The Unmissable 1.7-Ton Monster
Immediately after the Second World War, De Soto, a long-dead Chrysler brand that produced cumbersome, unwieldy family cars with inline sixes was losing ground to the big boys – Cadillac and Oldsmobile – who had started using V8s in a race for horsepower supremacy. When Chrysler decided to put a brand-new 4.5-litre Hemi V8 that produced 160 bhp under the hood of the new Firedome, it dragged the 1.7-ton monster fro m-0-60 in 15.5 seconds. Slow today but five seconds faster than anything on the market at that time and all of a sudden, De Soto was de rigeur.
History of the De Soto Firedome
The early years of the US automotive industry were nervous affairs. Brands like Chevrolet, General Motors and Packard were elbowing their way into the market and one of the most popular methods of gaining market share was to buy the smaller marques. GM had La Salle, Pontiac, Marquette and Viking and while Chrysler came into the market relatively late on, in one calendar month in 1928, they unveiled Plymouth, Dodge and De Soto and all of a sudden it was game on.
Named for Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, the Firedome entered the showrooms in 1953.
It was a big car, and we do mean big. It could seat six in comfort and was available as a 2-door coupe and convertible as well as a 4-door sedan and station-wagon, but the big draw was the Hemi V8.
It was the first time Chrysler has put an 8-cylinder engine into a car since 1931 and although they didn’t officially use the name Hemi until 1964 – it was trademarked by Chrysler in the early 60s – the first year of production saw sales of just over 64,000. Motor Trend magazine was typically understated by reporting that the 1953 Firedome was powered by an engine with ‘high performance characteristics’.
The 1956 model versions were redesigned using Virgil Exner’s ‘Forward Look’ concept, a sleeker and altogether more aggressive feel with long hoods and short decks and for the first and only time, a De Soto was used as the Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500. The engine grew to 291 CI (4.7-litre) giving it 185 bhp and a year later, it got even bigger with a 330 CI (5.4-litre) block delivering 230 bhp. For the 1956 model year, De Soto actually outsold Chrysler.
The final version in 1958 of the now legendary Hemi V8 was a 5.9-litre unit (361 CI) with 295 bhp. It was staggering. However, by the late 50s Chrysler were struggling for sales amidst the 1958 ‘Eisenhower’ recession, bad management and rumours that the De Soto marque was going to be phased out. In 1959, the final year of manufacture, the Firedome was offered in 26 colours and 190 two-tone finishes but even that didn’t save as on 30th November 1960, the De Soto name died.
In all of its incarnations, the Firedome was a huge, classic looking cruiser that you could pack full of friends and family and it retains its charm as a legacy of a bygone era of 50s innocence.