Fabulous Fifties Flops: 1956 DeSoto Fireflite vs 1958 Edsel Ranger

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Happy Friday, Autopians! Today is the day when I throw out the price cap and go rogue. But not Rogue, because nobody wants that. No, to cap off our week of extinct nameplates, I thought we’d set the Wayback Machine to the late 1950s, and look at a brand that got squeezed out by competition from its own company, and one that was announced to great fanfare but ended up being one of the biggest failures in automotive history.

But first, we need to strap on our winged shoes and fly back to Mercury for a moment:

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Looks like most of you prefer the younger Cougar to the one that’s lying about its age. Make of that what you will.

It took a while to decide how to end this week. I thought about going with a more modern dead brand and looking at Saturn or maybe Scion, but I just couldn’t get inspired by them. Those are still cars that everyone sees every day, and they sell for cheap enough that we can always cover them later, during a normal weekday. No, I wanted to end this week on a big flashy V8-powered high note, and for that, nothing says “failed nameplate” better than DeSoto and Edsel.

1956 DeSoto Fireflite – $3,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 330 cubic inch V8, 2 speed automatic, RWD

Location: San Diego, CA

Odometer reading: ad says 200,000, but most likely unknown

Runs/drives? Runs, but not really roadworthy quite yet

By 1956, DeSoto had been Chrysler’s mid-level brand for 30 years, but the party would only last another five. A recession in 1958 hit the middle of the new car market hard, and DeSoto, positioned at the top of that middle market, suffered a nasty blow. After Chrysler models moved downmarket and Dodge moved up, DeSoto was squeezed out, and finally discontinued after only a couple months of 1961 model year production.

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But in 1956, life for DeSoto was good. Chrysler was in its second year of Virgil Exner’s “Forward Look” makeover, and DeSoto reaped the rewards. Exner hadn’t gone full-tailfin yet, and the chrome hadn’t been laid on quite as thick as it would be in later years. The ’56 DeSoto was elegant, dignified, and futuristic.

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Technologically, DeSoto was at the forefront as well. Chrysler’s Hemi engine found its way under the hood of the DeSoto in a 330 cubic inch size, backed by a two-speed PowerFlite automatic transmission, controlled by an earlier version of the push-button shifer mechanism featured in the Valiant we looked at on Tuesday. A convertible DeSoto Fireflite served as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 in 1956. Indy boss Tony Hulman called the Fireflite’s handling “superb,” though ’50s American cars set a pretty low bar for road-holding.

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This Fireflite four-door sedan was acquired by the seller a year ago, but they never got around to doing anything with it. The famous Hemi engine starts and runs fine, but has a leaky water pump, and the rest of the car hasn’t been touched, so it’s probably not safe to drive at the moment. Making sure you have good brakes and tires is kinda important.

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But it’s all there, and it’s all intact, and it looks very original. The black and white paint looks good, with only a little rust here and there, and the interior looks just fine. With a little elbow grease, this could turn some heads anywhere you chose to go show it off. The price is right, too. It surprises me that everyone fawns over Chevys from this era, but ignores cars like this. You buy a ’50s classic to stand out, right? Why not pick something no one else has?

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1958 Edsel Ranger – $9,700

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Engine/drivetrain: 361 cubic inch V8, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: outside Chico, CA

Odometer reading: 98,000 miles

Runs/drives? Looks like it, and for that price, I should hope so

The recession of 1958 that decimated DeSoto’s sales hit the rest of the industry hard as well. What better time to introduce a whole new upper-middle range line of cars full of unproven technology? And just to really make sure future automotive writers wonder what the hell you were thinking, give that whole new car line highly controversial styling, and announce it with as much fanfare as possible. The result is the stuff of legends: Edsel lasted only two and a half model years, sold a little over 100,000 cars, and became a punchline for the ages.

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Horse collar. Toilet seat. Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon. And those were the more charitable descriptions of the Edsel’s unusual grille design. It’s not an attractive car, but it is undeniably one of the most recognizable cars of the 1950s.

