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By Ben Selby
During the 1930s, a civil war was raging from within Detroit City. This war was not over ideologies or religion, but for ultimate supremacy of the American car market. The parties involved were “the big three,” namely Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.
Walter Chrysler saw that his company needed a middle brand to bridge the gap between the entry level Plymouth and higher end Dodge and Chrysler products in the company. The answer was DeSoto. Created in 1928, the brand quickly filled that void in the market.
Named after Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, the De Soto brand sought to take on the likes of Studebaker, Willys, Hudson and of course, GM’s mighty Pontiac division. It didn’t take long after the brand’s introduction for Chrysler to reap the rewards.
Chrysler’s dealer network saw a steady increase in sales and the first DeSoto, the Six, available as a Model K four door or an open top CK generated plenty of revenue for Chrysler. In fact, by the end of 1928, DeSoto dealers had swelled to 1500 agencies.
In 1929, the onset of the Great Depression, people’s buying habits changed and this saw the entry level Plymouth brand become more popular. DeSoto carried on and from 1930, the DeSoto Six was joined by the DeSoto Eight featured here.
As you might imagine, the Six and the Eight got their names by how many cylinders sat under the bonnet, or the “hood” if you prefer. The Eight was first released in 1930 and featured a 200ci straight eight with 70hp. For 1931, the L-shaped eight pot was increased to 220ci in size and featured a boost in power to 77hp and torque at 179Nm. The Eight also featured a three-speed manual transmission.
The Eight sold well alongside the Six. By the mid-thirties, DeSoto models would venture away from traditional box shaped four doors and incorporate Chrysler’s forward thinking “airflow” bodies. After the Second World War, DeSoto would enter into its heyday with the models of the fifties, such as the Firedome and Adventurer, proving to be very popular. A DeSoto even served as the pace car for the 1956 Indy 500.
However, the US economic down turn of 1958 saw sales drop dramatically which ultimately led Chrysler to retire the DeSoto brand in 1961.
This 1932 DeSoto Eight has seen 11,581 miles since it arrived in New Zealand as a new car. Since being re-vinned it has been restored and refurbished to exceptionally high standard. World renowned Christchurch based classic car restoration company, Auto Restorations, was brought on board to reach the high standard.
The combo of cream and auburn paint and those white wall tyres give it a real shine. It also makes a stark contrast to the black and darker tones we often associate with American four doors of this era. Inside you get a cabin of the utmost simplicity.
Hop inside and you quite literally sink into those plush reddish bench seats. Remember that old couch at your grandmothers? Well, its pretty much like that. As a result of this, you have to ensure you sit as high up as possible to keep your mitts on that rather large three spoke steering wheel. That said, you certainly have time to admire the quality and finish of your surroundings. Auto Restorations certainly know their craft.
Fire up that lazy straight eight and thing settle down into a baritone chug as eight cylinders work slowly in unison. It’s a good engine note too. The three-speed manual box is a long throw and requires some degree of assertiveness when going through the gears. Being a pre-war offering, power steering wasn’t exactly a thing, so wrenching that wheel from lock to lock at crawling speed can be character building.
Then again, once you are moving the DeSoto Eight will happily sit at the national limit all day long. The spongey-ness of that bench seat will have you bounding around a bit but that’s all part of the fun. The Eight is a happy car. You won’t be going anywhere quickly, but those wanting to enjoy a throwback to the days of simple pre-war motoring, it’s great.
While I didn’t get the chance to take it on SH1 or any motorway for that matter, zipping around the back roads between Pegasus and Leithfield allowed the DeSoto to really get into its stride. Its easy to imagine crisscrossing dusty roads in Kentucky or Alabama in a car like this, maybe with some moonshine in the “trunk.”
DeSoto’s time under the giant that was Chrysler was brief, but thanks to models like this Eight, the cars which the name of Hernando DeSoto still have a cult following today.