Ready To Be Revived: 1936 Desoto Airstream

Recently discovered in a barn after 40 years of hibernation, this 1936 Desoto Airstream has most of its important parts and a solid body making this old sedan an interesting find for sure. Cleaned and coated, this deco era sedan certainly seems a worthy project to resurrect in whatever fashion you choose. Offered for $4,000 with a clean title, I am sure someone could find a use for this great looking classic. Check it out here on craigslist out of Ridgeway, South Carolina. Thanks to Barn Finds reader Bill Walters for this great submission!

Still in place, the 241 cubic inch inline 6 has a fair amount of rust and no details as to its condition.  The firewall has some surface rust, as do the interior edges of the engine hoods, but thankfully there looks to be no rot. A car of this caliber would be difficult and costly to restore, so perhaps a slightly more modern drive train will find its way into the nose of this old classic.

With only bare bones showing, there is little in the way of interior for this Desoto. The steering column and seats are in place but otherwise there is little else. A determined and crafty person could likely make use of the original seat frames, but again, if someone didn’t restore this to a “T” then modern equivalents could be used. There are absolutely no door panels whatsoever so some imagination will be needed no matter your choice for this classic.

Appearing mostly black this Desoto has been coating with a rust converting primer to hinder the spread of surface rust. Overall the body appears excellent with no major denting or damage other than one area of rust. The tip edge of the trunk floor has a small rot area that is easily manageable. Unfortunately the exterior of the trunk area has some rot as well. Right by the passenger rear bumper support you will see there is some not so pretty rust, but thankfully it is concentrated to a small area. It would take some patience and skill to resolve, but otherwise this body is in very nice shape considering it is 81 years old. There is also some missing trim and glass making a purist style restoration that much more difficult. Despite the flaws and concerns, this Airstream is a worthwhile car that should definitely hit the streets once again. What would you do with this Desoto?

Fast Finds



    Beer cans!

    Like 1
    • Mark Hopper

      I wouldn’t drink no beer from a can made from this hideous thing…

  2. ccrvtt

    Just seeing the top of that elegant grille in the first picture had me going. Then to see parking lights mimicking the shape of the grille and the fabulous proportions on the front of this car makes it worth saving.

    Since I only matched 3 numbers Saturday the savior will not be me. But this baby is worth having just to stare at the front and admire the sheer artistry. Great find.

  3. Rodney

    You had me at “parking lights”…

  4. Chuck Cobb

    make a nice family street rod. 318/727. Basic bones look good. Cost at least $400 for window rubber plus glass. Since at least front door window mechanisms are gone, put in PW. Hemming’s would be good place for door handles if you didn’t want to go bear claw. Redo gauges in factory instrument cluster too.

  5. whippeteer

    Restore or restomod and use this Airstream to pull a 1936 Airstream.

    Like 1
  6. Al

    With no glass, I can understand where the name “Airstream” comes from. This must be the earliest example of A/C in a sedan (marvelous engineering).

  7. leiniedude leiniedude Member

    It amazes me the amount of these old barn finds that survive with hood ornaments. Like the light up Pontiac ornament from the other day. Great stuff.

  8. Jim Morris

    The “parking lights” are actually the horns.
    The parking lights are separate bulbs inside the h/light housings.
    The Airsteam style was a rush job to have something to sell next to the Airflow, which was not well received.

  9. Rodney

    ….Ok, you had me at “horns”….

  10. Allen Member

    The miniature grills on the fenders hide the horns behind them. Jim is right. My dad had one of these. ‘ Traded it for a ’37. The ’37 DeSoto (like all Chrysler products of the year) was wider – a totally new design, but not anywhere near this attractive. This is classic art deco. ‘ Hope somebody restores it with the original drive-train. I have nothing against street rods but this is too rare, too beautiful, and too well-preserved. It needs restoration, not necessarily concours, and then driving, and stewardship.

  11. Doug Towsley

    I think its super cool,,, the front end is again, just amazing. I am not crazy about the rest of the body styling,, but again, could be a really cool car. Party car the haul your drunk friends around in.
    I respect anyone restoring this,, too much work for me to take on unless someone else was paying me.
    But If it were mine I would resto mod. I would spend some time with a tape measure at shopping centers, Malls or car lots. (This always confuses car salesmen) Then look on CL or insurance auctions for a good modern Donor car.
    Think Dodge, Ford, Cadillac SUV with a full frame… swap this body shell onto the modern frame and keep it titled as the Desoto. Modern brakes, power steering, decent handling,,, Done right it would be a lot of labor but you could do it for very cheap dollar wise. I have a friend a couple hours away that does about 4-5 of these projects a year with 3 beer drinking buddies. They make decent money to fund their toy fund (And beer supplies.) A couple nights per week and an occasional weekend.

