De Soto enjoys celebrity status

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The grandfather of this 1961 De Soto’s current owner worked at the dealership
from which the car was purchased.

Story by Angelo Van Bogart
Photos by Kees Photography

The Fyke family’s 1961 De Soto two-door hardtop is more than a family heirloom, it’s something of an heirloom to the community of Jackson, Miss.

Celebrity status

“Dr. Fyke’s grandfather developed and managed Westland Plaza, which was the largest shopping center in Mississippi in the 1960s,” said Mike Martin, who recently preformed a nut-and-bolt restoration on the Fyke family’s De Soto. “He ran that place out of this red-and-white De Soto and a lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘I remember this car. Mr. Fyke would run us off when we were hanging out at the Shoney’s and drag racing.’”

“The car was very well known in that part of our city,” confirmed Dr. Frazier Earl Fyke III, the grandson of Frazier Earl Fyke and the current caretaker of the De Soto. “My grandfather had himself deputized by the local sheriff, who was a good friend, and he would run the kids off who were hanging out, not buying anything at Shoney’s drive-in at Westland. They would say, ‘Here comes Mr. Fyke in his De Soto.’ As youngsters, my brother and I used to ride with him. They knew he meant business, but he was very nice about it.”

The De Soto kept a very public life through the 1980s, when Fyke finally stopped driving at age 86. At that time, it was retired to the parking of the medical clinic of the late Dr. Frazier Earl Fyke, Jr. for all of Jackson to see.  By then, the car was about a quarter of a century old, and was the car Fyke owned for the longest period of his life. Before the red-and-white ’61 De Soto, Fyke had a new car in his driveway every year.

“The De Soto-Plymouth-Mercedes dealership here was owned and operated by various members of my family and was called Robinson Brothers,” Dr. Fyke said. “The original Robinson brothers were related through marriage to my grandfather. Every year, my grandfather, who was the dealership manager, would buy a new De Soto. He said he felt like he couldn’t ask another man to buy a new car every year if he didn’t buy one himself.”

Although the train of De Sotos changed from year to year during the life of the marque, one thing always remained the same: “He told my mother it did not matter what color De Soto he owned, as long as it was red,” Dr. Fyke recalled.

“Of course, the Chrysler folks elected to stop making the De Soto after 1961, and that [’61] was the last automobile he ever bought. Because he wanted customers who had also bought De Sotos to have confidence that they could always get service for their cars, he promised to drive his longer than any of them would keep their own cars. And I think he did.”

After the Nov. 30, 1960, termination of De Soto production, Robinson Brothers continued selling Plymouths and Mercedes through the early 1970s. The dealership was truly a family enterprise and also included Dr. Fyke on its payroll, if for but a brief summer.

“In the mid 1960s, I worked the grease rack down there one of those summers,” Dr. Fyke said. “The car I drove in high school was a 1941 Plymouth that a lady from McComb, Mississippi, had bought new from my grandfather and traded in on a new Plymouth in 1962 or 1963. That was the loyalty folks had for the dealership they went to.”

Even after De Soto and the Robinson Brothers dealership, which closed its doors in 1972, were gone, Frazier Earl Fyke maintained his loyalty to the car and to the De Soto brand through the last years of the dealership and his new career managing the shopping center. When he stopped driving in 1985, his family honored his loyalty to the car, keeping the car stored in various places. It was never driven, save for one memorable experience.

“The film ‘Mississippi Burning’ was filmed here in Mississippi in 1988,” Dr. Fyke said. ”The car was perfect as far as vintage, and so my father volunteered it for use. Leroy Martin, the mechanic that had worked on the car at Robinson Brothers, came out of retirement to get it running, and it has a cameo part in that movie. It is there in living, red color.

“After that, the car was parked in the lot of my dad’s clinic for several years and it just sat out in the weather. In 1990, I had it moved out to the carport behind my parents’ house where it would at least be under cover. Unfortunately, the roof leaked and the mice got in it.”

Not only did mother nature weather the car, the De Soto weathered Dr. Fyke’s own well-meaning mother’s efforts to preserve the car.

“My mom would go back there to the carport where the car would get dirty and dusty, so mom would occasionally wash the car off real good with the hose,” Dr. Fyke said. “She would be out there watering plants and try to keep it clean for us, bless her heart, but, of course, all the seals were gone in the doors and trunk, so she would essentially put water in the car, so it rusted out the pans.”


The "before" photo by restorer Mike Martin.

As time passed, it became more obvious that returning the De Soto to its original glory would require a handsome amount of time and money. Since Dr. Fyke was concerned with raising three children and putting them through school, the De Soto was left to languish, falling farther into disrepair. Until a younger generation of Fykes stepped in, it seemed as though the De Soto might go the way of Robinson Brothers and the De Soto marque.

“My older son, who is Frazier Earl Fyke IV and named for my grandfather, had begun collecting replacement parts 10 years ago,” said Dr. Fyke. “My second son, Joel, who is in Stanford Law School, said, ‘Dad, you can’t let the car go, it’s a part of family history,’ so it was pretty hard to have someone haul it to the salvage yard.”

With encouragement from all the family, Dr. Fyke began contemplating restoring rather than junking the De Soto. “My mother selling her house finally forced the issue,” he said. A friend that collects cars recommended Mike Martin, an enthusiast that restores his own cars and, occasionally, cars for other friends. Martin looked over the car before committing to the project.

“The car had sat outside for a good, long time, but it was really complete,” Martin said. “Every piece of stainless, all the brackets, all of the engine stuff was on there.”

