Curt McConnell has the world’s oldest De Soto, but he has a problem: What should he do with it?
McConnell bought the car about five years ago in a condition a bit worse than shown here, which isn’t saying much. He was apparently the first person in more than 90 years to appreciate the significance of the extremely low serial number enough to research it.
Chrysler Corp. launched the new car, named De Soto for the 16th Century explorer remembered for sailing up the Mississippi River, on Aug. 6, 1928, as a 1929 model.
A rancher in Colorado bought this Model K two-door coach new, and he didn’t put it in the garage, up on blocks, to preserve it so he could sell it 80 years later for many times the $845 original price. It was used as any family car would be, and on a ranch that didn’t mean just driving to town on a paved highway on Saturday night.
It may have been the cracked cylinder head — McConnell noticed right away that it had been welded — that caused the De Soto to be taken out of service after some 78,000 miles of use. The story he was told, third-hand, was that it was garaged for many years, but at some point that space was needed and this car was set outside. However, it remained with the same family until 2015, and only the arid climate of the western Colorado mountains prevented it from rusting into the ground.
McConnell related that he first saw the De Soto at the AACA swap meet in Chickasha, Okla. The owner told McConnell that he’d had his eye on the car for some 35 years as he traveled to that area to hunt elk. He had repeatedly asked if they would sell the car and always received the same response: It was not for sale. It was not until 2015 when the current family member in charge said they would sell it. But when the buyer got it back to Oklahoma and weighed his age against what another full restoration would require, he realized the time to undertake such a task had passed.
McConnell bought the De Soto and with it inherited the dilemma of exactly what to do with it. “I won’t restore it,” he said. “After all, they’re only original once. But I may improve some things, like the shredded upholstery, and get it operational for low-speed driving.”
1928: A big year for Chrysler Corp.
With 81,065 cars delivered in the first 12 months of production, the 1929 De Soto set an industry record for first-year sales that would not be eclipsed until the Ford Falcon debuted in 1960.
Walter P. Chrysler’s namesake cars, introduced in 1924, continued to sell well, and the corporation planned to expand its offerings with two new marques set to come out in 1928. The four-cylinder Plymouth would compete with Ford and Chevrolet in the low-price range, with the six-cylinder De Soto sandwiched between it and the Chrysler.
The Dodge brothers had both died in 1920. Their widows sold the company to a group of New York bankers in 1925. After slipping from second place in sales in the industry when the brothers died to 13th in 1928, the bankers sold Dodge Brothers to Walter P. Chrysler that year. A year later, Dodge had climbed back to seventh place in sales.
In its first year, De Soto offered seven body styles on a 109.75-inch wheelbase. Besides this two-door coach, McConnell owns a “nicely preserved” Deluxe four-door sedan plus a roadster and a rumble seat coupe, both of which received amateur restorations in the 1960s or ’70s. Other 1929 models offered were a phaeton (touring), standard four-door sedan and a business coupe.
A 55-hp. L-head six engine powers De Sotos through a three-speed, floor-shifted transmission. Four-wheel hydraulic brakes and 19-inch wooden spoke wheels were standard with wire wheels optional. The front bumper on McConnell’s two-door coach was optional, but the extra-cost two-piece rear bumpers that would flank the rear-mounted spare wheel are missing. Single or dual side-mounts in welled fenders were offered at extra cost. The cowl lamps were standard on all models.
Since the tires on the car were showing more threads than tread, McConnell promptly mounted a new set so it could at least be rolled around and moved on and off a trailer.
The previous owner had “cobbled up some ignition wiring and attached a small gas tank to the carburetor to start the engine” and let it run for a couple minutes at a time. “He said it ran as smoothly as a Singer sewing machine!” McConnell said.
McConnell has not run the engine but has removed the spark plugs and shot fresh oil into the cylinders and turned it over with a crank. “I’d want to go through everything first and put new radiator hoses on so I don’t damage anything,” he said.
When McConnell first decoded the Fedco security tag riveted to the center of the instrument panel, he determined the car’s serial number to be 00121. “That likely dates it to the first day of De Soto production: August 6, 1928,” he says.
Running that information past all the other ’29 De Soto owners listed by the National DeSoto Club, he found the next-lowest serial number for a first-year De Soto is above 6,000. He dubbed the car “Old 121” and proclaimed it to be the “World’s Oldest De Soto” — for now, at least.
“If an even earlier De Soto comes to light, I’ll be as happy as anyone to celebrate,” McConnell declared. “I’ll even sell my ‘World’s Oldest De Soto’ banner at cost!”
Car-showing a ranch find
That banner has flown over the unique historical exhibit that McConnell and his wife, Caroline, assembled, which includes a hay bale (because the previous owner had found it sitting outside a hay barn on the Colorado ranch) and some old car and shop “junk” scattered about. The 1960 Colorado license plates are still attached.
McConnell noted, “A movement is growing among restorers to display weathered relics, warts and all. In fact, one observer has suggested making mechanical repairs so the car runs, stops and sounds like a new 1929 De Soto, but continues to look fresh off the ranch.”
When the couple took “Old 121” to its first show, a small, local affair in Lincoln, Neb., they parked it in the “Back 40” (appropriate for a ranch find, right?), a quiet corner of the show field with plenty of room for visitors to move around the display. They used small, powerful magnets to stick seven metal arrows to various points on the car and under the hood. A fabrication shop made the arrows with a computer-controlled laser cutter for less than $10 apiece, and a sign shop lettered them on the same vinyl wrap they use to apply advertising graphics to vehicles.
The arrows point out the tin roof that the rancher had attached with sheet metal screws that preserved the wooden lattice work and much of the top material; to the welded-up cylinder head; and to the body’s rotted wooden framing that allows the doors to sag. Other arrows alert spectators to spots of original green paint showing through a hand-brushed black paint job and a line of rusty dimples in the right quarter panel, suggesting that “Old 121” had been used for target practice.
A foam board on a wooden easel documents the car’s history and also displays a copy of a 1929 De Soto magazine ad, the 1929 De Soto specifications and a letter from Fiat Chrysler Historical Services which helpfully hinted that the display car, given its low serial number, “could have been built on the first day of De Soto production.”
“Mostly children responded to our invitation to sit behind the wheel, turn the engine with a crank handle and even slide underneath it on a sheet of cardboard to examine the greasy vitals,” McConnell noted.
The positive response to showing the De Soto has reinforced McConnell’s inclination to leave it “in the rough.”
“I’ve decided to show ‘Old 121’ as a ranch-fresh relic,” he said. “This historically significant car would be more fun to display as a battered but defiant survivor than as a gussied-up show car.”
Speaking of De Sotos, the National DeSoto Club’s 35th Annual Convention will be held at the Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel in Brookfield, Wis., from July 28 to Aug. 1. Learn more at https://desoto.org.
*Image for this column were supplied by the author and owner.
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