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Automotive and Travel Historian

My 1950 DeSoto:
The Car DeSigned With Grownups in Mind

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There I was, photographing a beautiful 1959 Dodge D-500 two-door hardtop in Santa Cruz, California, for one of my books. The Dodge is a glittering, fancy, finned, Space Age car. I told the owner that the Dodge sure made my 1950 DeSoto look plain-Jane, and he said, "Kind of, but your DeSoto is a wholesome, honest car."

It's true. The DeSoto is not pretending to be an airplane or a spaceship. Other than being a club coupe with a more forward profile, it's not pretending to be a sports car. The DeSoto comes from that last moment when the auto industry marketed cars to grownups.

I hated teenagers even when I was a teenager. My parents were old enough to be my grandparents, and that gave me an appreciation of maturity. My wish to be surrounded by grownups wasn't always healthy. I was very unhappy in high school because I wanted it to be Harvard. Even though that wasn't realistic, I've been looking for an enclave of grownups all my life, but sadly, immaturity rules American culture. Geritol-swilling rebels on loud Harley-Davidsons, with their white ponytails flying in the wind, abuse the eardrums of everyone around them in their last gasp before age and death overtake them. Grown men with children put loud glass-pack mufflers on their pickups, desperately trying to invoke a hotrod image as they watch their teenage years and perceived freedom slip further into the past and as they salute and say "Yes, dear" to every demand their wives make.

I didn't realize it at the time, but this distaste for immaturity had everything to do with my selection of a 1949 Dodge Coronet club coupe as my first old car when I was 17 years-old in 1983. I had the Dodge for six years, and in that time, I had to learn about and diagnose the semi-automatic transmission with no help, and I had to figure out how to perform the miraculous magic trick of getting the master cylinder out from under the floor for a rebuild. I got some bad advice on my first engine rebuild, and I literally gave the Dodge away.

I went through a variety of cars -- a '55 Chrysler Windsor, a '63 Valiant convertible, a '60 Plymouth Fury -- but I really missed the Dodge. I found the DeSoto in 1990 in very worn and weathered condition, but it felt like a solid car. It felt like a car that could very well be the best car I've ever owned.

I rebuilt the engine in 1992, but the machinist did a poor job, and I had to do it again in 1995 and hired a different machinist. This machinist left wrist pins loose all through the engine, and I rebuilt it for the last time in 2001. The frustration was enormous, but the car always seemed worth it. The DeSoto was a car no one wanted, and the DeSoto name had been thoroughly lampooned on the incredibly silly "Happy Days" TV show. Again, teenage opinions seem to be what count.

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I lived in the Mojave Desert in southern California from my birth in the 1960s until 2008. The DeSoto gave me my first look at America. After many trips over the length of California, I crossed the Arizona state line in 1993 to cover the Route 66 Fun Run for a magazine I was working for at the time. A year later, the DeSoto took me on my first cross-country trip. At the age of 27, I crossed the Rocky Mountains and entered the Midwest for the first time at the Nebraska state line. I knew there was something special about Nebraska, and I always had the feeling I would live here eventually.

I saw the Mississippi River for the first time through the DeSoto's windshield in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I saw the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the Missouri Ozarks. On subsequent trips, I've seen the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mississippi swamps, the Appalachians, Yellowstone, the Oregon Cascades, the Columbia River, and Ohio River. I've seen nearly half the states in the U.S. from the driver's seat of the DeSoto.

On several occasions, I've driven the DeSoto on 15-hour dead runs-stopping only for gas. Chrysler got passenger comfort right in the pre-1957 era. The DeSoto does not have power steering, but it doesn't need it. On a good set of radial tires, the DeSoto steers with ease and certainty. The steering gear was badly worn, and it was unnerving to keep the DeSoto in my lane. I found a perfect steering gear, and the DeSoto handles like a new car.

I've done all this with a drivetrain no one remembers or respects -- a flathead six, Fluid Drive, and the M-6 semi-automatic Tip-Toe Shift transmission. When I rebuilt the engine in 1992, I bought a second engine because I didn't want the car to be out of operation for a month, and the second engine was a 1953 DeSoto engine which is 251 cubic inches instead of the 1950 DeSoto's original 236. It wasn't a deliberate modification. I just bought an affordable engine that was nearby, but it did give a little more power. The one deliberate modification was changing the differential from the original 3.90 ratio to a 3.54 differential from a '48 Chrysler, which worked out so well that I installed the entire 3.36 rear end from a 1957 Dodge in 1998. This lowered the RPM 15%. The 3.36 ratio existed in the 1940s on eight-cylinder Chryslers, and the only reason Chrysler nonsensically geared down its big cars in 1949 was for a negligible amount of acceleration to compete with Oldsmobile, but circa 1950, America was building freeways, not drag strips. Competent highway-speed cruising would have made the DeSoto a lot more competitive against Oldsmobile than some tiny amount of acceleration that only a stopwatch could notice.

Between the engine and the rear end is Fluid Drive-the coupling between the engine and transmission-and the automatically shifting M-6 gearbox. Anyone who winds up with one of these cars in good condition will hear the never-ending chorus about the cars being slow. Is that why I've outrun all those expensive new cars up many mountain passes all over the country? Is that why the DeSoto gets better fuel mileage than many SUVs of equal size and weight?

Like Dynaflow Buicks, flathead Oldsmobiles, and dip-oiled Chevrolets, the 1950 DeSoto was old-fashioned when it was only three years old. Fluid Drive Chryslers went unmaintained, and they are judged today on the poor condition they wound up in. With a fresh engine and a properly adjusted transmission, they will outrun many more technologically advanced cars.

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In 18 years, the DeSoto and I have covered nearly 200,000 miles.

Why would people hold a car like this in such poor esteem? Texas artist Jerry McClanahan was the first one to give me the clue. He said, "People like sports cars and convertibles because they're precisely the cars their parents would tell them NOT to buy." Since Jerry said this, I've been a lot more alert to catching never-ending teenage rebellion in people of all ages. The DeSoto is a car grownups drove when it was new. It was never the car of youth culture, rock and roll, or cruise nights. (Cue scary music.) It was the dreaded DAD'S CAR!

Well, sorry, teenagers of the '50s, I have terrible news for you: Dad had the GOOD CAR! You had the hand-me-down economy cars your parents couldn't stand anymore, but you stood around in the high school parking lot declaring your worn-out economy cars "cool" while your dad drove around in comfort and style. After all your modifications to make your hand-me-down into a hotrod, you wound up with a car that would barely outrun your mother's new station wagon. By the mid-1950s, Mom and Dad had a lot more car than you did!

The DeSoto is filled with firsts for me. All those regions of the country I saw for the first time, and the first car I put over 100,000 miles on in the time I owned it, only to do it a second time. The DeSoto is also filled with constants. I've driven more trouble-free miles with a flathead six and Fluid Drive than I have with anything else, and I've driven more miles with a six-volt system and a generator than I have with anything more modern. As Dave Duricy once suggested, no one respects the DeSoto because James Dean didn't drive one in "Rebel Without a Cause."

I don't care. I'll continue to cross the country over and over with the DeSoto, and displaying a Nebraska plate several states away will continue to be the DeSoto's best revenge.