“Come away with me, Hernando ….”

April 28, 2009


1952 De Soto

1952 De Soto

My father had two De Sotos – a ’48 and a ’52. The ’48 is the first family car of ours that I can remember. Chrysler stopped making the DeSoto in 1961. The car was named after Hernando De Soto and many models had a nifty likeness of De Soto as a hood  ornament. Perhaps school kids are still taught that De Soto discovered the Mississippi River in 1542. Actually, he led the first European party to find the Mississippi River. A few folks had already seen it, but hadn’t sent word far enough East to reach De Soto, whose achievement was put into even sharper context by Jerry Seinfeld: “Yeah, like they wouldn’t have found that anyway.” 

But I digress. 




Joe Engel drove a Henry J. That was a more or less compact car manufactured by Kaiser Frazer, beginning in 1950. The car was named after the head of the company, Henry J. Kaiser. The Henry J disappeared from the market in 1954. Under the terms of a federal loan Kaiser had received in 1949, specifications for the Henry J were dictated by that harbinger of efficiency, the federal government. Under those terms, the basic Henry J had to sell for no more than $1,300, including federal tax and dealer prep charges. It had to accommodate at least five adults and be able to sustain a speed of 50 miles per hour. In order to meet those standards, the Henry J was bare bones. For instance, there was no trunk. Well, there was a trunk, but to get to it, a person had to pull out the back of the rear seat. There was no access from the outside; that was to save parts. The basic model also had no glove compartment, no arm rests, no sun visor on the passenger side, and no ventilation of outside air. It wasn’t a success, especially since a driver could buy a better car from another manufacturer without spending much more. Frank Zappa once rode across country in the back seat of a Henry J, and lived to tell about it.

I heard that Joe Engel had once played for a Yankee farm club in Binghamton. That was when the Yankees had a farm system that developed so many good players that …. But I digress again.

I’m thinking about the De Soto and the Henry J because of the news about  discontinuing the Pontiac line. The layoffs and the impact on ancillary businesses and industries will be murder, but a decision like this is a reminder that one thing healing the economy should not be about is preserving business models and government practices that contributed to the false prosperity that recently collapsed around our heads. Over-production and over-expansion were among the wrongheaded practices, and the goal should not be to get back to making those mistakes. I don’t have such fond memories of the Pontiac anyway. The only one I ever drove was a ’56 that my brother let me borrow for a date. The driver’s side door wouldn’t open from the inside. Every time I wanted to get out, I had to roll down the window and reach the outside door handle. Naturally, it rained that night, so I spent the date with a drenched left arm. Fortunately, I’m right handed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s