The current corporate link between Chrysler and Fiat is far from the first alliance involving the Detroit carmaker and an Italian automotive business. It really wasn’t all that long ago that Chrysler owned Italian sports car builder Lamborghini, and, of course, who could forget — even though some might try — the K car-based Chrysler TC by Maserati.
But the heyday of the historic link between Chrysler and Italy was the early 1950s, when Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner secured the help of the Carrozzeria Ghia of Torino (Turin), Italy, to create a succession of stunning concept cars.
Chrysler itself was founded in 1924 by automotive executive Walter P. Chrysler, a railroad mechanic who became so interested in a Locomobile he saw at the Chicago auto show in 1908 that he bought the car, had it shipped back to his home in Iowa because he didn’t know how to drive, and took it apart piece by piece to see how it was constructed. Chrysler became an expert of automotive manufacturing, went to work building Buicks and before long was president of General Motors’ Buick Division.
When Willys-Overland faced failure, Chrysler was paid a yearly salary of $1 million to turn that company around. He did the same at Maxwell, to which he recruited the famed “Three Musketeers” of automotive engineering — Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer — and together the team would unveil the first Chrysler automobile at the 1924 New York Auto Show.
Soon, Chrysler would buy the Dodge Brothers’ company and launch two additional brands: Plymouth, named for the founding colony of what would become the United States, and DeSoto, named for the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, who was credited as the first non-Native American to discover the Mississippi River, in 1541.
DeSoto was a step up from either Dodge or Plymouth, though not quite as luxurious as the even more upscale Chrysler brand. DeSoto burst onto the automotive scene with the sale of more than 81,000 units in its first 12 months, a sales record that no other new American automotive brand surpassed for the ensuing three decades.
In the 1930s, DeSoto had Airstream and Airflow models, a snappy 5-3 Series and, for 1942, the Series S-10 with headlamps hidden behind retractable doors.
Like other American automakers, DeSoto shifted production from cars to military equipment during World War II, specifically to the production of wings for the Hell-Diver, nose sections for the B-29, sections of fuselage for the B-26 Marauder and parts for anti-aircraft cannons.
To celebrate the post-war boom as well as DeSoto’s 25th anniversary in 1953, Chrysler design chief Exner worked with Italian coachbuilder Ghia to create a series of concept cars, including the DeSoto Adventurer. Chrysler used dream cars such as the Adventurer to introduce Exner’s “Forward Look” — among the first of the new, modern and truly post-war automotive design architectures — to the driving public. Three years later, the Adventurer became a DeSoto production model, a limited-production (fewer than 1,000 were built) two door hardtop with a high-performance engine, power brakes, dual exhaust, white wall tires and other features, including gold-colored trim. Some people called the car “the Golden Adventurer” because of its gold-hued trim.
For the 1957 model year, DeSoto continued to build Adventurer hardtops (some 1,600 of them this model year), but in one of its final hurrahs, the assembly plant on Detroit’s Wyoming Avenue also crafted an even more limited run of 300 Adventurer convertibles. Again, they featured gold trim, TorqueFlite automatic transmissions, power brakes and dual exhaust — and now included dual headlights on either end of the car’s grille. Importantly and significantly, the cars were equipped with even larger and higher-performance, 345cid V8 engines. Topped with dual 4 barrel carburetors, the engines pumped out one horsepower per cubic-inch of displacement — a first as standard equipment on any American model.
Not only were the 1957 DeSoto Adventurer convertibles limited to 300 units, but 1957 was the only model year in which those cars were empowered by a 345hp, 345cid V8 engine.
“They were so under-appreciated for so long,” said Gary Bennett, Barrett-Jackson’s vice president of consignment. “They’re big boulevard cruisers. I think they’re desirable because there are so few of them, and because of the design and that they’re ridiculous — and I mean that with respect — in how they’re so over-the-top with big, multiple-carbureted engines.”
“Now, with fuel at nearly $4 a gallon, these cars represent a time that we’ll never see again, that will never be duplicated, and that makes them really cool. They cannot be denied.”
“Like other large Chrysler convertibles from the mid-1950s, the Adventurer is starting to make waves in its own right among collectors,” added Barrett-Jackson President Steve Davis.
The example being offered this week here in Scottsdale may look familiar to Barrett-Jackson regulars; it was purchased at the auction here in 2002. This DeSoto Adventurer will no doubt generate waves of excitement as it again crosses the Barrett-Jackson auction block.
— Larry Edsall