by Dave Duricy. Used by permission. For more photos and DeSoto information, see Dave’s excellent DeSotoLand web site.
Radical change: Airflow and Airstream
Wind tunnel testing began in 1927. Chrysler engineers discovered that contemporary automobiles moved more efficiently through the air with the body reversed. Hence the “backwards” DeSoto Hartz drove. The revelation prompted an ambitious quest for the ideal aerodynamic body that would save gasoline and increase speed. The search would inspire a fundamental re-evaluation of car design, and bring true modernity to motoring.
The result was the 1934 DeSoto Airflow, DeSoto’s boldest adventure.
“Goodbye Horseless Carriage,” shouted DeSoto advertising, “Here’s the New Airflow DeSoto!”
Airflow styling said, “Woosh!” Blown away were free-standing headlights, radiator shells, side-mounted spare tires, and bobbed tails. In their place was a svelte, envelope body whose lines slithered fore and aft in a relaxed arch. Most radical was the front, whose waterfall grille let the wind pass so that the car may go faster.
Sleekness was only part of the package. The DeSoto Airflow concealed a revolutionary chassiswith the interior moved 20 inches forward. Correspondingly, the engine compartment was placed between rather than behind the front wheels. Not only did this new configuration cradle passengers within the wheelbase, but it reversed traditional weight distribution for a front end bias, eliminating fore and aft pitching and reducing rebound motion by 20%. The result was a smooth “amidships ride.”
It’s an arrangement most new cars have followed ever since.
DeSoto promotions liked to say that an Airflow passenger could comfortably read his newspaper while the driver navigated a dirt road at 80 mph. DeSoto was so confident of Airflow’s on-road stability that hand straps were purposefully eliminated from the cabin.
The interior was among the most luxurious and safest in the world. Beautifully upholstered seats set in chrome frames offered the industry’s first comfortable six passenger capacity. Ventilation was outstanding due to airspace beneath the front seats, elaborate dual action windowsin the front doors, twin cowl vents and crank out windshields. Being cool and comfortable meant the Airflow driver could better appreciate the ergonomically angled steeringwheel that allowed shoulders to relax.
Airflow design propelled DeSoto to 32 stock car records. Airflow scorched the flying mile at 86.2 miles per hour, averaged 80.9 miles per hour for 100 miles, 76.2 miles per hour for 500 miles, and 74.7 miles per hour for 2,000 miles. For gravy, Harry Hartz drove a DeSoto Airflow 3,114 miles from New York to San Francisco. The DeSoto averaged 21.4 mpg, with a total gas bill of $33.06.
With the Airflow, Walter Chrysler made the cover of Time. The January 8, 1934 issue captioned the industrialist’s portrait with the catchy line, “He made the buggy a bugaboo.” Inside, a curiously staged interview asked Mr. Chrysler of the Airflow, “Do you think the public is ready for anything so radical?”
Mr. Chrysler responded, “I know the public is always ready for what it wants… and the public is always able to recognize genuine improvement.”
True, the public did recognize that the DeSoto Airflow was a genuine improvement – in Europe. The DeSoto Airflow was a hit overseas. The Monte Carlo Concours d’Elegence presented DeSoto with the Grand Prix award for aerodynamic styling. European manufacturers such as Peugeot, Renault, Volkswagen, and Volvo went so far as to copy the Airflow look for their production cars. More remarkable is that in distant Japan the first mass produced Toyota was styled to resemble the 1934 DeSoto.
DeSoto promoted the Airflow hard at the 1934 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago. Babe Ruth, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Ethyl Merman all made various celebrity appearances on behalf of the car, too. The American driver, however, wasn’t buying.
1934 DeSoto deliveries declined 47% and only 13,940 Airflows were built for the model year. DeSoto fell from 10th to 13th place in the industry.
One Airflow brochure called style a state of mind. Clearly, customers were thinking of something else.
DeSoto acquiesced to the public’s dislike for the Airflow and fielded a conventionally styled and engineered Airstream companion series for 1935. Each succeeding model year, the Airflow itself wore a more pronounced art-deco nose trying to disguise its unorthodox profile. In 1936, the Airflow line was canceled.
DeSoto’s conservative turn was rewarded. Sales nearly doubled for 1935 thanks to enthusiasm for the Airstream, its replacement. DeSoto was given its own production facilities in 1936 and sales climbed again by more than ten thousand cars. On the strength of a handsome 1937 re-styling, production more than doubled to 81,775, moving DeSoto from 13th to 12th in the industry. For the first time since 1933, DeSoto outsold Nash.
1939 – the Hollywood Style DeSoto
By 1939, DeSoto was ten years old. Parent company Chrysler Corporation was now the second largest automobile manufacturer in the United States, perhaps the world. Chrysler had won the position thanks in large part to the strength of its mid-priced cars like DeSoto. Time had come to flaunt the spoils.
