WAS the DeSoto Suburban of 1947 well ahead of its time?

More than likely, since it was an unusual mix of a crossover SUV, luxury limo and people carrier — and it had some nifty tech features too, such as a speedometer that changed colours in increments: green to 39 mph, amber to 50 mph and red at higher velocities.

As well, its model name preceded that of the Chevy Suburban by many a decade.

The Franschhoek Motor Museum, near Cape Town, has an exquisite example and its newsletter features an in-depth article by Mike Monk:

While all Deluxe models and the four base Custom models were built on a 121,5-inch (3086 mm) standard wheelbase, three Custom models – sedan, limousine and Suburban – were built on a 139,5-inch (3543 mm) long-wheelbase platform. Body length was consequently huge, no less than 225,3 inches (5723 mm). It was 77 inches (1956 mm) wide.

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The Suburban appeared in the line-up in November 1946 and was billed as a four-door, eight-passenger vehicle by virtue of ‘jump seats’ fitted behind the rear seats capable of carrying two adults – and maybe even three children.

In taxi spec, the DeSoto was classified as a nine seater.

The whole seat could be tipped up to increase the already huge boot space into a cavern. While the jump seat’s cushion was one piece, the backrest was centrally split with each half folding flat, increasing load carrying versatility even more.

The back seat could be slid right forward to behind the front seats to create a near 1.8-metre load bed, increasing cargo volume even more. The only limiting factor was the conventional boot opening.

Had it been a tailgate, then the Suburban would almost qualify as a pantechnicon, but after all it was a variation on a sedan body. Oh, a full length roof rack was standard equipment. What did not go inside went on top . . .  So it is easy to understand why immediately after WWII, safari companies bought Suburbans for use as tour buses, particularly for trips to the Kruger National Park.

The interior was quite classy. The cushions of the sumptuous seats had foam rubber pads, and the floor had tailored carpets. Burl and grain garnished dashboard and door cappings, leather upholstery and two-tone door mouldings with chrome handles and a full complement of courtesy lights and grab handles added a touch of class to the fittings.

A push-button radio was also included. By contrast with the split windscreen, the front door windows feature frameless quarter-lights and the rear door glass is a single pane. Opening rear side windows helped ventilation.

Under the l-o-n-g bonnet lies a fairly unstressed, cast iron 3.8-litre in-line six-cylinder engine running in four main bearings. The side-valve motor had lifters and was fuelled by a Ball and Ball carburettor with a 6.6:1 compression ratio.

An Oilite fuel tank filter was a standard item. Peak power was 81.5 kW at 3600 rpm and maximum torque was 260Nm at 1200.

A three-speed manual gearbox was standard on the Deluxe with a two-speed Fluid Drive ‘Tip-Toe shift’ standard on Custom models – optional on Deluxe.

Although called Fluid Drive, the DeSoto transmission was in reality a two-speed manual transmission with a conventional clutch mounted behind the same fluid coupling unit that was installed in straight Fluid Drive cars.

Theoretical top speed was 119 km/h and 12-inch Safe Guard hydraulic drum brakes were fitted all round.  

As the output figures suggest, the engine is what can be termed a ‘lazy six’ – powerful enough to do the job but do not expect any fireworks.

With a 1900kg kerb weight, performance is leisurely, the easy-going transmission precluding having to keep things on the boil.

But the engine proved to be robust and reliable if properly maintained and would usually run to 300,000km before it engine needed attention.

Once they reached half-a-million miles (800,000 km), the tour operators often sold them to taxi operators.

Providing the suspension has not gone soft, big, heavy cars always provide a stable ride and the Suburban did just that.

The big, stylish plastic steering wheel with horn ring proved to be reasonably weighted, even when manoeuvring, which can be a bit of a chore because of the car’s large turning circle.

But its space and pace were ideally suited to the roles it played, offering passengers a stretch limo experience for travelling the length and breadth of the country to view our wildlife, or simply acting as a multipurpose people/load carrier.

Either way, it fulfilled its purpose while offering all the creature comforts of a passenger car rather than the otherwise more commercial vehicle approach.

The basic pre/post-war DeSoto model line-up lasted until the 1954 model year, but the Suburban fell away after 1952.

Total Suburban sales for 1946-49 were given as 7500.

Its versatility has to be admired even today.

The name is a bit odd though as it does not really reflect what the car is capable of. Perhaps DeSoto Crossover might have been more appropriate . . . 

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Buys

Bill Buys, probably Australia’s longest-serving motoring writer, has been at his craft for more than five decades. Athough motoring has always been in his DNA, he was also night crime reporter, foreign page editor and later chief reporter of the famed Rand Daily Mail. He’s twice been shot at, attacked by a rhinoceros and had several chilling experiences in aircraft. His experience includes stints in traffic law enforcement, motor racing and rallying and writing for a variety of local and international publications. He has covered countless events, ranging from world motor shows and Formula 1 Grands Prix to Targa tarmac and round-the-houses meetings. A motoring tragic, he has owned more than 90 cars. Somewhat of a nostalgic, he has a special interest in classic cars. He is the father of Targa star Robert Buys, who often adds his expertise to Bill’s reviews.