeSotos under the terms of their franchise agreements, received no compensation from Chrysler for their unsold DeSotos at the time of the formal announcement. Making matters worse, Chrysler kept shipping the DeSoto backstock through December 1960; much of this was sold at a loss by dealers eager to be rid of the cars themselves.
The DeSoto name survived on a line of heavy trucks built overseas, particularly in Turkey.
Despite being a successful mid-priced line for Chrysler for most of its life, DeSoto's failure is due to a combination of corporate mistakes and external factors that were beyond Chrysler's control.
First, the 1958 recession, which seriously affected demand for mid-priced automobile makes, hurt DeSoto sales, which failed to recover in 1959 and 1960. Because of development costs, the marque had generated enough in sales to support its dealer network and production costs. As DeSoto's numbers sank lower in 1959 and 1960, it was apparent to Chrysler that DeSoto, as a brand, lacked consumer backing for future development.
Chrysler's dealer network also had an effect on the termination of the DeSoto brand name. Following World War II, Chrysler had a large number of dealers that were dualed with two or more Chrysler makes, with Plymouth–DeSoto and Chrysler–Plymouth relationships being the most common. However, as Chrysler attempted to spin Plymouth off into stand-alone dealerships, existing dealers chose higher-volume Plymouth dealerships over the slower-selling DeSoto brand, leaving the marque with a weakened dealer network and fewer outlets to sell its cars.
But it was Chrysler's own in-house brand management, which pitted each of Chrysler's five marques against one other, that did the greatest damage to DeSoto and, ultimately, to the company itself in long-range product planning. Rather than carefully managing the market relationship to specific price points for all consumers, as General Motors had done so successfully until then, Chrysler allowed its own divisions to develop products targeting markets covered by their own sister divisions. Dodge was, by far, the most successful when it introduced the Dodge Dart, the advertisements for which compared the Dart's advantages to the "C" car, the "F" car, and the "P" car—Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth. While Dart sales soared in 1960, they did so at the expense of Dodge's sister division of Plymouth, which lost sales to the Dart.
When Chrysler marketing showed that consumers were likelier to buy an entry-level Chrysler than a DeSoto, Chrysler, seeing the opportunity, introduced the Chrysler Newport in 1960, as a 1961 model, selling more than 45,000 units in its first year alone.
While various collectors claim to own the last DeSoto sold to the public, DeSoto's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) system was altered in its final days, showing that the "final" DeSoto could have been produced on any number of dates in the last half of November 1960.
- DeSoto Adventurer (1956–1960)
- DeSoto Airflow (1934–1936)
- DeSoto Airstream (1935–1936)
- DeSoto Custom (1946–1952)
- DeSoto Diplomat (Export)
- DeSoto Deluxe (1946–1952)
- DeSoto Firedome (1952–1959)
- DeSoto Fireflite (1955–1960)
- DeSoto Firesweep (1957–1959)
- DeSoto Powermaster (1953–1954)
- DeSoto Series K-SA (1929–1932)
- Desoto Series SC-SD (1933–1934)
- DeSoto Series S (1937–1942) (S-1 through S-10, except the Airstream and Airflow)