“The extent of design changes and improvements in the 1939 DeSoto,” said a 1939 press release, “indicated the lengths to which the Chrysler Corporation has gone to stimulate new car buying. As a part of Chrysler Corporation’s $15,000,000 program for new dies and retooling of the 1939 models, several million dollars were spent on the new DeSoto body alone.”
Maybe that’s why DeSoto called the new look Hollywood Style. One ad claimed that “Ginger Rogers drives Hollywood’s smartest car – DeSoto!”
“I like action!” Ginger supposedly said. “I get it in my DeSoto.”
Ginger didn’t need any help, but the 1939 DeSoto was a looker. Those slippery curves that had made the Airflow distinctive were back with a new finesse. Sedans were fastbacks. All models featured curvaceous fenders blown taught by an unfelt wind. Up front was a tall prow suitable for an ocean liner, and enough chrome to blind on-coming drivers.
A new, haute couture Custom Club Coupe by Hayes wore the new styling best. The Club Coupe featured enlarged side glass, narrow doorpillars, and a unique roofline distinguished by a two-piece rear window and a central character line.
Price for the Custom Club Coupe was a lofty $1,145, and production was just 264 cars.
Engineering had not been neglected. New for 1939 was “Handy-Shift”, a gear shift lever mounted on the steering column, which controlled a “Syncro-Silent” three-speed transmission with optional overdrive. Moving engine parts now had “Superfinish” which increased partlife, improved efficency, and reduced oil consumption.
More light-hearted advances were the “Safety Signal” speedomater that changed color with speed, and the adjustable front seat that raised while it moved forward.
The 1939 was well received. 54,449 were built.
Rocket bodies; the face of DeSoto defined for 14 years
In 1941, DeSoto found the styling hallmark that would define the make for all time. New “Rocket” bodies wore beautiful waterfall grills. The frontal theme would remain a DeSoto trademark through 1955. Indeed, it would be the toothy DeSoto grins of the early Fifties that motorists would recall most fondly.
1941 also brought an engineering feature famously associated with DeSoto, the semi-automatic transmission. New to the options list was Simplimatic, DeSoto’s version of a four speed transmission shared with Chrysler. DeSoto promotions happily informed prospective customers there was “no need to shift or use the clutch, You’re in a new DeSoto!” Simplimatic came close to a true automatic in driver operation. Close enough, in fact, that DeSoto used the transmission with minor improvements through 1953.
To get underway, the driver used the clutch to shift the gear lever into “high.” Then, he merely pressed the accelerator. If conditions permitted, the driver eased his foot from the gasaround 14m.p.h. allowing Simplimatic to shift from 3rd to 4th. Coming to a light, Simplimatic shifted back down independently and the Fluid Drivecoupling made sure there was no stalling and no need to clutch. As DeSoto stressed, the operation could be performed hundreds of times with a minimum of effort.
If a Simplimatic DeSoto owner wished to make a quick get away, he used the clutch to place the lever in “low.” Stomping the accelerator produced substantial engine noise and tire spin, which continued as long as the operator could bear. He then lifted his foot and let Simplimatic shift from first to second. To cruise comfortably, the clutch was pressed in and the lever returned to “high” where an alert Simplimatic was automatically in fourth gear. If another car was threatening to pass at a monstrous 40 mph, Simplimatic could be kicked into passing gearwith a jab of the accelerator. The 100 hp six, however, would be exhausted at 90 mph.
DeSoto logo is believed to be Hernando DeSoto’s coat of arms (see top of page photo); it was diluted more and more until, by the end in 1961, it was reduced to the cross mark in the middle of the 1960-1961 wheelcover. A brief attempt at a different stylized logo showed up in the middle of the 1958 Adventurer wheel coverand later on the front bumper, trunk lid and steering wheelcenter of the entire 1959 DeSoto line. This is another abstract figure that looks somewhat like an eagle with a conquistador’s helmet. — Mike Sealey
Andy added: “There’s been also a portrait of Sr. Hernando against a circular ‘sombrero’ shape in the early Fifties.”
The appeal of Simplimatic and DeSoto’s new smile surely helped production reach the 99,999 cars built. One wonders what held back that extra DeSoto to make it an even 100,000.
The end of civilian car production was in sight when the New Yorker’s“Motors and Motoring” column praised DeSoto’s new 1942 Airfoil headlamp covers. The entire frontal treatment, including low-lying, waterfall grill, was described as having “a solid well-knit look.” The magazine also pointed out Chrysler Corporation’s whitewall trim rings offered in lieu of increasingly hard to find white wall tires.
Matters of style such as these became insignificant after December 7th. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States went to war.
A conquistador at heart, DeSoto enthusiastically joined the war effort. DeSoto factories put civilian production aside February 9 and commenced building Sherman tank parts, Martin B-26 Marauder fuselage sections, B-29 Superfortress nose sections, Navy Helldiver wing sections, and Bofor anti-aircraft gun parts. On the home front, a ’42 DeSoto toured the country selling war bonds.