Story and photos by Angelo Van Bogart
Lance Beaulieu’s 1948 De Soto Custom convertible wasn’t so much a barn find as a corn crib find.
For two years, Beaulieu, a Dubuque, Iowa, resident, had been looking for a good 1948 De Soto convertible, which is a little like looking for a needle in a hay stack. Just 8,100 were built during the De Soto S-11 model run from 1946-1948, and attrition has significantly reduced the population.
“I have been a National De Soto Club member for years, and I grew to like them from going to [De Soto] conventions and admiring their body lines,” Beaulieu said. “I think that is how everyone finds the one they like… and that’s what happened to me.”
About five years ago, Beaulieu found his car in an online auction. The Maryland seller was the original owner, but passed away before Beaulieu picked up the car. The man’s son completed the sale and was able to share the history of the uncommon De Soto.
“The son that handled the transaction showed us pictures from when he was a baby with his mother holding him in front of the car — her name was Thelma Louise,” Beaulieu said.
As far as Beaulieu can tell, the convertible was spared any wild Hollywood “Thelma & Louise” road trip experiences, although the family did regularly road trip in it. Annual winter trips to Daytona Beach, Fla., helped keep the De Soto solid and from becoming a pig in a poke. There was just one rust hole in the trunk and some surface rust on the 70,000-mile car. The De Soto was sold to Beaulieu because it had been parked and unused since 1961, and the extended storage time, and the fact that a corn silo isn’t the best place to corral a car, meant the De Soto still needed a full restoration.
“I think he wanted it to go to a good home,” Beaulieu said. “He was just trying to trim everything back at the farm. That was his main goal: that somebody would restore it. So I think he was happy in a way.”
Shortly after the car was shipped to Iowa, the restoration kicked off. Beaulieu placed the car in the competent hands of Dave Bartsch in Stockton, Ill.
“When he got the car, he had it all apart in one week,” Beaulieu said. “He’s a one-man operation, and it took him two years to restore the car right down to the frame. He’s very diligent and focused.”
Good parts availability and the De Soto’s complete state helped ease its restoration along. However, there were still challenges in the car’s rebirth, namely in its grille.
“It hadn’t been ever touched, so we had to rechrome everything,” Beaulieu said. “There are about 60 pieces that had to be rechromed, because the copper was coming through the chrome.”
To bring back the shine to the toothy grin, Beaulieu hired AIH Chrome of Dubuque to replate the grille and other shiny bits. Due to the number of chrome parts on the De Soto, and the many fine indentations of the grille, the plating bill was the most expensive part of the restoration, but one of the most satisfying.
New parts were also available to bring the De Soto back to its correct off-the-assembly-line condition, from the correct parchment vinyl upholstery to new springs, brake parts, six-cylinder engine components and parts for the Fluid Drive transmission.
“It has Fluid Drive, and there’s a special gear in there,” Beaulieu said. “Roberts Supply in Massachussetts furnished those parts, and Midwest Transmission completed the work.”
Since the completion of the restoration, the De Soto has received a first price in De Soto Club judging three years in a row at conventions in the 1942-1948 category. Although Beaulieu’s De Soto is a postwar model, it’s logical that it would be grouped with the final prewar model, the flip-up 1942 De Sotos.
For 1942, the S-10 De Soto — and the rest of the Chrysler line — featured many new styling features, most visible in the new fenders. The De Soto was perhaps the most futuristic of the new offerings, having looked outer worldly from the use of its novel crank-open headlamp doors above its wide grille. The grille was comprised of vertical S-shaped bars that grinned from one restyled front fender to the other across the face of the car.
More massive wraparound bumpers curved around the front and rear fenders, and rectangular parking lamps were mounted in the front fenders. The upper grille bar was trimmed with a center ornament on the nose, and also wrapped around and down the front fenders. Standard equipment on base Deluxe and upgraded Custom models included Autolite ignition, hydraulic brakes, concealed runningboards, a larger-bore “Powermaster” six-cylinder engine now displacing 236.8 cubic inches with 115 hp, and key lock front doors. Custom models also had bolster-type upholstery, “Air Foam” seat cushions, dual electric wipers, front and rear door arm rests, and a folding rear seat arm rest on sedans, limousines and broughams. War armament production meant all automobile production had to end by Feb. 9, 1942, cutting model year production to just 24,771 De Sotos.
When all automobile manufacturers geared back up for automobile production for the 1946 model year, De Soto was probably the most changed. Since the 1942 model year was abbreviated, and there was too much demand for cars and too little time to employ many changes, manufacturers simply warmed over their 1942 models. However, De Soto dropped its crank-open headlamp doors for more conventional headlamps, which significantly changed the personality of the first postwar De Sotos, the S-11 Custom and Deluxe models of 1946-’48. Otherwise, the first postwar De Sotos were mostly based on the short-lived 1942 line. Major changes for 1946 included new hoods, grilles, wraparound bumpers, front fenders that blended into the doors and redesigned rear fenders. Engine displacement remained unchanged from the 1942 models at 236.8 cubic inches, but horsepower nominally dropped to 109 units.
There were additional changes in exterior trim and interior design. Burl and grain garnish moldings, large full-vision steering wheels and chrome trim and fine appointments graced the new De Sotos for the new world. An interesting speedometer changed colors in increments: green to 39 mph, amber to 50 mph and red at higher speeds.
As on other Chrysler Corp. cars (besides the Town and Country woodies), the De Soto’s body structure was entirely steel with separate chassis/frame construction.
Additional postwar developments included Safe Guard hydraulic brakes and a permanent Oilite fuel tank filter. Rust-proofing now protected even the interior structure of the body.
Series identification was provided by nameplates found on the sides of the hood. Standard equipment on 1946 Deluxes included dual sun visors, dual two-speed electric wipers, directional signals with parking brake light, cigar lighter, illuminated glove box with lock, dual outside door locks, map light, counter balanced luggage compartment lid, illuminated luggage compartment, right and left front door armrests, interior door locks and bumper guards front and rear.
Demand ran strong for all cars in the immediate postwar period, so all established automakers spent few resources on running model changes from 1946 to 1947 or even 1948, and Chrysler Corp. was probably most famous for this practice; its 1946 models cannot be told from its 1948 models, except by the trained eye of an enthusiast. Chrysler Corp. acknowledged the lack of change by maintaining the same series number S-11 from 1946-’48, but had changed the series number year to year before the war and thereafter.
It’s just as well that Chrysler’s styling was little changed from 1946-’48. It gave the postwar Chrysler Town and Country woodies, Plymouth woodie wagons, De Soto and Chrysler three-passenger coupes and all good-looking Chrysler convertibles a longer lease on life. Their quality and reliability are legendary, and it’s no surprise that Beaulieu’s example lasted so many years, and in the hands of one family.
“Every car has a story and you know how it is, you want to keep the soul alive and the car with its soul,” Beaulieu said.
Although Beaulieu has sent the family pictures of the restored De Soto with no response, we’re sure they’re pleased that he’s maintained the open-air soul of the De Soto, just as they first remember it in 1948.
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