Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Ken Steinke had always wanted to do at least one custom car project in his lifetime. So when he was convinced the time had finally come to customize a car, he chose a car that he already owned and had drooled over since the first time he laid eyes on it.
Customized 1948 DeSotos don’t exactly grow on trees, so the car would definitely be unique. And of course, the name of the car was already a “Custom” in DeSoto nomenclature — the beautiful convertible couple was a member of the Custom Series, one step above the Deluxe models on the DeSoto menu.
Steinke, a resident of Wausau, Wis., wasn’t thinking about customizing the car when he first spotted it. He never even really considered owning such a machine, but a series of unlikely events helped him cross paths with the DeSoto back in the late 1960s.
“It started when I was 14. We used to have a hangout in Wausau by a small local church on a corner, and of course we used to watch all the cars go by,” Steinke recalled. “And I’d see this guy drive by in this car. It was green, and I just thought, ‘God, that is the neatest car.’ Then later in high school, I was dating this girl and we went over to her girlfriend’s house one night and the car was sitting there! And I said, ‘Hey, who owns this car?’ And she said, ‘A guy that plays in a band with my brother.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, I have followed that car since I was 14!’ Well, I was probably only 17 at the time.”
Steinke said he always remembered the owner’s name, and years later he saw the man’s obituary in the local newspaper. Not long after that, opportunity finally knocked for him to buy the car for himself, even though he couldn’t really afford it.
“I was talking to an older lady in the neighborhood one time and she said, ‘I’m so sad, my best friend’s husband passed away.’ And she said [his name] … and I said, ‘Hey, is that the guy with the green ’48 DeSoto?’ [laughs]. I said, ‘What is she going to do with it?’ She said, ‘I don’t know, probably keep it.’ I said ‘Dorothy, you tell her that if she ever wants to sell that, I would really be interested.'
“Well, we were newly married and everything and trying to build up something of a life, and all of a sudden out of nowhere I get the call. It’s her and she says, ‘I’m going to sell the DeSoto.’ She wanted a hundred and a quarter. Well, she could have said $30,000. I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have a hundred and a quarter. I actually went to a bank to borrow the $125, and I drove it over to my mother’s house and put it in my garage.”
That was in 1968, and Steinke drove the car occasionally in the years that followed, but the convertible coupe was deteriorating and needed more repairs than he could afford. He thought about selling it, but decided to hang onto it a while longer after a man he knew promised to work on it for cheap. “I took it out to a guy who said 'I can fix it up for you,' and it sat in his brush pile, that’s what I call it, for five years, and it really went to hell then.”
Steinke finally went and retrieved the DeSoto and reluctantly listed it for sale. “I brought it home and put an ad in the paper to sell it for a hundred and a quarter — what I paid for it. I had one phone call and nothing happened, so I kept it. Finally, I started accumulating a little cash and I bought a ’38 Oldsmobile and I bought another car and then I said, ‘Well, this one’s got to be done.’ So I started tearing the carpeting out of it and there was no floor left in the car. The floor was totally gone. I have pictures of it and people can’t believe it’s the same car. Even the trunk floor was gone. I knew it was soft, but I didn’t know it was that bad… Out in that field, that really did a number on it, but it was going to need some [help] anyway. The guy who had owned it drove it year-round. This was his car and he drove it in the winter.”
Steinke hadn’t restored any cars himself at the time, but he was willing to do what it took to rescue his beloved DeSoto, even against the advice of some of his car friends. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I had some buddies come over who had been restoring cars and they said I should look for a better vehicle, this one is too rough. But I finally had a guy say, ‘I can weld in some rockers and stuff,’ and I said great and we started doing it and put it together. Then we put the engine together and it’s been a great car and a great rider ever since.”
At the time, Steinke made the decision to keep the DeSoto as original as he could. He changed the paint color from green to a factory-correct Hawaiian Tan. A local upholstery guy did a new authentic-style interior for the car, and the interior has remained mostly untouched since then.
