Chad Caldwell had to go a little out of his way to acquire his fabulous 1957 DeSoto Fireflite convertible. Caldwell actually has five of the ’57 Desoto droptops, and he actually had to go more than a little out of his way for this one — more like 1,000 miles or so round trip.
Like all his other efforts to find, restore and care for his beloved DeSotos, however, the Newnam, Ga., resident says it was worth every bit of the extra effort. The adventure also reminded Caldwell that it’s always a good idea to network with fellow old lovers and not to be afraid to leave your phone number. You never know when something good might come of it.
“I was looking in Old Cars Weekly, and I found a ’57 DeSoto convertible for sale in probably ’06 … It was a parts car for sale, and it was in Michigan,” Caldwell recalled “It was a complete car, but it was totally rusted out. It looked like it had come from Michigan. And this other car was in his garage. He had several other cars, and I asked him if he would sell it to me. He didn’t want to sell it. That was in ’06. So I told him if he ever wanted to sell it to call me."
“So then in ’09 I was on my way to Carlisle for Chryslers at Carlisle, like 50 miles from getting there, and the phone rang and it was the guy that owned this car and he said ‘Hey, is that offer still good?’ He was in the motorhome business, and he was really hurting at the time because the economy was bad … And he wanted to know if my offer was still good, and I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ so I turned and headed to Michigan. I was already on the road, with a trailer! So I went straight there, loaded the car, then went straight to Chryslers in Carlisle.”
Caldwell admits he never expected to have a shot at buying the convertible. After three years had passed, he was certainly not holding his breath.
“I was real excited when I got that phone call! I didn’t expect it,” he says. “I hadn’t talked to the man since I saw him, but I left him my name and number. You always leave your name and number and nobody ever calls back. But I made him a serious offer."
“The parts car that I bought from him he used to restore this car!”
The then-red-and-white convertible had an interesting past, to be sure. It had been left and forgotten in a barn for quite a few years. Before that, it led a unique existence as an equine pace car.
“This was a harness racing car. He found it in a barn,” Caldwell said. “I never even heard of harness racing. You know, I’m from Georgia and we don’t know anything about harness racing. When he found it in a barn it had the trunk lid off and had big gates that folded out and had a hydraulic pump under the hood to run the gates. So the horses trotted behind the car and then this car would take off and the race would start."
“I think that was about all it was used for. When I got it had about 54,000 miles on it. [The second owner] bought it in the ‘80s and took all that off and restored it and that’s when I found it. It had been all re-done, but it was getting old and it wasn’t a great restoration… I guess the harness racing company bought it new. I don’t really know the whole history, but it still had the gates on it when [the second owner] got it. That’s why he had to have the parts car; he had to change a fender and I think the hood. They’re not easy to find. There aren’t a lot of them out there.”
Caldwell likes restoring old finned MoPars as much as he likes driving them, however, so the fact that the former harness racing ’57 was going to need a little work didn’t worry him. When your love for such cars runs as deep as Caldwell’s, and goes back to your childhood, landing another one in any kind of condition is cause for celebration.
“When I was in high school, there was two things I really liked. One was Old Cars Weekly magazine — I had a stack of them about this high [laughs]. And there was a TV show called ‘Crime Story’ that came on when I was in high school, and it had a ’57 Chrysler 300 that was a star car. It came on at 8 o’clock on Friday nights and when I was a teenager I had to be home on Friday night to watch ‘Crime Story.’ It had a black ‘57C convertible, and the ’57 DeSoto and ’57 Chrysler is the same car, the trim is just different and the grille is different."
“Yeah, I liked Old Cars Weekly and ‘Crime Story’! It made me want to work real hard and be successful and make some money so I could buy Chryslers!”
1955: CHRYSLER’S BOLD MOVE
The upscale Fireflite lineup arrived as one of DeSoto’s top offerings for 1955, which not so coincidentally was a big year at Chrysler with the much ballyhooed arrival of the new “Forward Look” designs that wound up giving an 85 percent sales bump to the entire DeSoto lineup. The bold new look was a huge departure from the less-than-exciting styling from the years immediately prior and had gave the cars a much flashier personality and got the attention of a more youthful audience. The full-length body trim, nifty two- and three-tone paint schemes and racier profiles were all part of the not new package that had DeSotos holding their own in any automotive beauty pageant of the day.
