The roaring 1920s saw the popularization of jazz music, professional sports, and women's liberation, to name but a few pillars of modern culture. Among the car companies that weathered the first tumultuous years of the automotive industry, launching new brands was clearly another popular Jazz Age activity. General Motors alone bore four marques (La Salle, Marquette, Pontiac, and Viking) between 1926 and 1929, and during the same period Marmon (Roosevelt), Reo (Wolverine), Studebaker (Erskine), and Willys (Falcon-Knight and Whippet) followed suit.
Chrysler was late to the party, having not been founded until 1924, but by 1928, it, too, was ready to expand. In the span of one short month, its brand lineup exploded from one to four. On July 7, 1928, the Plymouth marque was introduced, slated to battle Chevrolet in the entry-level market. On July 31, Chrysler Corporation purchased Dodge Brothers, a proud company that had struggled since the deaths of its founding siblings in 1920. Four days later, the De Soto Six signaled another nascent brand, this one aimed to counter Pontiac and to help establish the Chrysler nameplate as a competitor to Cadillac and Packard. De Soto was most likely conjured as a threat to pressure Dodge executives to sell out rather than face a fresh competitor, but by the time the drawn-out takeover was finally completed, the first De Sotos had already been built. The ambitious Walter P. Chrysler let the arguably now-unnecessary midlevel brand be born anyway. (So ambitious was Mr. Chrysler that he created a fifth marque in September 1928, Fargo, to manufacture commercial vehicles.)
The first De Sotos were essentially six-cylinder versions of four-cylinder Plymouths, but they still sold incredibly well, finding more than 81,000 buyers in the first twelve months. However, De Soto sales soon plummeted dramatically, and, a year after moving upmarket (above Dodge) in Chrysler's pricing hierarchy, the brand barely endured the famous failure of the futuristic 1934 Airflow. The Chrysler Corporation itself, though, grew more powerful during the Depression, to the point that it was second only to General Motors in overall sales for much of the 1930s and '40s. By the early '50s, Ford had reclaimed the number-two spot (thanks in part to its own young midlevel brand, Mercury), but Chrysler was doing well enough to justify making De Soto a highly visible and frequently referenced sponsor of Groucho Marx's popular game show, You Bet Your Life.
Americans loved television, but they were also newly hungry for horsepower, so in 1952, three years after Oldsmobile introduced its high-performance Rocket V-8, De Soto received a downsized version of Chrysler's new hemispherical-combustion-chambered FirePower engine. Although Chrysler didn't officially use the term "Hemi" until 1964, its first V-8's performance benefits were nonetheless monumental. De Soto's V-8, its first eight-cylinder since 1931, was called FireDome and was installed into cars of the same name. The FireDome lineup, which included numerous body styles, was basically a carryover design but sported a functional hood scoop to help feed the new engine. (Confusingly, six-cylinder De Soto Deluxes also wore this hood and, besides badging, looked identical.) The FireDome's 276-cubic-inch engine made lots of power for its size -- "all the power you can possibly use," noted one advertisement -- yet was designed to run on regular-grade gasoline. Motor Trend called the powerplant "the engineering scoop of the decade" but felt that it propelled "a body that's tied to the past."
Dean Greb fell in love with the body of his black '54 FireDome convertible about five years ago, when he bought it on eBay as a retirement present to himself. When he got it home, he discovered that, at eighteen feet, the car was too long for his garage. So he built another garage a few paces away and then mechanically revived the De Soto from a fifteen-year slumber.
On the cold morning of our visit, the FireDome awakes after ample cranking, with a bit of smoke and a nice burble coming from the single glasspack exhaust pipe. Compared to the capital H Hemis that would follow, this engine is quite somnambulant, accelerating the car at a leisurely pace while singing a lovely melody. You can smell the fuel pouring into the carburetors under full throttle, but few passengers would ever notice that you have it floored. The new-for-1954 two-speed PowerFlite transmission upshifts early and smoothly but refuses our requests for a kickdown. "I don't do much passing in this car," Greb shrugs.
He doesn't do much hard cornering, either. So-called No Sway Ride Control, also new for '54, shows little sign of minimizing body roll fifty-seven years later. The horn sounds like that of a large truck, which is appropriate given the FireDome's surprising height and substantial, heavy feel. The lifeless, power-assisted steering ("makes turning the steering wheel as easy as dialing a phone," boasted a TV ad) is wandery and requires lots of corrections. The ride, though, is more cloudlike than trucklike. "It rides like you're on your couch at home," Greb describes aptly. He likes to fill all six seats and cruise with his grandkids, whose generation knows De Soto's namesake -- sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto -- not as a hero but as a brutal conqueror. "He wouldn't have a car named after him these days," says Greb, a former marketing executive who worked for Jeep from 1962 until 1988 and continued in transportation marketing and sales until his retirement. In 1954, however, it was quite cool to have 3-D busts of the destructive Spaniard on the FireDome's steering wheel and hood ornament. Other design highlights include a chunky gear indicator with an exposed needle and gorgeous circular midcentury gauges.
In 1955, the FireDome received a "Forward Look" face-lift and was rendered the entry-level De Soto when six-cylinder models were dropped from the lineup. In 1956, an awesome, 320-hp, 341-cubic-inch FireDome V-8 spawned the limited-production Adventurer and briefly revived Hernando's brand. For the 1960 model year, though, the FireDome series disappeared and the Adventurer was neutered. On November 18, 1960, Chrysler announced that it would discontinue De Soto due to poor sales.
De Soto persevered through the Depression and survived after World War II, outliving most of the other brands that were born in the late 1920s. It couldn't stave off the grim reaper for as long as contemporaries like Plymouth and Pontiac, but driving a vintage De Soto today is a great way to remember the marque's legacy.
4.5-liter OHV V-8, 160-170 hp, 250-255 lb-ft
3-speed manual (with optional overdrive)
2-speed semiautomatic with overdrive
Control arms, coil springs
Live axle, leaf springs
4000 lb (est.)
189,707 (145,402 four-door sedans, 38,134 coupes, 3575 convertibles, and 2596 wagons)
$3144 (1954 convertible)
$7500-$60,000 (convertibles are priciest, long-wheelbase sedans are cheapest; station wagons and Sportsman hardtop coupes are particularly desirable)
It's a midcentury marvel that you can share with five friends and is a great-sounding, smooth cruiser available in six different body styles. Vintage purists might prefer the split windshields of the 1952 edition. Styling was tweaked for '53 and '54 models, which have a different body with more chrome and fender lines extending the length of the car. The '52s and '54s have nine-tooth grilles; '53s have eleven teeth.