I'm taking a short break from writing about jets to write about a car. It kind of looks like a jet, so I figure that's close enough.
It's a beautiful day here in Central Ohio so I pulled my 1957 DeSoto out of the garage and used it to run my errands.
I get a lot of questions whenever I park this car somewhere so I thought I'd share what driving a 1950s vintage car is like.
First a bit of history. The 1950s was a time of general prosperity and great optimism in the United States. In the 1930s nobody had any money. During WWII people had money but there was nothing to buy because all resources were directed towards the war effort. In the 1950s people had money and there was stuff to buy - and buy they did.
People especially wanted to buy cars. New housing was being built in the suburbs and new freeways were being built to get there. Every year cars got bigger, flashier and more powerful. More fins! More chrome! More horsepower! This was also the start of the two-car family. Prior to the flight to the suburbs, mom could walk or take public transportation (trolleys or buses) to run her errands. Living out in the suburbs she needed a car of her own.
In the 1950s the "Big 3" American automakers pretty much ruled. GM, Ford and Chrysler were most of the market. Nash, Hudson and Rambler still existed but they would soon merge to become perennial also-ran American Motors. A few of the old names like Packard and Studebaker were still around but they were on their way out. Imports were a rare sight.
So what was a DeSoto? I get asked that a lot. DeSoto was a division of Chrysler Corporation and sat between Dodge and Chrysler in the pecking order. In those days the car companies hoped you would become a "Ford Man" or a "GM Man" early on and stick with that division through your entire life.
This is how Chrysler envisioned it. You'd start out driving an economical Plymouth. When you started making a bit more money you'd move up to a Dodge. Got a big promotion? Move up to a DeSoto. Really making it big? Time for a Chrysler. Made it to the top? Get an Imperial. Note that Imperial was its own division back then and not a "Chrysler Imperial" as some of us remember from the 70s.
So if you were a fairly well off middle manager in 1957 you might find yourself shopping for a new DeSoto. There were three levels of DeSoto: the Firesweep, Firedome and the top of the line Fireflite. Any of these could be had as a 4-door sedan, 4-door hardtop (no window pillars), 2-door coupe, convertible or station wagon. There was also a special high performance model called the Adventurer.
A 1957 Fireflite cost somewhere from $3,500 to $4,100 depending on the options. The station wagon was actually the most expensive version. That doesn't sound like much today, but the average annual salary that year was $5,500. You could get a decent 1957 Plymouth for around $2,000.
So how did I end up with one of these things? I've been a gearhead since I was young. I've usually had one old car around for something to tinker with. I've had quite a few cars from the 1960s but I'd always wanted something from the 1950s. And not a 57 Chevy, they're like bellybuttons, everybody's got one.
I especially had a fascination for the Chrysler products of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Virgil Exner's "Forward Look". These were designed to be longer, lower and sleeker than the competition. Styling features were borrowed from jet aircraft and rockets. "Suddenly it's 1960!" screamed one advertisement.
I'll cover the usual questions:
1. No, that's not the original color.
2. No, I didn't paint it that color.
3. I have no idea why he painted it that color.
4. The correct color would have been a very attractive teal green.
So what's it like to drive? Easier than you think, as long as you remember that it's not a modern car. You put the key in the dash, which is funny because we've gone full circle on that. A lot of new cars have the key in the dash. It has a carburetor, of course, so you have to pump the gas pedal before you start it. It'll start right up if it's been driven recently, otherwise you might have to pump it several times.
It's big. You forget just how big cars were back then and a Fireflite was a full-size car back then. The interior is quite roomy. It will hold six people without anyone touching elbows. There's enough head room for a man to wear a hat (men wore hats back then).
If you forget what you're driving and try to take an off-ramp at normal speed this thing will heel over like ship in rough seas. I have modern radial tires on it but I won't be following any BMWs through the curves.
The biggest thing to remember is you don't have the brakes of a modern car. It has power brakes but they're drums. You need to give yourself plenty of room to stop.
Visibility is quite good. There's no headrest to block your rear view. Good thing too. The rear view mirrors are worthless. The ones out on the fenders are pretty much just for show. Not sure what they were thinking when they set the mirror on top of the dash. If you have anyone in the back seat it's completely useless.
This is actually the easiest car I've ever parallel parked. Despite the huge size, you can see all four corners from the driver's seat so you know exactly where the car ends.
Performance? Not as good as you might think. Sounds great on paper. 341 cubic inch "hemi" V8 with a 4-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust. The factory claimed 325 horsepower. You'd think it would be a pretty hot car.
Not really. I've dug up some old Motor Life magazines from that era. 0-60 times were around 10-11 seconds. Quarter mile in 17.6 seconds at 80 mph. Top speed was 108 mph and I sure wouldn't be brave enough to try it. The average Honda or Toyota would eat this thing for lunch today. Wouldn't even be close. It sounds great, and it will keep up with traffic, but it's no hot rod. I don't like to push the engine too hard anyways. The parts alone to rebuild it would be $1,500!
Gas mileage is 15-17 mpg. I run premium unleaded in it and I've never had any problems. I drive it less than 1000 miles a year, so I don't worry too much about the environmental issues.
It's actually useful to have around. The trunk is huge and will swallow whatever I happen to buy at Lowes. My bicycle also fits neatly in the trunk.
Mechanical parts can still be found and they're even making reproduction body parts for these things now. I was even able to find vacuum tubes to make the radio work.
Odds are you haven't seen one of these. Know why? Because they were junk! Chrysler rushed the 57 model year into production early and the workmanship on them was terrible. They leaked water like sieves even when they were new. Most of them rusted out before the last payment was made. Chrysler had great engineers and designers back then but the materials and workmanship weren't so good. A GM or Ford of that year would have been a better made car.
A front end collision in a 50's car is probably fatal. The steering column will be propelled back and probably go right through your chest. Even with the seat belts I added I'm very cautious when I drive this car. Ralph Nader was right about some things. You really wouldn't want to use one of these as daily transportation.
What ultimately killed DeSoto was Chrysler Corporation themselves. They introduced higher end Dodges and lower end Chryslers (the Newport model) that squeezed DeSoto out of its niche from top and bottom. The last model year was 1961.
Mine's what people in the car hobby call a "10 footer". It looks great from 10 feet away but get up close and you'd see rust under the paint in spots. I don't really care. It's not a show car. I bought it drive and have fun with.
And what fun it is. Driving this thing is like being your very own parade going down the road. Heads turn. Pictures get taken. Young kids go crazy over this thing. They've never seen anything like it. I once had it parked next to a Lamborghini and it drew a bigger crowd.
Best $4,500 I ever spent.