Automotive and Travel Historian
My 1950 DeSoto:
The Car DeSigned With Grownups in Mind
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.
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.
In 18 years, the DeSoto and I have covered nearly
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
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.