Restoring a rarity

When it comes to restoring a rare 1961 De Soto, missing parts can make or break the project. Just 911 two-door and 2,123 four-door hardtop De Sotos were built in the 1961 model year, so hunting 1961-specific parts is like digging for dinosaur bones in the desert. Fortunately, De Sotos share bodies with their contemporary Chryslers, and 1961 models were warmed-over 1960s, making metal a minor concern. Engine-wise, De Sotos and Chrysler Windsors of 1961 share a 265-hp, 361-cid V-8 and TorqueFlite transmission, easing mechanicals parts-hunting worries. However, the trim of canted-headlamp 1961 De Sotos stands apart from other Chrysler Corp. models, including earlier De Sotos.

Although the unique parts were present on the Fyke family De Soto, most were rough.

“That car was his pickup truck and it was full of tools and blueprints for that shopping center,” Dr. Fyke said. “I remember well riding around in the car with him, and there was not an undented piece of metal on the car, because if he had to push something out of the way, he pushed it with that automobile.

“Gran was from southern Illinois and grew up on a farm there, and he knew how to work on anything that ran on gas or diesel. He could go into the service department of the dealership and get an engine working, so he kept that car running and took care of the engine, but he wasn’t into outward appearances, so it had lots of dents.”

Despite the car’s obvious faults, Martin agreed to take on the restoration in early 2010. From the moment the car entered the shop, it began telling its story.

“I had to buy another front bumper from a salvage yard, because the original front bumper looks like a battering ram,” Martin said. “He carried such a load in the trunk he had knocked off the pinion snubber.”

Along with miscellaneous tools, Martin also found several wrappers from the White Owl cigars Mr. Fyke was famous for chomping any time he was driving the car. Even some of the car’s parts reminded Martin of the notoriety the De Soto carried around Jackson.

“I took the hood, fenders and trunk lid to a place to get e-coated and when I pulled up to the place, he said, ‘Is it for a Chrysler?’ I said, ‘No, it’s a De Soto,’ and he said, ‘Is that from that red-and-white De Soto that was parked at the clinic?’”

Over the course of the restoration, Martin, who typically restores General Motors products, said he became an expert on 1961 De Sotos. He found such sources as Gary Goers and SMS Auto Fabrics to be excellent sources for new “soft” parts. For other parts, Martin scoured the internet for replacements and entrusted service providers to restore both the car’s existing and replacement parts.


So many things inside needed attention, too!


The new interior material from SMS Auto Fabrics even included the black mat
on the driver’s seat.

“I took the stainless off and brought it to a friend who is a real expert at bringing that stainless back, and he worked 82 hours getting that stainless straight and shiny,” Martin said. “Some of it was bent to heck and back.”

Other bright work posed different challenges.

“Some of the pot metal was broken, and I sent it to a place in Indiana — J&P Plating — and they can fix pot metal and then replate it. I did some of that, like the front grille, which was in four parts, but it’s supposed to be two parts. You just about can’t tell.”

Among the unique 1961 De Soto parts Martin could not locate was a pair of backup lamp lenses. 1961 Chrysler and De Sotos share rear fenders, but on Chryslers, these lenses are red for the tail lamps. However, the tail lamps are mounted in the fin of 1961 De Sotos with the backup lamps mounted in the body, where tail lamps are found on Chryslers.

“Those backup lamps are prominent, so we had to do something,” Martin said. “There is a guy that makes those backup lenses, but I was never able to hook up with him. So, on the backup lights, we made them using a florescent lamp lens that we had to heat up and bend to fit in the housing.”


Powering the De Soto is a 361-cid V-8 “wedge.” Only the modern air compressor
says this isn’t quite 1961 anymore.

When it came to the body, the rust was concentrated in the trunk and interior floor pans, the rear window channel and one of the rocker panels. Fortunately, these body parts were shared with 1960-’61 Chryslers and all but the window channel are reproduced. Mechanically, the entire drive train was rebuilt and made to work like new or, in the case of the air conditioning unit, better than new.

“We put an aftermarket air conditioning unit in it, because Dr. Fyke wants to drive the car, but that’s the only change we made,” Martin said. “I left the old heat and air box on the firewall so other than the compressor, it looks real stock. We painted the compressor black like those big, old MoPar compressors used to be.”

Now, after a little more than the year, Martin is fine tuning the restoration and preparing to deliver the De Soto back to the Fyke family, many of whom have already seen the near-completed car. One of them, Sidney A. Robinson Jr., son of one of the original Robinson brothers and owner of the dealership at the time Mr. Fyke bought the car, was uniquely positioned to pay Martin the ultimate compliment.

“Mr. Robinson is 89, and when Dr. Fyke brought him by here to see the car, he said, ‘That is the car I ordered when I had the dealership and it looks better now than when it was new,” Martin said.

In anticipation of the De Soto’s return, Dr. Fyke has cleared out a space in his enclosed garage where the car will be safe, far away from garden hoses and the harsh realities of a parking lot, ready for generations of Fykes young and old to continue enjoying the De Soto.

“It’s a nostalgic feeling for all of us grandchildren, great grandchildren, great nephews and nieces, and assorted cousins,” Dr. Fyke said. “We don’t usually remember what cars people have, but if there is one thing that recalls our childhoods, it’s this car of Granddaddy’s we all so fondly remember.”

 

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One Response to De Soto enjoys celebrity status

  1. David Cox. says:

    I lived on Robinson Road in the 60′s, bought two cars from Robinson Brothers, and remember ‘the car’ very well.
    What a great hunk of local history.

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