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Inside, the Edsel was no less weird, with a push-button gear selector of its own, called “Teletouch.” But unlike Chrysler’s mechanical design, Ford saw fit to use electric buttons and an actuator motor to shift the Edsel. Worse, they put the buttons on the steering wheel hub. The horn, like many cars from the era, is actuated by the silver ring around the inside rim of the wheel, but that didn’t stop Edsel owners from attempting to honk the horn and accidentally shifting gears. To make matters worse, the motor that did the shifting was too weak, requiring a bunch of strange workarounds to keep from destroying the mechanism.

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The dash, however, was straight-up cool, with a spinning dome for a speedometer. You can’t deny that the Jet Age had its moments.

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This Edsel is the low-end Ranger model, which to my eye looks the best of the bunch, with less chrome. If you ignore the bizarre front end, it’s actually a pretty cool looking car. And it’s not quite stock any more: it wears a nice set of Cragar wheels, and the “E-400” 361 cubic inch V8 breathes through a modern-looking Holley carburetor and wears a few chrome dress-up bits. The ad doesn’t say anything about how it runs, but I would guess, the way it’s presented, you could hop in and drive off with no problems.

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The rest of it looks nice and clean too. I really like this color; it’s very similar to Fender’s “Daphne Blue,” which I’ve always loved. This is obviously a different class of used car than the DeSoto, but it’s priced accordingly, at more than twice as much.

I guess it’s a question of whether you want a car that’s ready to roll, or one that needs some love first?

 

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58 Responses

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  2. The DeSoto is gorgeous, in fine shape, and a screaming deal. The Edsel is an Edsel. I’ve always liked the Edsel’s looks EXCEPT for the horsecollar grille (my mom always said it made the car look like it had just been goosed and she wasn’t wrong), and it’s simply too prominent a feature to ignore. It calls attention to itself like a face tattoo. I don’t mind turning heads, but not for Edsel reasons. Plus I don’t wanna spend that much on a shitbox.

  3. Both are nice cars for the time period. The Edsel screams “Someone Else’s Project” and we know that dance.

    The Desoto is a good wrench project. I would buy that, figure out what to do with it, get bored, sell it to someone else. 🙂

    1. Hey if you’re buying some other guys project take the one where they didn’t do anything which translates into they didn’t screw anything up. Really works when they just stripped it down and got bored.

  4. That DeSoto looks so much better than the Edsel, and is both cheap and rough enough that I wouldn’t feel bad making a few modern updates to make it a pleasure to drive. The Hemi stays obviously, but some cooling, braking, and tire upgrades would make that thing a fun cruiser. Might even hide Bluetooth in the glovebox.

  5. I’m one of those weirdos who absolutely loves the Edsel’s design. Even that grill. That said, for $6k less, roughly, I think that I’d lean towards the Desoto. Knock a bit off that almost $10k price tag, and I’d change my mind.

    1. I also like the Edsel’s design. To me it looks like Ford left the 50s behind and went right into the 60s. I also love the dash and you just don’t see Edsels anymore. That said I also like the Desoto, especially the two-tone paint.

    2. Hey if you’re buying some other guys project take the one where they didn’t do anything which translates into they didn’t screw anything up. Really works when they just stripped it down and got bored.

  6. Kinda funny, when I was growing up in the ’70’s, DeSotos were already gone from the roads and I don’t remember seeing any. The only thing I knew about DeSotos was that Howard Cunningham on ‘Happy Days” drove them, which lead me to believe that they were frumpy old man cars.
    Decades later, watching Mecum and B-J auctions, I came to learn that DeSotos were actually very cool, high-style rockets powered by Hemis. The gold trim, crazy upholstery, and optional record player are just icing on the cake.
    DeSoto all the way, leave the Edsel in the dustbin of history where it belongs.

