Car of the Week: 1950 De Soto Custom sedan

Technically, Elmer and Judy Gilows’ big De Soto Custom sedan isn’t considered a limousine, even though it looks like one and likely served a good number of owners in that capacity.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Elmer and Judy Gilow don’t know a whole lot about their hulking 1950 De Soto. They’re pretty certain about one thing, however.

They have the only 1950 De Soto limousine that was ever used as a milk and egg truck.

“A farmer from Iowa bought it new and he used it to haul his eggs to town — 30 dozen eggs to a case!” laughed Elmer Gilow. “They’d pile all the eggs in there and take it to town.

“And they hauled milk in it, too,” added Judy. “We don’t know why he picked this car, but that’s what it was used for.”

Technically, the Gilows’ big De Soto isn’t considered a limousine, even though it looks like one and likely served a good number of owners in that capacity. The car is actually considered a “eight passenger Custom sedan” in 1950 De Soto parlance, and it is one big, long, heavy and interesting machine. The big sedans were new offerings for De Soto in 1949 and came on 139.5-inch wheelbases — 14 inches longer than the rest of the De Sotos. Their design was all limousine – facing doors, three rows of seating, four windows in each side (including the front vent windows), and enough room for all your friends, all your eggs, or both.

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The big rigs were available in both the De Soto Deluxe and top-end Custom trim lines. A total of 734 of the top-tier Custom versions were built for the 1950 model year, including the Gilows’ car. Another 235 were built with the base Deluxe series trim.

The huge sedans were also given a sibling in the DeSoto long-wheelbase family. A nine-passenger Suburban was also offered. It featured a split folding bench seat in the second row, a fold-flat rear seat and room for nine passengers.

For 1949, De Soto decided not to offer any “official” limousine models, but with the limo-in-disguise eight-passenger sedan, and the equally big suburban, the company was clearly still catering to the big car crowd. Both cars no doubt found plenty of work as commercial vehicles, airport transports and probably even funeral cars.

In all likelihood, only one found work as a pseudo farm truck in Iowa, and the Gilows stumbled across that car six years ago, fittingly, in a barn. “He saw in the paper a 1929 Model A coupe with a rumble seat for sale, and that’s what he always wanted,” Judy said. “He had one that needed a lot of restoration and he sold it, and he wanted another one that was already restored. He saw it in the paper and we went and looked at it, and when we saw that one we saw this one in the corner, and the first thing I thought was, “Gosh, that’s the ugliest car I’ve ever seen!’ But the more you looked at it, the more you thought, ‘Hmm, maybe that’s not so ugly. Maybe it’s kind of different. Maybe it’s kind of cute.’ So he bought the Model A, and he asked the lady how much she wanted for this one, and she told him and he didn’t really want to spend the money because he just bought the Model A and we have a convertible, and two cars is plenty.

“Well, the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘I really like that car.’ So he called them back a couple weeks later and they dickered on the price, and we wound up getting that car.”

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The big De Soto had already traveled more than 100,000 miles by the time the Gilows found it and became the third owners. The previous owners had given the car new upholstery and new green paint on the body — darker than the original shade, but still green. They also repainted the top its original cream color.

Aside from some neglect after having been relegated to the barn, the car was in good shape, and the Gilows just couldn’t pass up the chance to own such a unique plus-size machine. “She talked me into it!” insisted Elmer. “I said, ‘You pay for it!’ So we drew down my IRA to pay for the car!”

Eventually, the couple had a friend repaint the engine and help them with some of the electricals. Some visits to boneyards during their annual winter trips to Arizona helped replace a few missing or weathered parts. “Otherwise, it was mostly just detailing it,” Judy said.

The couple has not seen any other De Soto eight-passenger sedans in the past six years. Nobody knows how many of the cars remain, but it’s clearly not many. Having a conversation piece at car shows has been an unplanned bonus. “What little we know about it, we found out after we bought it. I just thought it was a cute car!” Judy admitted. “We had no clue that it was unusual. We just thought that, ‘Hey, it’s a limo, there must be lots of them around.’ Then we found out that there are not lots of them around.”

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The big sedans used the familiar L-head 236-cid six-cylinder under the hood. Rated at 112 hp, it certainly didn’t make the sedan overpowered, but the original engine is still in the car after about 105,000 miles. Tip-Toe hydraulic shift with Fluid Drive was standard on the Customs and a $121 upgrade on the Deluxe models.

The list of available options for 1950 was short, but the Gilows’ car got most of the upgrades when it was ordered: two-tone paint, full chrome wheel covers, radio, heater, clock and the cool lighted hood ornament.

One of the car’s more unique features was standard, not optional. When the passenger side doors are open, the door brace can be removed — a feature the original farmer owner may have taken advantage of during his trips to market. The two middle jump seats fold and tumble forward to rest against the front bench seat if extra passenger room isn’t needed. The front and rear bench seats are covered with gray cloth and trimmed in two-tone brown vinyl.

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All things considered, the four-door eight-passenger Custom sedans were a relative bargain in 1950 if you favored jumbo-sized cars. With a base price of $2,863, the higher-end Custom versions were actually a couple hundred bucks cheaper than the smaller standard-wheelbase six-passenger station wagons.

The cars were simply too big to ever appeal to the masses, however, and they sold in low numbers. According to the “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-75,” only 2,080 of the long-wheelbase sedans were built during their four-year model run between 1949 and 1952.

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“We’ve used it in several weddings,” Judy said. “We don’t rent it out, but friends will call and say, 'My daughter’s getting married, can you drive the bride and groom?’ Our daughter used it for part of her wedding party… And I’ve driven it in parades.”

Occasionally, the car winds up on a trailer behind the couple’s motor home. “It’s plenty heavy,” Judy laughed. “Starting out, boy, we can really tell we have a load back there.”

Elmer joked that he puts his truck driving experience to good use every time he gets behind the wheel of the 220-inch, 4,100-plus-lb. DeSoto. “You have to look out for the hood, because it’s further out than you expect. Otherwise, it drives good on the move, but when you’re sitting still, it’s hard to turn the wheel,” he said. “I drove a semi over the road for about 15 years, and you don’t expect when you’ve got a big load behind you to stop in a foot, you’ve got to have room, and that’s the way I drive this.”

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