In the 1920s, the American automobile industry advanced in leaps and bounds. To feed a market that was insatiable, new marques and new models seemed to arrive almost weekly, while engineering advancements, the establishment of a national highway system and feats of speed and endurance were making the automobile not only commonplace but essential to American life
At the start of the 1920s, Ford still ruled the roost with their Model T, but by the end of the decade, the T was gone and Ford faced a broad field of challengers. And as tastes changed, so too did aspirations; buyers were no longer satisfied with mere “transportation”, they wanted speed, style, luxury and more appointments in their cars.One of the new marques that arrived to feed the American motorist’s appetite for ‘more’ from their automobile was DeSoto.
Walter’s Weapon. Like Cadillac, DeSoto took its name from an early American explorer. In this case, it was Hernando DeSoto, the Spanish explorer who had explored through much of the south-eastern US and discovered the Mississippi River in the 1500s. The car that would bear the explorer’s name owes its existence to Chrysler; specifically Walter P. Chrysler, who had learnt the automobile game during periods with Buick and Willys-Overland, and gained a reputation as a “Mr. Fix-It” in the industry for his ability to take dejected companies and return them to profit and prominence.After years of running other car companies, Chrysler produced the first car bearing his own name in 1924, which was successful enough to sow the seeds of a multi-marque empire aimed at challenging General Motors.
Plymouth was the first arrival in June, 1928, followed almost immediately after by Dodge. Imperial had started as a prestige Chrysler model, but would soon become its own marque as a challenger to Cadillac and Packard. Chrysler also branched into commercial vehicles in 1929 with Fargo.The Dodge connection is an interesting one, as automotive legend has it that Chrysler created DeSoto primarily as a “threat” to Dodge. Chrysler had been looking to buy Dodge for some time (since at least 1926, according to some reports), primarily for their extensive manufacturing capabilities. The Dodge Brothers had made a fortune as component suppliers to Ford before launching their own car in 1914, so they had the foundries and casting capabilities that Walter Chrysler needed to feed his growing empire.
The story goes that, if Chrysler couldn’t buy Dodge (the banking company holding the controlling stake were reluctant to sell), he would build a similar model and drive them out of the marketplace. When Dodge’s owners finally agreed to sell to Chrysler in July, 1928, development of the DeSoto – Dodge’s supposed rival - was so far advanced that Chrysler introduced it anyway, with the new marque making its debut that August.The first ‘Series K’ DeSoto was a mid-sized, mid-priced automobile, built on a 109.75-inch wheelbase and powered by a 174.9 cubic-inch L-head six-cylinder engine producing 55hp (41kW) maximum power and 110 lb/ft (149Nm) maximum torque.
A three-speed sliding gear transmission was standard, along with a conventional clutch and shaft drive to the rear wheels. On primary specs alone, the DeSoto seemed unremarkable, but the car also included rubber engine mounts, an oil filter, four-wheel hydraulic brakes and Lovejoy shock absorbers as standard; features that were not only advanced for their time, but also extra cost or unavailable on many other marques.
In an approach that manufacturers would replicate years later, the first DeSotos also came with a choice of extra-cost options, including wire spoke wheels, special paint, auxiliary lighting, single and dual sidemount spare wheels, special upholstery and a cigar lighter.This approach enabled the starting price to be kept low, with a 2-door roadster, like the example pictured, listing for US$845 on debut, with the most expensive 4-door Deluxe sedan priced at US$955. That pricing placed the DeSoto between Plymouth and Dodge in the new Chrysler family.
Record Breaker. The DeSoto’s combination of style, size, performance and price proved a hit, with 81,065 examples delivered in its first 12 months on the market: a record for a new model that eclipsed previous debut sales records for Graham-Paige (1928), Pontiac (1926) and even the first Chryslers from 1924. Part of the reason for this stellar start can be put down to Walter Chrysler’s ‘Midas Touch’ in the industry. When he announced the DeSoto in May, 1928, Chrysler’s proven record of success saw more than 500 dealers signed up immediately, with that number expanding to 1,500 across the US before the year’s end. That meant DeSoto had a solid dealer network in place even before the first cars were delivered.
