Modern Classic: 1956 DeSoto AdventurerA Chrysler 300B in drag
To qualify as a "modern classic," we've chosen vehicles that are comparatively affordable now that we think will increase in value over time. These are cars many people would love to have-head-turners, trend-setters in their time-cars that people still see that make them smile, cars that were definitive in their own right, stylish and fun to drive. We're focusing on cars that are at least 25 years old so they can be registered and insured cheaply and aren't subject to annual inspections.
Tastes may vary, as may people's own definitions of "affordable." Our theoretical limit is $50,000 for a car in good to excellent condition, which rules out many of the traditional exotics. This month's selection is the 1956 DeSoto Adventurer.
Always Chrysler's good soldier, DeSoto dutifully marketed fleets of taxicabs for years, and spent more time fending off Dodge than conquesting GM and Ford. In late 1954, when Virgil Exner's dramatic "Forward Look" designs reversed Chrysler's stodgy styling image overnight, DeSoto shelved its sixes and commandeered fresh Dodge and Chrysler sheetmetal to badge-engineer its Firedome and Fireflite models. Encouraged by record 1955 sales, and anxious to compete with Plymouth's Fury and Dodge's D500, DeSoto took a headlong run at the market, paced by a flashy hardtop called Adventurer.
Essentially a Chrysler 300B in drag, the Adventurer had just 20-bhp less than the base B's 354-cid/340-bhp engine. (With 10:1 compression, some Bs had 355-bhp). Nothing to be ashamed of, its 341-cid, 320-bhp Hemi V-8 was just short of a racing powerplant. It had 9.25:1 compression, twin 4-barrel carbs, a high-lift cam, enlarged ports, slipper pistons and a shot-peened crank. This hefty two-tonner ran 0-60 at a then-respectable 10.5 seconds. A prototype (with a manual transmission) topped 137 mph at Daytona. Later, one hit 144 mph at Chrysler's test track. Enthused Motor Trend, "All honest and available, 320 horsepower is enough to make any car a bomb."
Unfortunately, DeSoto's mighty Hemi was teamed with one of Chrysler's not-so-good ideas, a two-speed, Powerflite torque-converter automatic transmission. It was actuated by a small push-button console awkwardly located to the left of the steering wheel. Adventurers came fully loaded with power brakes, twin rear-mounted antennas (remember those-) power seats and windows and a padded dash. Heavy-duty suspension and new vacuum-boosted, center-plane brakes rounded out the package. Outside gold-anodized trim and hubcaps accented a choice of white and gold, or black and gold paint-a little garish, perhaps, but it was high style in the mid-'50s.
At $3,678, an Adventurer was $564 less than a 300B. Not surprising, DeSoto sold out its entire 996-unit production run in just six weeks. (Chrysler sold 1,102 300Bs). Today, the price difference is even more substantial according to CPI: At $15,000-$18,000, a decent Adventurer is less than half the price of a 300B. (Although there's a resemblance, don't confuse the Adventurer hardtop with another '56 DeSoto promo car, the Fireflite Pacesetter convertible. Developed for a 1956 Indy 500 Pace Car role, drop-top Pacesetters used the Fireflite's "cooking" 255-bhp engine). 1957-58 Adventurer drop-tops are $30K and climbing; people like convertibles.
Behind the Wheel
On the road today, despite its beefed-up underpinnings, the Adventurer feels much like any '50's land yacht. But under full acceleration, the underhood whooooosh from the twin four-barrels and the roar of twin exhausts makes you feel you're in something pretty hot. Just don't expect much cornering ability from those squealy 7.60-15 bias-plies. Most mechanical and body parts are available for Adventurers; the push-button Powerflite's cables are hard to find, and you may have to fabricate the gold-anodized trim. Rust is about par for the era.
Decent DeSoto Adventurers do pop up. They're real sleepers, but as long-distance cruisers, they still reflect what Detroit was capable of 45 years ago.
Andy Bernbaum Auto Parts, www.oldmoparts.com
Antique DeSoto-Plymouth, Pittsburgh, PA, 412-731-4339
Mitchell Motor Parts, Columbus, OH, 614-875-4919
National DeSoto Club, www.desoto.org
"Automobile Quarterly," Volume XX, Number 1, "DeSoto, Walter Chrysler's Stepchild," by Jeffrey I. Godshall, www.autoquarterly.com
Cars of Particular Interest (CPI), www.cpivalueguide.com
"Hemmings Motor News," www.hemmings.com
"The Illustrated Mopar Buyer's Guide", Peter C. Sesslar, www.amazon.com
"The Investor's Illustrated Guide to American Convertible and Special-Interest Automobiles, 1946-1976," Charles Webb, www.amazon.com
"Special Interest Autos," Jan-Feb 1974, August 1989, www.hemmings.com
"Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975," (pp. 262-264), www.motorbooks.com