100-day makeover: Restoring a ’57 De Soto for the auction block

This 1957 De Soto Firesweep is Barrett-Jackson lot No. 1107 and will cross the block around 8 p.m. on Jan. 18.

By Angelo Van Bogart

In 2008, Old Cars Weekly reader Randy Guyer of Hopkins, Minn., had his first taste of the auction experience when he found himself the winner of a 1958 Dodge Regal Lancer two-door hardtop at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale event.

“We just went there for the fun of going there,” Guyer said. “I had no intention of buying anything, but [the Dodge] came up on the block and we were sitting in the audience, trying to guess what the car would sell for. The car didn’t go as high as I thought, and I thought I might just throw out a bid and see what happens. Well, guess what happened?”

The Dodge had been restored almost 30 years earlier for Jess Ruffalo, a Wisconsin-based collector, by Bob Schmidt of Smitty’s Classic Cars in Branson, Mo. Following Ruffalo’s passing, the car was offered at the 2008 Barrett-Jackson auction.

Auctions were nothing new to Schmidt or Ruffalo. Together, the duo restored several finned Mopars to a high standard. Some, like the 1958 Dodge, were restored for Ruffalo’s collection. Others were restored for sale at auction.

Since Ruffalo’s passing, Schmidt has continued the auction tradition, and with success. In 2011, he sold a 1956 De Soto Fireflight convertible at Barrett-Jackson for a world-record sum of $335,000. The following year, Schmidt restored a 1956 De Soto convertible trimmed as a never-built Adventurer drop-top. It sold for $170,000.

“Probably, I have taken at least 35-40 cars to Barrett-Jackson over the last 25 years, and I have sold $5 million worth of cars there in that time,” Schmidt said.

It’s an impressive figure, but Schmidt is too humble to be bragging about such stats. Restoring cars is a business that helps him pay the bills, but it’s also one he loves so much that he also uses toward charity efforts, as well as for fun. This year, he restored a 1957 De Soto with two other hobbyists, one of them the current owner of that 1958 Dodge Regal Lancer that Schmidt restored so long ago.

After Guyer purchased the 1958 Dodge from Ruffalo’s collection, he became acquainted with Schmidt, its restorer. During the 2012 Iola Old Car Show, Guyer and Schmidt sat down with fellow finned car collector Mike Meier of Virginia, Minn., and the three decided to restore another finned car — a 1957 De Soto Firesweep. This De Soto would be brought back from the brink for the sole purpose of being offered during the January Arizona auctions, as Schmidt and Ruffalo had done in the past.

“It’s primarily to have some fun and see what happens,” Guyer said. “I guess that Dodge just got my interest going in these finned Chryslers, and then I met guys like Bob Schmidt and Mike Meier and I got hooked into the “finned Chrysler fever.’”

Meier owned the De Soto. Schmidt has the skills. Guyer covered the bills. Together, they would see the De Soto restored in about 100 days.

“We decided to do a complete rotisserie restoration and take it to the Barrett-Jackson car auction in Scottsdale in January of 2013, and see if we could have some fun,” Guyer said.

The 1957 De Soto just prior to its 100-day makeover.

The 1957 De Soto Firesweep

According to Guyer, the 1957 De Soto was resting “uncomfortably” in Meier’s field. As a rare 341-cid Hemi-powered Firesweep with a manual transmission and upscale Fireflite trim, the car was worthy of restoration.

“We felt that this car had the potential to give a good return on investment,” Guyer said. “That generally [requires] a car that is rare, desirable, attractive to most people and restored to a very high standard.”

The 1957 De Soto line included the top-of-the-line Adventurer, then the Fireflite and Firedome followed. At the bottom of the line was the new-for-1957 Firesweep, which was manufactured by the Dodge division and utilized the front clip of a Dodge, but with definite De Soto-like front bumper and trim to the De Soto body. The Firesweep had a shorter wheelbase and less fancy trim and normally received a 325-cid Dodge polyspherical-head engine rated at 245 hp with a two-barrel carburetor. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, but very rarely seen; most buyers chose the PowerFlite or TorqueFlite automatic transmissions. Power steering, power brakes, radio, heater, and air conditioning were just a few of the many options offered for Firesweep buyers. Aside from the rare 341-cid Hemi V-8 mated to a manual transmission, the group’s 1957 De Soto had very few options; it lacks even power steering and power brakes.

The clock began ticking fast on the three men. According to Guyer, photos of the completed (or nearly completed) car had to be submitted by the end of November in order for the car to appear in the auction catalog to maximize its exposure and promotion. Guyer wasn’t able to bring the car to Schmidt’s shop in Branson until August, giving the crew just 100 days to restore the car to meet the auction company’s deadline.

Schmidt and two men from his staff dug into the restoration immediately. Body and paint work were handled by another shop, and while the car was away, they tackled the chassis and drive train.  In less than 30 days, the rolling chassis was restored down to the wheels and suspension.

Two other 1957 De Sotos were secured for spare parts, which helped keep the restoration moving. However, outside influences still kept the men from meeting Schmidt’s original deadline for himself.

