DeSoto History: The Rise and Fall of an American Automobile
Named after the famous Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto (who is most known for discovering the Mississippi River in 1541), Chrysler Corporation officially introduced DeSoto Division in 1928 with the 1929 model year (some early cars are titled as 1928's since some states used the build year). However, Chrysler Corporation was actually not the first company to use the "de Soto" name badge. From 1913-1916 there was a little-known de Soto car company located out of Auburn, Indiana, that was of no relation to the later brand our club celebrates.
When Chrysler Corporation introduced the DeSoto Division, it was the fourth in a corporation that at the beginning of June was a total of one: Chrysler. In June, the low-priced Plymouth was introduced and by early July, DeSoto was announced as a low-mid priced car. Before DeSoto was officially launched in August 1928, the Dodge Brothers brand was purchased and added as the third division of Chrysler Corporation. DeSoto was then added as the fourth division and was entered above Plymouth and below Dodge. In 1933, Chrysler Corporation switched the positions of Dodge and DeSoto to put it directly under Chrysler where it stayed until the end. When the Imperial was separated as its own division in 1955, that made DeSoto the middle of the portfolio.
Unfortunately, not long after Imperial was split off as a separate division, there was a lot of expansion among the other divisions. Dodges could be ordered as fairly fancy cars and inversely Chrysler was offering cheaper cars, built on the shorter (by 4 inches) Dodge chassis. DeSoto, stuck in the middle, had also grown on both ends with the addition of the Firesweep and Adventurer models, which now left a lot of overlap and inter-company competing. It's believed that this was the primary cause of the brand discontinuation, perhaps being finalized with a 1958 model year that saw sales down almost across the board and thoughts of compact cars being the new direction as they entered the '60's (which ended up not being the trend).
In September 1958, DeSoto held a huge 30th anniversary celebration, the great DeSoto Driveaway event. It was declared "DeSoto Week" in Detroit and dealer representatives from all over the country came in to town for multiple days of entertainment and presentations on the new 1959 models. The end culminated with all of the attendees driving new 1959 DeSotos back to their respective dealers. While obviously it was a great reason to celebrate (30 years), one can't wonder if it wasn't perhaps to put on a strong face after the decision to discontinue the brand was internally made. In 1960, gone were the Firesweep and Firedome models, as well as the convertible and station wagon offerings, even though the bodies were shared with the already-produced Chrysler cars. By this time, rumors flew about DeSoto's future and even though Chrysler Corporation denied them until almost the end, the writing was on the wall for anyone to see. When the 1961 version was introduced in late 1960, there was no model designation, only two body types (2 and 4 door hardtops) and only one engine offered. The assumption is they had tooling and part orders to make a limited number of cars that they were already committed to when the decision came and when those were built, that was the end. On November 30, 1960, the last DeSoto rolled off the assembly line.
Many DeSoto owners were loyal to the brand and switched over to Plymouths, Dodges, and Chryslers thereafter. DeSoto enjoyed many years known for their engineering and quality (1957 being excepted with quality) and was a good car to many families. For as much as the car was needed in 1928 and for as much as it saddens us as enthusiasts that the brand is gone, it was a smart business move to discontinue it when they did. Perhaps it's better this way to go out in style, rather than to watch it turn into some of the cookie-cutter lumps that today's cars are.