DeSoto’s debut year record would stand unchallenged in the US for more than thirty years before the new Ford Falcon eclipsed the mark in 1960.After such a strong start, DeSoto was hit by the Great Depression, like all other automobile manufacturers. Sales nosedived to less than 33,000 in 1931, but thanks to being part of the Chrysler empire, DeSoto weathered the storm better than others, particularly the independent manufacturers.
DeSoto Down Under. Exactly how many first-year DeSoto Series Ks came to Australia is unknown, but Garry Rainsford of Rainsford’s Collectable Cars in South Australia says he’s sold a few over the years and he describes the Series K DeSoto as one of the most solid and reliable cars of its era. This particular unit, like virtually all ’29 DeSotos with a long history in Australia, was locally bodied. The actual bodybuilder is unknown, but it’s highly likely the two-door tourer with rear dickey-seat was produced by T.J. Richards & Sons in Adelaide. Holden is another possibility, as they continued to body other brands, even after they became General Motors’ sole Australian bodybuilder in 1924.
Unfortunately, the early history of this car is unknown, but it is believed to have spent most of its life in South Australia, including the last 30-odd years. Garry says the car was fully restored in South Australia approximately 25 years ago and wears the same paint, along with the mechanical refurbishments and modifications, from that resto.
In 1993, the car took part in the FIVA (Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens = International Federation of Historic Vehicles) Word Rally in Tasmania, with a plaque on the dash denoting its participation. Being in that global event may go some way to explaining the unusual colour scheme this car wears – maybe the past owner wanted to “Aussie” it up a bit with a green and gold colour scheme to impress the internationals! Mechanical modifications made to the car to enable easier and safer participation in that event (the next FIVA World Rally for Australia is coming in 2021, by the way) included a modern inlet manifold and complementary carburettor, with other practicalities, like indicators and 12-volt electrics, fitted to make regular use not only safer, but also less of a chore for the driver.
These modifications don’t impact the essential character of the car, and actually make it an attractive proposition for newcomers to vintage motoring. There’s nothing particularly challenging involved in driving this DeSoto, as the pedals follow the conventional layout and the 3-speed gearbox is a familiar H-pattern. There are a couple of little tricks, though, like the floor-mounted starter button and the knobs for choke and spark advance-retard on the instrument panel.
That instrument panel is simplicity personified, with a speedometer/odometer on the far left and ignition on the far right, these flank the aforementioned knobs, as well as gauges for fuel level, amps and oil pressure. Also making vintage motoring simpler is a light switch on the steering wheel, with high-low beam operated by a button on the floor. A stalk has been added to the steering column for the indicators, while the windscreen wiper has been upgraded with an electric motor, instead of the vacuum operation it would have had originally. The previous owner has also added a modern radio under the dash, so in-car music is available, should you want it.
Garry says the car drives well and is a breeze in 60km/h traffic, but even with the induction upgrade, the straight six tops out at around 85km/h. The upholstery, folding hood, wheels and tyres are all in good condition, but with some paint chips and a few other blemishes, the car isn’t concours. However, as everything is there (including the original carburettor and manifold, which are included in the sale), it could be brought up to that condition with few hurdles.As an example of the marque’s very first (and very successful!) year, this DeSoto is already attractive for its historical significance. It’s rare, too, but the modifications and updates make this car practical and a great starter machine for the vintage automobile rookie.
Currently in stock with Rainsford’s Collectable Cars in Keswick, South Australia, this 1929 DeSoto Series K roadster is ready to enjoy and would be ideal for club rally use. Contact Garry Rainsford on (08) 8293 3191 for details. https://www.justcars.com.au/cars-for-sale/1929-desoto-series-k-roadster/JCMD3328447
Credits-Words: Mike Ryan. Photos: Courtesy of Rainsford’s Collectable Cars