Car of the Week: 1957 Desoto Sportsman

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

As Jimmy Buffet might say, “there were fins to left, fins to the right.” The year was 1990, and Jeff and Sue Baker were at a large car show and were surrounded by big 1950s big-fin cars that we being spotlighted at the event.

“My wife said, ‘Boy, those are cool,’ and after that I was always kind of looking for one,” recalled Jeff, a resident of Franklin, Wis. “Then I finally saw this one for sale in the Milwaukee Journal, and it was only $3,500.”

The car seemed to have a bit of a mysterious past, but the 1957 DeSoto Fireflight Sportsman four-door hardtop was a fantastic surviving specimen with a paltry 16,900 miles on the odometer. Baker knew he had found the car he had been looking for.

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“It was on a big, fancy estate on a lake and the caretaker had it and he had to get rid of it because the owner of the property didn’t want him to keep it in his garage anymore,” Baker said. “I was just looking for a cool car with fins and this came up and it’s like, well, it’s a four-door, but when I saw what it was, I thought I couldn’t pass this up.”

Baker became the latest in a short succession of owners who have all treated the gorgeous DeSoto gently. He has added 9,000 miles to the clock in the past 23 years, bringing the total to 22,000 miles and change. Actually, Baker has added more miles a year than the car had traveled in two of its previous stops. “The guy I bought it from had bought it at an auction. He said it was estate auction,” Baker noted. “He said some kid was bidding on it that wanted the car just for the motor. He was going to put it in a hot rod. He couldn’t see that happening, so he bought it. He saved it! [laughs] It was going to be torn apart for a hot rod.”

Before that, the Sportsman had been in hibernation for many years, although the duration of its slumber isn’t clear. “Yeah, it sat for a long time out in Heartland [Wis.] area. I think I am the fourth owner, and one of the other owners had died and it sat in a garage for many years,” Baker added. “The original owner had it until at least ’68 and he had low mileage on it. That’s [11] years and it had under 13,000 miles.”

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The original owner was a man named Edwin Keuhn, of Madison, Wis., who traded in his 1951 DeSoto and got $1,117 towards the new Sportsman four-door on Aug. 7, 1957. The total bill came to $4,617. A nice list of accessories and options accounted for $620 of that total, including: power steering ($99), power brakes ($40), tinted glass ($35), undercoating ($35), dual antennas ($16), dual headlamps ($35), and the cool — and rare — steering wheel clock ($15). The Fireflite’s “Group 1” option package also included a dual exhaust, heater, radio, windshield washer and rear speaker.

“Some of these cars you can find with power and air conditioning and everything, but this one is pretty basic,” Baker commented.

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And, of course, there was those fins. They were a big part of Virgil Exner’s Forward Look design that debuted across the Chrysler landscape in 1955. It’s hard to argue there were any better fins in the Mopar history book than the 1957 Desotos, with their racy, shark-like fender design and tri-tower tail light arrangement.

Other Changes at Desoto for the 1957 model year included new bodies that were lower and longer; new side trim and color sweep treatments; a large new bumper grille combination; and a new Firesweep series, which was built by Dodge Division. Standard features included Torsionare torsion bar front suspension, Oriflow shocks, Safety-Lock door latches, Total Contact brakes and Power-Tip spark plugs.

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Under the hood, the Fireflites featured the 341.4-cid, four-barrel Hemi V-8, which churned out 295 hp. Push-button automatic transmissions were standard on the Fireflight and Adventure series offerings, which were the top two tiers in the Desoto lineup, ahead of the base Firesweep and Firedome lines. The Fireflight menu included the Sportsman four-door hardtop, a four-door sedan, two-door Sportsman hardtop, convertible and six- and nine-passenger station wagons.

Edwin Keuhn’s lovely Spice Brown and Sahara Tan car was one of 6,726 Sportsman four-doors built for 1957. Baker considers himself an unlikely owner of such a car. He wasn’t necessarily a tail fin guy previously, and four-doors weren’t his preference either. “I mostly had muscle cars,” he says. “I had a Coronet R/T, some Challengers and stuff — mostly muscle cars.

“I figured I’d just take this one home and have some fun with it. And I’ve still got it.”

The Desoto definitely needed some freshening up and attention when Baker dragged it home, but with so few miles on the car it definitely wasn’t worn out, and it wasn’t rusty. The brakes were seized and the paint had lost a little luster. For the most part, though, the Fireflite was ready to get back on the road.

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“I went through it mechanically and did whatever it needed – you know, brakes, tune-up and that stuff. The motor has never been apart,” Baker said. “The carburetor has never even been apart. It just runs fine. Plugs and wires are about all it’s ever needed. Oh, and at the time I did have to put a water pump in, but that’s it.”

“A year or two later we did a paint job on it in a friend’s garage. It’s not a professional paint job, but it still looks good.”

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Baker had the bench seats in front and back redone after tracking down some of the original peach and charcoal upholstery material. “I was lucky enough to find the original seat material. Some guy in Texas had it,” he said. “The driver’s seat had some rips in the cloth part. And he sold me enough material to redo all the seats. I took it to an upholstery shop and they fixed them all up.  It’s the original style and the material looks perfect.”

The Fireflite was so authentic, it even had the 34-year-old original tires on it and the original spare in the trunk when Baker brought it home for the first time. “It has the original spare yet and I have two of the original tires. I had the other two but they went bad from the heat in the garage where I had them stored. They bowed and bulged.”

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For all its head-turning looks, Exner-inspired “Foreward” thinking and a healthy does Hemi brute force in the hood, the Desotos were a startlingly fast track to extinction by 1957 — arguably the company’s high-water mark when factoring in sales success and the memorable machines the model year produced. With 117,474 car’s built, DeSoto ranked 11th among U.S. automakers, but that figured plunged sharply for 1958 — a difficult year for the American auto industry.

The Fireflite model lasted only through 1960, when it was relegated to bottom-tier status as only the Fireflite and Adventurer lineups remained. In November of 1960, Chrysler pulled the plug altogether on the DeSoto brand, leaving only a handful of 1961 models for dealers to try to unload.

There’s something cool about owning an orphan today, especially a big, beautiful late-‘50s cruiser with high-rising fins and oceans of chrome. They tend to attract lots of attention and make for enjoyable Sunday afternoons in the summer. The Bakers’ Fireflite shines on all accounts.

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“There is so much chrome. You don’t realize how much chrome there is until you start cleaning the car. It’s everywhere. There is no plastic on these cars,” Jeff chuckled. “And it just floats down the road. It rides really nice. It’s got plenty of power because the Hemi has almost 300 horse in it. It’s got plenty of power to move this heavy car. It rides like a dream. You go down the road and you don’t feel any bumps.

“I’ve had it quite a while. I’ve bought other cars in between there that have come and gone, but this one I’ve held onto. We’re just going to keep enjoying it.”

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