100-day makeover: Restoring a '57 De Soto for the auction block

Rust to Riches: Can a 1957 Dodge De Soto Firesweep go from scrap yard to prime auction condition in just 100 days? You have to see it to believe it.
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 This 1957 De Soto Firesweep is Barrett-Jackson lot No. 1107 and will cross the block around 8 p.m. on Jan. 18.

This 1957 De Soto Firesweep is Barrett-Jackson lot No. 1107 and will cross the block around 8 p.m. on Jan. 18.

By Angelo Van Bogart

In 2008, Old Cars Weekly reader Randy Guyer of Hopkins, Minn., had his first taste of the auction experience when he found himself the winner of a 1958 Dodge Regal Lancer two-door hardtop at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale event.

“We just went there for the fun of going there,” Guyer said. “I had no intention of buying anything, but [the Dodge] came up on the block and we were sitting in the audience, trying to guess what the car would sell for. The car didn’t go as high as I thought, and I thought I might just throw out a bid and see what happens. Well, guess what happened?”

The Dodge had been restored almost 30 years earlier for Jess Ruffalo, a Wisconsin-based collector, by Bob Schmidt of Smitty’s Classic Cars in Branson, Mo. Following Ruffalo’s passing, the car was offered at the 2008 Barrett-Jackson auction.

Auctions were nothing new to Schmidt or Ruffalo. Together, the duo restored several finned Mopars to a high standard. Some, like the 1958 Dodge, were restored for Ruffalo’s collection. Others were restored for sale at auction.

Since Ruffalo’s passing, Schmidt has continued the auction tradition, and with success. In 2011, he sold a 1956 De Soto Fireflight convertible at Barrett-Jackson for a world-record sum of $335,000. The following year, Schmidt restored a 1956 De Soto convertible trimmed as a never-built Adventurer drop-top. It sold for $170,000.

“Probably, I have taken at least 35-40 cars to Barrett-Jackson over the last 25 years, and I have sold $5 million worth of cars there in that time,” Schmidt said.

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It’s an impressive figure, but Schmidt is too humble to be bragging about such stats. Restoring cars is a business that helps him pay the bills, but it’s also one he loves so much that he also uses toward charity efforts, as well as for fun. This year, he restored a 1957 De Soto with two other hobbyists, one of them the current owner of that 1958 Dodge Regal Lancer that Schmidt restored so long ago.

After Guyer purchased the 1958 Dodge from Ruffalo’s collection, he became acquainted with Schmidt, its restorer. During the 2012 Iola Old Car Show, Guyer and Schmidt sat down with fellow finned car collector Mike Meier of Virginia, Minn., and the three decided to restore another finned car — a 1957 De Soto Firesweep. This De Soto would be brought back from the brink for the sole purpose of being offered during the January Arizona auctions, as Schmidt and Ruffalo had done in the past.

“It’s primarily to have some fun and see what happens,” Guyer said. “I guess that Dodge just got my interest going in these finned Chryslers, and then I met guys like Bob Schmidt and Mike Meier and I got hooked into the “finned Chrysler fever.’”

Meier owned the De Soto. Schmidt has the skills. Guyer covered the bills. Together, they would see the De Soto restored in about 100 days.

“We decided to do a complete rotisserie restoration and take it to the Barrett-Jackson car auction in Scottsdale in January of 2013, and see if we could have some fun,” Guyer said.

 The 1957 De Soto just prior to its 100-day makeover.

The 1957 De Soto just prior to its 100-day makeover.

The 1957 De Soto Firesweep

According to Guyer, the 1957 De Soto was resting “uncomfortably” in Meier’s field. As a rare 341-cid Hemi-powered Firesweep with a manual transmission and upscale Fireflite trim, the car was worthy of restoration.

“We felt that this car had the potential to give a good return on investment,” Guyer said. “That generally [requires] a car that is rare, desirable, attractive to most people and restored to a very high standard.”

The 1957 De Soto line included the top-of-the-line Adventurer, then the Fireflite and Firedome followed. At the bottom of the line was the new-for-1957 Firesweep, which was manufactured by the Dodge division and utilized the front clip of a Dodge, but with definite De Soto-like front bumper and trim to the De Soto body. The Firesweep had a shorter wheelbase and less fancy trim and normally received a 325-cid Dodge polyspherical-head engine rated at 245 hp with a two-barrel carburetor. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, but very rarely seen; most buyers chose the PowerFlite or TorqueFlite automatic transmissions. Power steering, power brakes, radio, heater, and air conditioning were just a few of the many options offered for Firesweep buyers. Aside from the rare 341-cid Hemi V-8 mated to a manual transmission, the group’s 1957 De Soto had very few options; it lacks even power steering and power brakes.

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The clock began ticking fast on the three men. According to Guyer, photos of the completed (or nearly completed) car had to be submitted by the end of November in order for the car to appear in the auction catalog to maximize its exposure and promotion. Guyer wasn’t able to bring the car to Schmidt’s shop in Branson until August, giving the crew just 100 days to restore the car to meet the auction company’s deadline.

Schmidt and two men from his staff dug into the restoration immediately. Body and paint work were handled by another shop, and while the car was away, they tackled the chassis and drive train. In less than 30 days, the rolling chassis was restored down to the wheels and suspension.

Two other 1957 De Sotos were secured for spare parts, which helped keep the restoration moving. However, outside influences still kept the men from meeting Schmidt’s original deadline for himself.

“I told him I would get it done in 90 days,” Schmidt said. “The only reason I didn’t get it in that time is I had a couple vendors screw me up.”

Schmidt says most of his frame-off restorations take 1,000 to 1,500 hours, and the De Soto landed at about 1,200 hours. Those 1,200 days were condensed within the 100 days originally figured, landing the car in the auction catalog.

To make the fun also pay off, the bidding will have to hit six figures, thus setting a world-record price for a 1957 De Soto Firesweep two-door hardtop.

“I got a figure in my mind and what I am hoping it will bring,” Schmidt said. “You never know up there.”

Regardless of what happens, that stressful 100 days was all about cars and friends, not just potential “sold” prices.

“It was really fun,” Schmidt said. “It’s fun working with somebody like Randy and Mike, people that truly love old cars. That’s what’s cool about this one.”

Enjoy a few more "after" photos:

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What is it worth? To find out the value of a De Soto and thousands of other classic cars, check out our 2013 Collector Car Price Guide.

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