    Like 2
  12. Pete in PA

    What great front end! Very similar to the 36 Dodge I picked up last year — headlamp pods sticking sideways out the grill shell, horn covers mounted on the fenders… Front end condition looks great and that’s important because those parts are often damaged and expensive to repair/replace.

    After that things go downhill though. The body style is a *touring* sedan which has the trunk compartment with lid. It was the most common body style by a huge margin and very clunky looking. I was lucky enough to stumble onto a much-rarer four door regular sedan which doesn’t have the trunk compartment – the spare tire is mounted back there and has a metal shell covering it. Much more attractive design.

    And the condition of this Desoto aft of the front end leaves much to be desired. The missing glass and interior parts will be a hassle to source.

    This would be an *awesome* parts car for a more desirable body style.

    Like 1
  13. Gerry in Ohio

    I love these Airstream cars. A number of years ago a I bought complete factory overdrive set up from an identical restored ’36 Desoto S1 that was being hot rodded. Planned to use it in another car but never did. Hmm. Hmm.

  14. Jim Zemboy

    I’m an “old movie buff” and the ’36 DeSoto Airstream must have been a favorite car to feature in subsequent movies. In the 1940 movie serial “The Shadow,” starring Victor Jory as Lamont Cranston (aka Lin Chang aka The Shadow) Cranston is chauffeured around town by his pal Vincent in a ’36 DeSoto Airstream taxi in nearly every episode, though he owns several other cars including a ’37 Lincoln Zephyr, a ’39 Chrysler and a late-thirties Packard. Then in the famous 1945 Joan Crawford drama “Mildred Pierce” in an opening scene the heroine arrives at home in a similar ’36 DeSoto Airstream taxi (now 9 years old.) In three subsequent scenes Mildred’s first husband Bert is seen driving one of his own–a four-door sedan like the taxi.

    Like 1
  15. Jim Zemboy

    Jim Zemboy here again! Silly me–I forgot about yet another movie that features the car: the 1950 crime drama “The Damned Don’t Cry” starring Joan Crawford and David Brian. Early in the film a ’36 DeSoto Airstream taxi drops Crawford off at home after a day’s work as a clothing model. In 1950 that car would have been 14 years old.

    Like 1
  16. Jim Zemboy

    Here we go again! I just watched another “film noir” made in 1947–it’s “I Walk Alone” starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott, and Wendell Corey–all four of them just about brand-new at acting. And toward the end Lancaster and Scott borrow a ’36 DeSoto Airstream cab to get over the GW Bridge from Manhattan to New Jersey to capture murderer Douglas.

    Like 1
  17. leiniedude leiniedude Member

    Love the film noir stuff Jim, Going to check it out. Thanks, Mike.

  18. Jim Zemboy

    Guys, I’m so sorry! I promise this is the last time! Watched another film noir–this one made in 1948, and it has two titles: “The Scar” or “Hollow Triumph,” take your pick. The stars are Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett. Still another ’36 DeSoto Airstream taxi–it makes a short 2 or 3 second appearance five minutes before the ending carrying crooks (probably). Film noir fans scream about how great this movie is–I dunno, I just watch them for the cars. But there sure must be something about 36 DeSoto cabs in film noirs as late as ’48 or ’50.

    Like 1
  19. Jim Zemboy

    One more contribution from Jim Zemboy in Detroit. (One of my aunts worked as a “Rosie the Riveter” type in the early 1950s at the DeSoto plant in Detroit, and so did my mom, briefly.) The DeSoto plant was about 3 miles from where we lived. Anyway, here’s an ad picture of the ’36 DeSoto Airstream. In case some of you don’t know, Chrysler Corporation tried to popularize the idea of “streamlining” during the 1930s and in 1934 introduced the Chrysler and DeSoto “Airflow” models which were very streamlined for the time. Headlights built into the front fenders, fenders that seemed to blend with the bodies, and fender skirts for the rear wheels to complete the “streamlined” look. The Airflow models were a sales failure and most automotive writers attribute that to the public’s “distaste” for their looks. I beg to differ. It was the 1930s and the Depression lasted a long time–in fact historians say it didn’t end till World War II put millions of Americans back to work, and here in Detroit we knew about that more than anyone! Take a look at the price of the ’36 DeSoto Airstream 4-door sedan. It was $695–that was plenty of money during the Depression. The 4-door Airflow that year was priced at $1095–a huge difference, and what did you get for your extra four c-notes? “Streamlined” exterior styling. You’d have to be either very stupid or very affluent (or both) to choose the Airflow. The Depression was not the right time to introduce revolutionary styling and charge $400 for it. So of course the Airstreams were much more popular. And in their ads, Chrysler “pushed” fender skirts even on the Airstreams to help popularize the streamlined look and other makes–Nash, Studebaker and Hudson–joined the crowd and pushed fender skirts in their ads but Ford and GM never bothered much with those till much later. Late 1940s and early 1950s GM cars featured those but fender skirts dried up and blew away pretty soon after that. Anyway, enjoy the pic.

