392-CUBE HEMI-POWERED 1955 DESOTO FIREFLITE

392-CUBE HEMI-POWERED 1955 DESOTO FIREFLITE

Damien Veness's 1955 Desoto packs a 392 Hemi in a solid dose of Mopar cool

This article on Damien's Desoto was orginally published in the September 2011 issue of Street Machine

MOPAR OR NO CAR. That's the cry from many Chrysler enthusiasts and Damien Veness is certainly one of the Mopar faithful.

Not only has he just finished this beautiful ’55 Desoto, but he’s also got a ’73 ’Cuda and a late 70s Dodge pick-up, in addition to the ’49 Dodge Coronet Coupe we featured way back in November 2003.

Desoto -rearYou may also remember his 1971 Dodge D5N 200 pick-up that we ran a few years ago (SM, Sept ’06). Damien turned the ugly work hack into a show stopper, and his phone rang off the hook with people pestering him to buy it.

“I sold it to buy this one. She wouldn’t let me have another until I sold one,” he laughs. ‘She’ is Damien’s long-suffering wife Susan.

Damien has had a hankering for a Desoto coupe ever since he saw Glen Jenkin’s Desoto Sportsman (SM, May ’02).

“I loved what he did and had the option to buy it, but I wanted to build something for myself,” Damien says, and found his project on the other side of the Pacific.

Desoto -side -view“It was still going and was supposed to have no rust issues, but it had miles of it,” Damien says. Most of the lower sections were heavily rusted, but the chassis was okay.

“It had a Hemi, which I was going to put a pump on, but these other ones came up so I just grabbed one of those,” Damien says.

Those ‘other ones’ are 392 Hemi V8s that a workshop in the US was getting rid of. They weren’t cheap, but Damien bought a disassembled one that had been fully remanufactured.
As with his other builds, Damien used retired spanner twirler Ian Anelzark to piece it all together, and now he reckons the sound of that Hemi engine is like the trumpet call of 1000 heavy metal angels. But what transmission do you stick behind an engine like this?

It turns out Damien didn’t need to look any further than the Chrysler catalogue for a 518 Torqueflite, which is a 727 Torqueflite with an overdrive unit and a lock-up converter. They’re bulky, but tough as nails and relatively easy to retrofit if you’ve got a big enough trans tunnel.

Desoto -bonnet -upOutside the mods are minimal. A few shaved badges here and a bit of filling around the forward edge of the bonnet. Those Desoto Grilles have proved popular on Mercury lead sleds

There’s no computer, it just works with your normal shifter and all it needs for the overdrive and lock-up converter is two simple switches on the dash. Using a Hot Heads adaptor plate to mate it to the early Hemi, the four-speed conversion was one of the easier jobs.

“It makes a fair difference, too,” Damien says. “I’ve got 3.9 gears and it’s pretty revvy in third, but the overdrive knocks it down. Driving down to Albury I got 23mpg (12.3l/100km) while putting along at 100km/h.”

With a Dodge 8.75in rear to complete the Mopar trifecta, the driveline practically sorted itself, but the body was a little more difficult.

With good mates Carl Mills and Peter Lofts helping they attacked the rusty shell, which needed more bodywork than Kirsty Alley.

Desoto -engine -bay
The beautiful 392 Hemi has been centrally mounted and is the perfect piece of period muscle for the mid-50s Desoto. Damien built all the exhaust himself and reckons the sound is magnificent

“It wasn’t an easy car and I don’t know that I’d ever do another like it,” Damien admits.

“We replaced inner sills, outer sills, lower rear quarters – both inners and outers – plus the bottom of the front guards and sections of the floor pan.

“That was all rusty, but the chassis was good,” Damien says.

While they were heavily involved in the metal work, Damien also decided to enlarge and shift the trans tunnel so the engine and trans would sit better when he centred things up. Chrysler engines sit slightly offset toward the driver’s side and Damien wanted to correct that.

The hardest part was converting the Desoto from left-hand-drive. Getting the steering geometry right proved to be a bitch and he ended up using a steering rack from a Daewoo and had the steering arms made up from chrome-moly.

Desoto -interior -frontDamien says the seats were like ironing boards. He had them resculptured and then covered in beige leather. The switches for the overdrive sit just above the driver's knee

In the cabin a VC Valiant steering column has been adapted to the rack as well, and after months of mud maps and head scratching he’s got something that works.

“It steers and drives beautiful,” Damien says, “I’ve got almost zero bump steer, which is pretty good considering I couldn’t drive this thing up the road and test drive it.”
Then it was time for the rear end.

“I spent three months doing the steering on the front, and went to the back end thinking it’ll be easy, then spent five months under there.”

He’s tubbed the rear end for those monster 12.5in Hoosiers and moved the spring inwards for extra tyre clearance.

Desoto -dashThe steering column comes from a VC Valiant complete with column shift

The Dodge diff was shortened and fitted with 30-spline billet axles and a TruTrac centre, and Damien grabbed an SSBC disc brake conversion from the US. He ran into a minor snag with the calipers hitting the chassis rails but rotating the caliper mounts on the diff housing fixed that.

Finding good chrome and stainless proved to be another nightmare, so Damien bought another car in the US, had all the chrome and stainless stripped off, boxed up and sent to Australia. He picked through the two cars’ worth of bits for the best pieces to be repaired, polished or chromed.

Good glass was harder to find than Osama Bin Laden so he ended up getting the original rear screen polished, and despite the deep scratches, it came up looking like new.

As for the paint, Damien didn’t want anything too ostentatious. “I like the green,” Damien reckons. “I picked that colour off a 2010 Volkwagen commercial. It’s old-school looking but it’s still eye catching. We call it The Splice.”

Desoto -bootOn the way to Chryslers on the Murray 2011, he had carby problems. Apparently some polishing crap got stuck in the metering block at the factory. But after pulling it down on the roadside, the big Hemi was fine and with the four-speed auto switched to overdrive, Damien was getting 12.3l/100km. Not bad for old-school muscle.

At COTM the Desoto had a crowd around it most of the weekend and scored Car of Show, but some didn’t like the dare-to-be-different colour scheme.

“I love it,” Damien says. “Some people don’t like it, but I didn’t build it for anybody else. You’ll either appreciate it or you won’t.”

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