The tufted upholstery was one of the calling cards on the DeSoto Custom S-10 series. The all-steel-body DeSotos, and all their Chrysler brethren, were boldly restyled for 1942, and the look remained much the same up through 1948. There were reshaped fenders; large, wrap-around bumpers; and a fancy grille with S-shaped vertical bars. Other high-end touches included burl and grain interior moldings; dual electric wipers; arm rests; foam seat pads; folding rear seats on sedans, limousines and broughams; tailored carpeting; and concealed running boards. Custom models were clearly identified by the nameplates on the sides of the hood. The front compartment was equipped with tailored carpets and chrome-plated window sashes. Front seat cushions included a foam rubber pad. Three colors of broadcloth upholstery were available: green, blue and tan. The convertible coupe had Bedford cord and leather in various colors.
Under the hood was a bigger “Powermaster” six that pushed out 115 hp. Safe Guard hydraulic brakes did the stopping. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, while a Fluid Drive transmission with “Tip Toe” shifting was a $121 option.
The standard wheelbase for the four DeSoto body styles — convertible coupe, club coupe, two-door sedan and four-door sedan — was 121.5 inches, while the “long-wheelbase” eight-passenger sedan, Suburban and Limousines shared a 139.5-inch chassis.
DeSoto was the 15th-largest U.S. automaker for 1948 with 93,369 cars built, including 8,100 Custom convertible coupes like Steinke’s car, which carried a base price of $2,296. Plenty of cars came and went from his fleet in the years that followed, but the 1948 DeSoto seemed to have found a permanent home. Steinke had simply never come across a car he liked more, and he never found a compelling reason to part with the car.
That almost changed in 1997, however. “I got heart disease, so I started selling everything,” he said. “I’d have five or six cars at a time, and I started getting rid of everything.
“Well, at the time everybody was modifying cars, and I thought, ‘What car would I take and modify?’ I always wanted to do one. I want to do one modification, and I decided to do it with this.”
The trouble was, he liked the convertible coupe so much the way it was, Steinke didn’t have a lot of things he wanted to change. The one big change he settled on was under the hood, where he decided to swap out the car’s original 236.6-cid, 109-hp L-head six-cylinder. In its place went a 318-cid V-8, attached to a rear end from a ’73 Volare. “The engine came out of a ’72 Dodge Van, I think,” he said. “It rides great. I had to get used to it because I was so used to that flathead six.”
A friend adapted a tilt steering column from a Chevrolet van so that Steinke can adjust his driving position. The steering wheel is original equipment, as is almost everything on the car beyond the drive train. There are dual exhausts peeking out the back, which generate plenty of reaction from educated observers. “People will walk by and somebody will say, ‘God, I don’t remember DeSoto having duals.’ And another guy will say, ‘He did something with this!’ Back in the day, guys used to put fake duals on them. It would be single exhaust with another pipe. This one is actually a dual exhaust.”
Steinke added some non-original spoked wheel covers, and Bickford’s Vintage Woodworks of Iola, Wis., put on a new cloth top. “It’s a stayfast top. It doesn’t fade like the haartz cloth I put on before. It was tan, and in three years it was white from fading… This has probably been on 10 years and it hasn’t faded. In fact, I liked the top so much, I liked the top so much I brought down my ’36 Buick phaeton and had them do a top for that one, too, even though there was nothing wrong with it. I just liked the way those tops look and the way they last.”
Steinke himself tried his hand at painting for the first time and gave the car a new Hawaiian Tan coat of paint. “I’m not a painter or anything, but I learned a little, enough to paint this car. It’s got a few bubbles in the paint on the sides, still. I think I’m going to try to take care of those this winter.”
Steinke had no clue when he first spied the DeSoto, still wearing green paint, that he’d ever have a lifetime bond with the car. The pair have been through plenty together — poverty, children, long stretches of bleak separation, rotten floorboards, and a couple of rebuilds included. Back in the late 1990s when he began having heart troubles, Steinke couldn’t be certain that either he or his 1948 DeSoto would still be kicking in 2014, but they are still both going strong and were together again at this year’s Iola Old Car show in Wisconsin. If the DeSoto has managed to last this long, it’s unlikely the two will part anytime soon.
“I sold everything else, but I always kept this one because it was so special to me,” Steinke said. “The others were special, too, but not like this. I fell in love with this car when I was a young kid.”
Show us your wheels!
If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org