    Like 2
  20. Jim Zemboy

    Sorry guys, I goofed and put a picture of the ’36 Airflow instead of the ’35 Airstream. Here’s the correct picture

    Like 3
  21. Jim Zemboy

    OMG, it’s happening again. Jim Zemboy here again, with another ’36 DeSoto Airstream taxi in a film noir and this time it’s the mother of all film noirs–the 1944 “Murder My Sweet” with Dick Powell playing Philip Marlowe. About halfway through the movie Marlowe–after being beaten up and drugged by a couple of hoods–is plopped into a cab to be taken home. And it’s a ’36 DeSoto Airstream again. Is this real?

    Like 1
  22. Jim Zemboy

    And again! I can’t believe this. Just watched another film noir–the 1945 “Escape in the Fog”–this one is Americans versus “the other side” in World War II. Three of the enemies kidnap the American hero at his hotel in San Francisco on a foggy night, drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, search him for something and try to kill him and throw him over the bridge. Oh, and they kidnap him in a ’36 DeSoto taxi! All the rest of the cars in the movie are more modern–like ’40 or ’41 vintage but this old DeSoto keeps popping up.

    Like 1
  23. Allen

    Is there a B&W movie from the late 30s, 40s, and/or early 50s in which all the taxis are not DeSotos? I can’t think of any.

  24. Jim Zemboy

    You’re right, Allen, but it wasn’t just in the movies. We lived in Detroit then (I was just a kid) and I remember ALL the taxis (certainly most, anyway) were DeSotos. I think there were two reasons for that: DeSotos came in several sedan models, of course, but there was an extra big one “for big families” that seated eight (a couple of swing-down extra seats were in the rear compartment. Also, the rear doors were “suicide doors” making entry of passengers easier than in GM cars of the period. That alone made DeSotos desirable as taxi cabs. Also important, however, was “Fluid-Drive,” introduced on Chryslers in 1940 and DeSoto in 1941. The coupling between engine and transmission was NOT mechanical–it was fluid, so the cab driver could stop for a traffic light by just using the brake–there was no need to use the clutch pedal because the car would not stall–the engine would continue to idle. Then inching forward as slow moving traffic finally advanced was just removing his foot from the brake. Very restful for the driver! Crowded downtown streets were no problem to the driver of a DeSoto taxi. Olds and Cadillac offered Hydramatic by then, but Chrysler Fluid Drive was trouble free while early Hydramatics were fussy about maintenance.

    But I have more (again!) I just watched the 1944 “Double Indemnity” again (Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.) After the murder, Fred changes clothes in his apartment, then goes down into the basement garage to establish an alibi (to be seen there by the car-washing attendant). In the background a ’36 DeSoto Airstream is awaiting it’s turn under the wash rag. This is unreal! Not a taxi this time, though.

    Like 1
  25. Allen Member

    Ah Jim,

    Reminiscing is fun for us old guys. My dad had a ’36 Desoto for awhile, then a ’37 for several years. Early post-war (1946-54) long-chassis Desotos were called “Suburbans”. Yup, they beat Chevrolet to the name. These were a stretch-limo with jump-seats. The passenger cabin was open to the trunk, and a good deal of wood was used in the interior finishing in the ones I saw as a kid. They thus combined many of the features of a station wagon with the appearance of a sedan. The stretch was mostly in the rear doors – they were very long. There was a prewar precedent for these – although they weren’t called “Suburbans”.

    Like 1
  26. Jim Zemboy

    Thanks for that information, Allen. I had no idea the term “Suburban” was applied to those extra-long DeSotos. I went on line and read all about them.

  27. Andres Rincon Member

    I’m interested in this 1936 Desoto, is it still for sale?

    Like 1

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