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1955 Firedome 4-door sedan
Having owned my DeSoto for over thirty years, I have been asked many times: “Why a DeSoto?” Owning a DeSoto was no grand plan; my grandfather or father didn’t own one when I was a kid. In fact, my grandfather didn’t own a car and the cars my dad drove when I was growing up were Rambler station wagons!
Why, then, a DeSoto? I was always fascinated by cars of the ‘50’s. Having been born in 1957, I really don’t remember them when new. However, growing up in a working class neighborhood I fondly remember the then used cars of the ‘50’s owned by our neighbors and friends. There were ’59 Fords, ’57 Mercurys, ’55 Plymouths, ’53 Chevys and, of course, my dad’s ’57 and ’61 Ramblers.
So it was a given that when I went shopping for my first car, it would be a car from the fifties. This was in 1973 in Cleveland, Ohio, when I was sixteen. I looked at several cars in my price range at the time (less than $1,000) and finally settled on a ’56 DeSoto Firedome sedan owned by the proverbial little old man. I was naïve and uninformed at the time and bought a car that was loaded with body filler and had a rusty frame. This was not unusual for old cars in the north at the time, as winters were harsh and fifties cars did not survive the salty roads without body and frame cancer. The DeSoto ran good so I kept it for a few years before selling it to some young neighbor counter-culture types.
I did without an old car for several years and got married to Pat in the meantime. The itch was still there to own an old car from the fifties and by 1982 I had accumulated enough “wealth” to again go shopping for another old car. This time, I was bound and determined to get a car with a rust-free, solid body. My shopping list was pretty wide open, however, the flashier and more fifties-like the better. After scanning Hemmings Motor News for several months, I put together a road trip to three states to go old car shopping. On the trip, a friend and I looked at a ’57 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, ’56 Chrysler Windsor Spring Special, ’59 Dodge Custom Royal hardtop, ’55 Dodge Coronet and my current ’55 DeSoto Firedome. All the cars had some “issues” but I finally settled on the DeSoto.
It was not “love at first sight”, however. The DeSoto was owned by an eccentric MoPar collector named Don Rook. He lived outside the Allentown-Bethlehem area of Pennsylvania and had a pole barn and surrounding field full of Imperials and Chrysler 300’s. Most were parts cars or restoration projects, but he had some rare cars including a ’56 300B with factory air and a ’55 Imperial limo. The DeSoto was just a nice old MoPar that Mr. Rook had purchased in the area and then parked in the barn. The ad I answered in Hemmings was over one year old and the car probably hadn’t moved in at least that long. When we first looked at the DeSoto it was in the pole barn covered with dust and dirt, sitting on two flat tires with a dead battery. Apparently, Mr. Rook didn’t think I would really make the visit from Cleveland to look at the DeSoto.
Despite the poor appearance and lack of electric power, the DeSoto certainly had prospects. It showed only 32,000 miles and all indications were that those were the original miles. The body was very straight and it did not show any evidence of major body or frame repair. The interior, dash and plastic steering wheel were all in very good shape. It was well equipped with Powerflite automatic, power steering, radio, heater, etc. The price was reasonable and negotiable given the condition.
The DeSoto was the last car we looked at on this day and we were planning to stay overnight nearby, so I told Mr. Rook to get the car running the next morning and we would talk. He charged the battery overnight and to my surprise the old Hemi fired right up after a long slumber. It ran good and Mr. Rook assured me that it drove fine with no transmission or brake problems. Everything he had told us to this point was accurate, so I had no reason to doubt him. We talked price and I made a conditional offer based on the remaining cars to be inspected on the trip. As nothing else measured up to the DeSoto, I called Mr. Rook upon returning home and told him we had a deal. I had transportation arranged and with Mr. Rook’s assistance had the car trucked from eastern PA to northern OH.
When I got the DeSoto home it needed lots of TLC. I spent the next couple years cleaning, polishing, refinishing and servicing many areas of the car. I joined the WPC Club (WPC = Walter P. Chrysler Chrysler Products Club) and became active in a local WPC Club chapter. (This was before the inception of the National DeSoto Club.) It was at a WPC chapter meeting that a club member told me the seats in the DeSoto were covered with seat covers. Intrigued, I removed the covers to reveal the original cloth material somewhat dirty but otherwise OK. The original vinyl bolsters, however, were cracked in many places. I contacted a local upholstery shop frequented by the WPC Club members and agreed to have them replace the vinyl around the original fabric. I removed the seats from the car and delivered them to the upholstery shop. After several weeks, I got a very discouraging phone call from the shop: Their guard dog had decided to chew on my DeSoto seats. The fabric was now ruined! The shop agreed to make me satisfied if I could find suitable material.
I spent the better part of the next year searching for original seat upholstery, finally settling for a very close match with ’55 Plymouth upholstery fabric. Meanwhile, I stripped the rest of the interior and cleaned and refinished areas needing attention. With the seats refinished and installed, it was time to drive the car. By this time, however, our son Matt was born and the DeSoto was driven only occasionally.
Over the years, the car traveled with us as my employer relocated us from Cleveland to Asheville, North Carolina, and then to Louisville, Kentucky. Each time, the DeSoto was driven to its new home without any mechanical problems. Everywhere we have lived, the DeSoto has allowed us to join car clubs, meet new friends and take part is some fun activities. For example, while in Asheville, another National DeSoto Club member encouraged me to host the DeSoto Club’s national meet in the area. With a lot of help from my fellow Carolina members, we held a great meet in some spectacular settings including having our DeSotos parked in front of the Biltmore House.
Today, the DeSoto has over 53,000 miles showing. That’s 2,1000 miles accumulated in 35 years, or less than 600 miles a year. Much of the mileage has been in the past few years, as I now drive the DeSoto as often as my work schedule and weather will allow. If there is no Club activity or car show to attend, I use it to run errands in the neighborhood. I’ve found that frequent exercise benefits an old car as well as an old person!
Now in Louisville, we’ve become quite active in a local AACA chapter and take the DeSoto to several chapter functions each year. We’ve taken the car on several overnight tours and to my surprise last year won the “Oldest Car” award for a trip to southeast Kentucky. I can remember when a ’55 was one of the newer cars at a car show. More proof that – like the DeSoto - I’m getting old! Having owned the DeSoto for now over thirty years, I could not imagine ever selling it. Acquire other cars, yes, but sell the DeSoto, not likely.
Here is a photo from the 2018 convention in Branson.
Here is a night time photo taken summer 2019 at a homeless fundraising event in downtown Louisville, KY. The night lighting sure hides the many flaws of a 40+ year old paint job!