“I told him I would get it done in 90 days,” Schmidt said. “The only reason I didn’t get it in that time is I had a couple vendors screw me up.”

Schmidt says most of his frame-off restorations take 1,000 to 1,500 hours, and the De Soto landed at about 1,200 hours. Those 1,200 days were condensed within the 100 days originally figured, landing the car in the auction catalog.

To make the fun also pay off, the bidding will have to hit six figures, thus setting a world-record price for a 1957 De Soto Firesweep two-door hardtop.

“I got a figure in my mind and what I am hoping it will bring,” Schmidt said. “You never know up there.”

Regardless of what happens, that stressful 100 days was all about cars and friends, not just potential “sold” prices.

“It was really fun,” Schmidt said. “It’s fun working with somebody like Randy and Mike, people that truly love old cars. That’s what’s cool about this one.”

Enjoy a few more “after” photos:

 

What is it worth? To find out the value of a De Soto and thousands of other classic cars, check out our 2013 Collector Car Price Guide.

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9 thoughts on “100-day makeover: Restoring a ’57 De Soto for the auction block

  1. Tom Murray

    Hello,
    I was just wondering who restored your steering wheel? I recently had sent a steering wheel to Garys Steering Wheel Restoration out east. Just wondering

    Thanks for your reply, Tom

  2. Steve Jensen

    No such thing as a “Dodge DeSoto”. This was a DeSoto, even if it used Dodge front sheetmetal. Its either a Dodge, or its a DeSoto. The hierarchy at Chrysler was: Imperial, Chrysler, DeSoto, Dodge and Plymouth in that order. DeSoto was ABOVE the Dodge. The top 3 shared a basic body, and the Dodge and Plymouth shared a basic body which was smaller. There was no Dodge DeSoto.

  3. Marshall Larson

    I have never heard of a DeSoto being referred to as a Dodge DeSoto. I would bet there has never been any advertising or literature using that terminology just as those GM brands that used Chevrolet engines did not use terminology such as Chevrolet Cadillac. Do not make up descriptions that don’t exist and may also be offensive.

  4. larry

    1200 hours @ shop rate of $75-100/hour or more plus all the materials and chrome it has to have cost near $175,000 to do that kind of work, wow that is one expensive restoration. But boy is it pretty. After paying the B-J sales comissions good luck on breaking even or making a buck, I wish you the best and hope you have a reserve.

  5. Tony Chervinsky

    Jan04/13, 20:30 E.T.,
    We own, since 1979, a 1959 Windsor, Ont. built, Dodge Custum Royal 2 D.H.T., with a 361 cu.in., 2 bbl, no power steering or power brakes.I think it has around 55,000 miles. was driven untill 1989 and put in our garage. In the next year, hope to start a restoration, hopefully, body off restoration. It is painted light brown and cream. We have 2 California fenders, 2 nos inner fender, A set off new rocker panels, A recromed fronf bumper, have been picking up various grill pieces.We have 5 new www tires, Would like to find nos rear quarter panel. The upholstery needs to be redone. It wil cost xxxx amount of dollars to restore, it is only money !. In 1960, I bought a 1958 Dodge Custum Royal 4 ds, I think it had a 354 cu.in. Traded in a 1954 Olds. 98 4ds. I became a MOPAR freak in 1946 when my Aunt and Uncle came from Boston to the farm in Nova Scotia, with a 1939 Chrysler Royal 4ds. My first new car was a 1967 Barracuda F.B. 273 cu.in. 4bbl,4 speed. We now own 2 1969 Barracudas and 2 1968 Barracudas, One is, after 19 years, not on road yet. a 318 cu.in., Hurst 4 speed, it is a California Special, Did not know they existed. Hope this is the year it is on the road. Yours, in MOPARS. Tony, the MOPAR MAN.

  6. Denise L. Clumpner

    I believe Angelo is discussing two separate cars, one a 1958 Dodge Regal Lancer which is discussed earlier in the article as an unplanned purchase by Mr. Guyer. That purchase fanned an interest in finned cars, with the end result being the 100 day restoration of a 1957 DeSoto Firesweep (pictured). There are several other vehicles mentioned along with references to Bob Schmidt, but unless I am missing something, I do not see the words “Dodge” and “DeSoto” appear together. Maybe we could read more carefully before writing scathingly critical emails?

  7. Ron Kuehn

    It would be nice to see some of the in-process restoration photos. The DeSoto has a unibody, right? Sooo, how did the restorers take the body to a shop and continue to work on the frame. What amount of frame is there to work on? By the looks of the rust around the headlight area it must have required a vast amount of skilled body work, metal fab, etc, or did the guys just get new fenders. If the headlight area is rusted (and it looks like the rear wheel opening have rust as well) I’m thinking the floors were gone as well. Is this whole thing some sort of scam? Did they take a picture of one car and then go find a nice solid DeSoto and repaint it?

  8. Angelo Van Bogart

    For those wondering, the DeSoto sold for $145,000 ($159,500 with buyer’s commission), and the owner is very happy with the outcome. We will have more follow-up in the Feb. 28 issue.
    -Angelo Van Bogart

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