        1. My family checked out the entire Happy Days run out of the library (children ages 10 and 14 at the time), and the entertainment and humor held up really well! The kids watched them all at least twice.

          Contrary to urban legend, the episode was a huge hit, the show remained #1 for years afterward, and continued for another 6 years after Fonzie “jumped the shark”.

  7. I always thought the front end on Edsels looked nice. It’s kind of truckish, and looks fantastic on Rancheros. (Hopefull link to example works, since we can’t post pics.)

    https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/proxy/Aim2O_fCchZ8TYXFwUA_cGguBMWnSilC24UksGgTu4_aXLutuEnwfFPZeHrZEf4SJxY7ihMtMfkeK1qi4c7RG8e6aT8IN1f-T-zHtAX_9m-DPVHCxkFQILqZh_YIUUcgy3IZZj_Avzkn8u6JFx4oxbBfr5zy9VlCoIP9QgdcEJ2jT2WE1wucuovuOHtUgUHaWA

    Assuming it’s as done as it presents, seems a fair price for the condition, without the unknowns of the Of Soto.

    1. You are in very rarified air. Not many cars are known for being as ugly as the Edsel- Aztek, Pacer, Gremlin, the second Dodge Dart.
      But I guess next a modern BMW or Lexus, the Edsel’s front end can be excused.

  8. Desoto. It appears to be all original and in not too shabby a shape. Shouldn’t take too much to get it back to life, assuming the water pump is a parts bin Mopar unit. Brakes would be a good candidate for a modern upgrade as that Mercury Comet video teaches us.

    As for the Edsel, I just can’t get past the 4-eyed, vag-nosed, sci-fi porn face. Rule 34 is a bitch sometimes.

  9. I couldn’t vote Edsel fast enough. I’ve always stood by the opinion that Edsels never deserved all of the hate they got. The earlier ones like this weren’t really much uglier/gaudier than any other 50s car and the later ones where they toned down the grille looked even more normal.

  10. I went with Edsel. I love the weird, I think it looks good, but I get why you wouldn’t. I love the push button transmission on the steering wheel, the colour is great and yeah sure, you don’t know what has been done to it, but apart from some less garish wheels theres not much that needs doing.

  11. I’d rather end up with the Mopar, but without a seriously in depth inspection I’m afraid it would cost a lot more than the price difference to get to similar condition. Both are nice dream projects. Ended up barely choosing the Edsel.

  12. I usually don’t look at prices on the Showdown.
    On this one, though, the difference is too substantial.
    I’ve never understood the hate for Edsels. The vulva grill never turned me off. The car was way too ahead of its time. Look at a ’62 Coupe de’Ville and you’ve got the same basic fender line.

    That said, the price difference is too great here. The DeSoto is an extremely cool car. The 331 (yes, it is 331 cubic inches) is a superb engine. If you rebuild it, you’ll get at least 100,000 miles out of it – more if you take care of it. Restore the car to bone stock and you’ve got the ultimate town cruiser. A restoration wouldn’t be difficult as the start is unmolested.

  13. I like the DeSoto better, and also have seen nicer (based on the ads) Edsels for sale in my vicinity for less money. So slight favor to the Mopar based on model, but price and condition tio the scales farther in the older car’s favor.

  14. I’d happily daily that Edsel – the 58’s in particular have grown on me over the years, but I would actually buy the Desoto. It’s a great starter-project price for it’s condition and I’ve always preferred the Desotos’ looks to the Chevys and Fords of the mid-fifties.

  15. I like them both, but it is DeSoto today. That is a screaming deal, and I have a soft spot for survivors. I would do a very gentle restoration/cleaning just enough to get it safe/reliable/presentable – replace wear items, buff it, deep-clean the interior, etc. I even thought of a name for it – “Fats Domino”

  16. Desoto, if I am going to go with an old 4 door sedan for 10K, it is going to be in better condition than that and something easier to get parts for. Desoto’s nice enough to fix up enough to drive to a local cars and coffee and turn a couple of heads with a little work.