Another restyling in 1957 saw a more pronounced tailfin sweep and different bodyside trim, along with beefy grille and bumper assemblies. Standard features included Torsionare torsion bar front suspension, Oriflow shocks, Safety-Lock door latches, Total Contact brakes and Power-Tip Sparkplugs.
The ’57 DeSoto lineup included the base level Firesweep Series, second-tier Firedome, third-level Fireflite and the top-level Adventurer. The Fireflites were identified by rear fender nameplates and medallions on the front fender side moldings. The headlights were separate from the grille with notches into the sides of the hood. The Explorer was a nine-passenger station wagon and the six-passenger wagon was called the Shopper. There was also a convertible coupe with a unique dome-like windshield, two-and four-door Sportsman models and a four-door sedan.
Motivation for the Fireflites came in the form of the 341-cid Hemi V-8, which drank through a four-barrel Carter carburetor and produced 295 hp. TorqueFlite automatic transmissions, foam-back seat cushions, back-up lights and full wheel covers were all standard.
The Fireflite convertibles were certainly splendid, fun and beautiful cars, but they were not a huge hit with the buying public. Only 1,151 were built for the 1957 model year at a base price of $3,890. The station wagons were almost as scarce, with only about 1,700 combined assemblies of the two models.
The 1957 model year turned out to be the third-best ever in DeSoto showrooms and produced a fleet of memorable cars. It was probably hard to imagine at the time, but four years later the DeSoto nameplate would join the growing extinction list.
AN ORANGE CRUSH
It’s not that Caldwell didn’t like his DeSoto’s red-and-white appearance when he got it, he says he just liked another color scheme better. And that look turned out to be Mandarin Orange and White.
“I just like that color better than I did the red and white,” he says. “It had red across the bottom and the interior was red and white. The paint was going bad on the car and so I gave it a new interior and just kind of cleaned it up… These are Chrysler colors, so I put it back to the original style interior with this color.”
Caldwell farmed out the paint and bodywork, but says he did all the mechanical work and assembly/disassembly himself. With five almost-identical cars in his fleet, he said he’s had plenty of practice.
“Once you learn how to work on one kind of car, it’s easier to work on them,” he chuckles. “You kind of know where everything goes.”
The convertible still carries its original 341 Hemi that paced the ponies and three-speed TorqueFlite.
“It’s got a power seats and power steering and power brakes and that’s about it … It wasn’t a highly optioned car. I guess you could get air conditioning and power windows, but I’m glad it doesn’t have power windows. Every old car that I have with power windows, they are a problem.”
Caldwell has a bunch of cars to exercise regularly, but he says the orange-and-white convertible is one he makes sure gets out regularly. Last summer, he hauled it all the way to Wisconsin to show it off at the Iola Car Show, where it was one of the prettiest MoPars on the guest list.
“I guess I’ve put about 3,000 miles on it,” he says. “It’s fun to drive. It will go pretty good, but it stops terrible. Chryslers had terrible brakes. They were more worried about ‘go’ than ‘whoa’ … It’s a big old boat, you know. It’s not fast compared to today’s cars. Those old bias-ply tires will go around corners and make a bunch of noise. You hit a bump and it just kind of floats. You’ve got to pat the gas to get it started. It doesn’t drive like a new car, of course, but it’s fun to drive.”
Caldwell seems to prefer acquiring DeSotos more than he likes parting with him, so he figures he’ll have this one around for quite a while as a preferred “driver” on nice days. It’s a hard car not to like and a hard to ignore when it comes rolling down the street.
“It’s just a neat car,” he says. “These cars had class back then.”
And as far as adding even more ’57 DeSoto ragtops to the fleet? Caldwell is always up for another road trip.
“Why,” he laughs, “you don’t know where there’s another one, do you?”
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