Classic Cars

Family Heirloom

Bought new in 1939 by his grandfather, this Australian-assembled DeSoto is Frank Lowndes’ one-family-owned slice of history.

One family owner for 83 years. Unrestored with original engine and gearbox. Only 84,000 miles on the clock.” Should this 1939 DeSoto Six go up for sale – spoiler alert, it won’t – those are the scarcely believable lines Frank Lowndes could write about his Australianassembled pre-war American classic.

The curvaceous DeSoto was bought new by Franks’s grandfather just before the outbreak of World War II. “When I spoke to him about it he said with war about to start he’d buy a new car to get through without any problems,” Frank explained. It was a savvy move with the inevitable wartime shortages brewing, and successful too as the DeSoto served as family transport for the next thirty years.

In 1969 Frank bought his grandfather’s long-serving DeSoto. In the following half century it’s stayed in his care, racking up a mere 5000 miles (8000 kilometres) in that time. Around 2000 of those miles have come in the last three years as Frank and wife Marilyn have embraced retirement on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast as active members of the region’s Roadrunner Car Club. The DeSoto’s already a firm favourite on the local car scene.

Staying in a single family since 1939 and remaining unrestored is interesting enough, but the fact it was assembled at such a flashpoint in history, and the challenges that brought, makes it a true one-of-a-kind. It was badged and sold a DeSoto, but is actually something of a mongrel – albeit a very attractive one. Seems if DeSoto parts weren’t available, Plymouth items would have to do the job. War’s coming, after all.

It was assembled in Adelaide by TJ Richards & Sons, a well-regarded coachbuilder producing bodies for the likes of Australian-sold Citroens, Fiats, Austins and Rolls-Royces. By the 1930s a relationship with the Chrysler Corporation saw it produce and assemble bodies for Chryslers, Dodges, Plymouths and DeSotos.

The build plate on Frank’s car says it’s an SP7S. Export models were built on Plymouth chassis and these chassis numbers weren’t altered just because it was to be badged DeSoto. In 1939 the Plymouth P7 Roadking and P8 De Luxe were the models converted to DeSotos, named SP7 and SP8 respectively. Complicated? You bet.

These days we call the practice badge engineering – you’re getting a near identical car but perhaps with different lights, front grille and cabin goodies. With DeSoto a ‘mid-price’ brand and Plymouth the entry-level, you could justify a higher price for the former despite it basically being a Plymouth in all but name.

The big DeSoto nonetheless exudes presence, style and class. There are hints of Art Deco streamline curves, masses of chrome, a high roofline above tiny windows and big suicide doors. There are the required running boards up the side – the type gangsters would ride on in the movies – and the hubcaps’ DeSoto font is wonderfully 1930s.

“I don’t entirely know what components came from the States and which were made here,” Frank said. “I only recently discovered a number of parts are Plymouth and not DeSoto. The front door windows, for example, are one piece while DeSotos should have a vent window in them. The grilles on the side of the engine compartment are Plymouth while other DeSotos had different ones. And at the front the main grille is DeSoto but those underneath it are Plymouth.”

Head to the back of the car and you’ll find only one taillight. It’s on the right fender while the left one is lacking. “They had problems finding glass for it,” Frank said. “They normally have two taillights, but I suspect they were in short supply. You only needed one taillight back then, so that’s what they did.”

Frank believes the chassis and basic body were shipped from the States alongside the mechanical components. “When they were assembled in Adelaide I suspect the guards, bonnet and possibly doors were made locally, but I don’t know for sure.”

Under the elongated hood is a 100hp 228cu in Chrysler flathead six-cylinder, mated to a three speed on the floor. “When I was getting parts for it from the States they came back and told me it was a Plymouth motor,” said Frank. “But I know it’s original as I still have the original handbook and it has the same engine number written on it. That was the start of me thinking, at that time, they were using whatever parts they had available to make sure they were built.”

It’s a car Frank has known his whole life. He recalls a trip he and his grandfather made in the big DeSoto when he was a child. “We were coming home at night, he said he was having trouble seeing so he got me to drive it; I was only fifteen,” he explained. This family history has ensured he’s cared for it since 1969. It remains largely unrestored, but Frank insisted on giving it a new coat of paint in 1970. “That’s starting to flake now and there’s some crows feet on the roof, but it’s not bad for fifty years ago.”

There’s a lovely subtle red pinstripe along its flanks, and the suicide doors open to reveal a beautiful, vast interior. Burgundy bench seats have been re-trimmed in leather and look good as new, as do burgundy door cards. The unrestored dashboard is of painted steel and shows signs of its 80-plus years in service with speedo number transfers falling off. As far as I’m concerned, this merely adds to the character and authenticity of the golden instrument panel rich with design class.

With a decorated career – including as mechanic on the Holden Dealer Team’s 1969 Bathurst 500-winning Holden HT Monaro – Frank’s had no trouble maintaining and repairing his DeSoto. “The main thing is brakes,” he said. “About every two or three years the wheel cylinders would seize up through not being used much, and through condensation in alloy pistons in the cast iron cylinders. A few years ago I had them all fitted with stainless steel sleeves and haven’t had problems since.”

Frank’s also replaced deteriorated brake hoses, oil seals in the diff and gearbox, sorted some rust under the front guards and re-rubbered the running boards. I asked about converting the six-cylinder to run on unleaded, but these old American lumps are robust things it seems. “I’ve done nothing about that and it hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “The main thing with unleaded fuel is temperatures on the valves, but this is very low compression and only does short runs.”

The gearbox has proved more laborious however. Its top plate overlaps and also bolts on to the main bellhousing, so you must remove the floor and take the top off the gearbox before removing it. Otherwise, parts are easy to come by from the States, albeit freight costs can be crippling.

Frank’s replaced the car’s shock absorbers with more modern equivalents – the fronts are off a Toyota LandCruiser would you believe – and reports it a very comfortable cruiser that’s happy to sit at 100km/h. “It was the first year they used independent front suspension,” he said. “There’s no idler arm on the left-hand side so you’ve got one short and one long steering drag link. So it gets bump steer over the bumps and you’ve to be prepared for that; it does move around a bit.”

Frank said there’s no doubt the car will stay in the family in future, and when he’s completed his current project restoring a Mk1 Ford Cortina he’ll consider doing the DeSoto’s paintwork once again. “But a lot of people like it as it is, rather than make it a show car,” he explained. There’s so much history in every facet of this elegant old DeSoto it seems perfect exactly as it is.

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