The DeSoto Custom Suburban is a distant ancestor to today’s crossovers
If it seems that everyone is driving SUVs and crossovers, you’re right. Last year, trucks accounted for a record 69 percent of light vehicle sales, with most of that growth coming from crossovers. With a two-box design, large cargo area, fold-down rear seats, and employing a car platform, they’re little more than high-riding station wagons.
There were SUVs being built by the late 1940s, including the Chevrolet and GMC Suburban, although both were built on GM’s pickup platform and suitably utilitarian. There was one vehicle, however, that could be argued was an early ancestor to the modern day unibody crossover: the DeSoto Custom Suburban, which was built from 1946–54. Its brief life span owes its existence to the brand’s unique place in the industry.
Why did DeSoto exist anyway?
Established in 1928 by Chrysler Corporation founder Walter Chrysler, DeSoto was initially a strong competitor against mid-priced brands like Oldsmobile, Buick, Hudson, Nash, Studebaker, and Dodge. Introduced alongside the low-priced Plymouth, it allowed Chrysler to challenge General Motors and Ford.
But there was a problem. Chrysler Corporation was buying too many parts from suppliers, and costs were getting hard to contain. When the bankers who owned Dodge offered Walter Chrysler the chance to buy the company, he did. But it wasn’t for the cars.
“Dodge had a big forge shop,” Chrysler wrote in his autobiography, Life of American Workman. “We were paying out vast sums for forged parts, too, because we had no forge shop.”
In an effort to better compete with Ford and Chevrolet, Chrysler bought Dodge in 1928, slotting it between DeSoto and Chrysler. Nevertheless, DeSoto proved nearly as popular as Dodge until the introduction of the radically aerodynamic DeSoto Airflow in 1934. Demand tanked while other Chrysler brands, offering cars with conventional styling, continued to sell.
The fleet arrives
By this point, San Francisco’s James F. Waters, DeSoto’s largest distributor, saw an opportunity: sell DeSoto’s long-wheelbase sedan for taxi cab use. Only General Motors and Checker built taxi cabs, mostly because New York City required that they hold five passengers behind the driver in a separate compartment.
Waters’ idea involved buying stripped seven-passenger DeSoto sedans and fitting them with taxi livery before selling them at his newly acquired Manhattan dealership. His success entrenched Chrysler as the leading provider of taxi cabs even as DeSoto was repositioned in the corporate lineup, now situated above Dodge but below Chrysler.
Given its favored status among taxi and limousine operators, it’s little wonder that once car production resumed after World War II, the 1946 DeSoto was once more offered as a 139.5-inch long-wheelbase sedan, in addition to the standard 121.5-inch wheelbase models. Available only in top-of-the-line Custom trim, long-wheelbase body styles included a limousine and eight-passenger sedan, just like its more expensive Chrysler siblings. The DeSoto sedans were joined by something quite different: the DeSoto Custom Suburban. (Even though the Suburban name was used by General Motors since the 1930s, the company didn’t trademark it until the 1960s.)
Like other automakers, DeSoto’s 1946–48 models were mostly rewarmed pre-war models. This included the driveline, the venerable 236.6-cubic-inch (3.9-liter) flathead six that made 109 horsepower. DeSotos weren’t quick, but they were well made. The engine was mated to a three-speed manual transmission or optional Fluid Drive semi-automatic transmission that was marketed as “Tip-Toe Shift.” (No, seriously, it was.)
Starting at $2175 (or about $30,400 in modern inflation-adjusted dollars), the Suburban was the most expensive car in the DeSoto line, and the only one with optional two-tone paint.
So is it really an early crossover?
This is a nine-passenger sedan, but with some notable differences that will sound familiar to those who drive a modern-day crossover. Yes, it has three rows, but all are full-sized, unlike the second-row jump seats typically associated with seven-passenger sedans. The seats are upholstered with a special plastic trim to protect them from the bumps and scratches of cargo hauling. And the Custom Suburban can haul a lot of cargo. There is no separation between the cargo hold and the passenger compartment, much like the modern SUV hatchback. Its sides are lined in plastic, while the floor features chrome rub strips. Like modern day three-row crossovers, the DeSoto’s third row seats fold flat and its second row folds forward against the back of the front seats, allowing for more than 80 cubic feet of cargo space.
At nearly seven feet long, DeSoto claimed the fully-deployed cargo floor sleeps two easily. Even with the second row in use, the trunk is more than five feet long. Not enough room for you? Pop some luggage on the metal-and-wood roof rack. By this point, the laughably named “Powermaster Six” had 112 horsepower—still not enough to get out of its own way, especially if you made full use of the Custom Suburban’s cargo hold
While it may have been the perfect sophisticated conveyance for hotels, airports, and large wealthy families, the Custom Suburban was DeSoto’s priciest model and was correspondingly a slow seller. DeSoto attempted to stoke interest with the 1949 DeSoto Carryall, a short-wheelbase sedan also featuring a fold-down rear seat but lacking a third row. It would last until 1951, when it was axed along with the Suburban. Nash and Kaiser-Frazer offered similar products, but none caught the fancy of consumers.
The Desoto Custom Suburban would escape total obscurity, however, by gaining a scintilla of fame in the 1970s as the Cunningham family car on the ABC-TV sitcom Happy Days. The Desoto has plenty of seats, so in the words of Richie Cunningham and his pals, pick one and sit on it!