  17. DeSoto. It’s got a Hemi and costs half as much.

    I’d want period-style seat covers – either Indian-blanket or plaid – but the fact they’d be conserving original upholstery vs hiding a bad ’90s/00s redo is another point in the DeSoto’s favor.

  18. Look, I’m not gonna deny that the Edsel is a great car. Especially when you need a large visual to demonstrate to your pubescent son where to find the lady parts and what to do with them while your neighbors think you’re just detailing the car – I mean, that’s valuable…

    But that Desoto is awesome. You could be the talk of the cruise-in and not have to deal with jokes like the one I just made.

  19. Having gone through the pain of buying a ’56 Chrysler New Yorker in similar condition as the De Soto, then losing my ass to a lying, cheating, conniving, bastard who claimed to be a restoration “expert” and ultimately selling the entire project complete with a 354 with a total rebuild worth thousands for a miserable $1500.

    Having said all that, I’d still be willing to start all over with the Desoto if I wasn’t ass deep into an original ’32 Chevrolet Confederate. Word of warning! Don’t drive a car with a wooden frame for the body on washboard roads. Amazing what all can come loose.

  20. The DeSoto has a DeSoto Hemi, not a Chrysler hemi. This is back in the day when every division had it’s own engines. Dodge, DeSoto and Chrysler had their own Hemi’s ( Plymouth didn’t have a Hemi in the 50’s), while all based on the same common design, there is very little interchangeability between the three. They are a great engine, very good castings, but expensive to build in production environment.

      1. LaSalle is to Cadillac what Edsel is to Ford. And LaSalles were designed by Harley Earl, who was indeed The Man in the ’30’s to 60’s era of American automotive design.

        Even after the termination of the independent marque, Mr. Earl proposed the Cadillac LaSalle II in 1955 that nearly made production. Much like the Corvette, it incorporated similar rounded and curved design elements that make it quite noteworthy.

        https://www.supercars.net/blog/1955-lasalle-ii-roadster/1955_lasalle_iiroadster1/

        So not quite ‘long gone’.

  21. If they were the same price, I would go for the Edsel, because I have a thing for ugly and unloved cars. But with that nearly 6k price difference, my vote goes to the Desoto. That seems like a bargain for a cool 50’s hemi.

  22. The Edsel and the DeSoto should be the same price. 4 door Edsel’s are worthless, and as others have pointed out, it’s someone else’s project with all sorts of weird things like those terrible wheels and a really bad interior re-do. The DeSoto is largely original and unmolested, and a lot better looking IMHO.

    DeSoto for me!

  23. YES, I’M A CHEAP ASS

    With that out of the way, let me tell you why I’d STILL take the Desoto. The interior is in pretty good shape, outside of the laceration-inducing steering wheel, and I like that a lot. Speaking of lots to like, the styling is very nice. It walks the line between runner and hopeless basketcase, something I call a bona-fide project car. Plus, when someone doesn’t ask, “That thing got a Hemi?” You can unironically reply yes to this nonexistent question evaporating into the atmosphere while at Cars and Coffee

    I don’t want to advertise to the world that I’m a gynecologist when I’m not, so I choose the Desoto.

  24. As far as 50s cars go, the DeSoto isn’t too ugly, and it seems like it would be more rewarding a project based on relative condition. Dome speedo aside, the Edsel’s interior looks like it belongs exclusively as a piece of sculpture for kids to climb on while awaiting a bad hamburger in a death-by-kitsch 50’s nostalgia diner in a tourist trap and not on the road.

    1. By better, I really mean different. The DeSoto looks too similar to others of the era, to my eye. A casual observer might think they saw a Bel Air or something. But the Edsel is something markedly different that you don’t see that often.

        1. I think the Edsel ends up with people asking what it is, while the DeSoto is “look at that neat old car.” The Edsel looks different enough that people don’t take it for granted as much.

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