Leon Ekery’s Brutal, Duramax-Powered 1956 DeSoto
Imagine owning a junkyard in the Southwest for the past three decades, and think of all the rust-free cars, parts, and pieces that have come and gone. We’d be lusting to build something different every week, only to be reminded that you can’t keep it all, and paying the bills at home should probably outweigh (only barely) trying to horde every cool piece that came through the yard.
Leon Ekery has had his share of interesting old tin come through his yard, Dyer Auto Salvage, in the far northeast corner of El Paso, Texas. But he also understands that his business is based on selling the cars and parts that land in his yard. There are exceptions, such as finding your dream car or perhaps something so unusual and against the grain that nobody really wants it. Such is the case of a certain 1956 four-door DeSoto Fireflight.
Leon admits to having a penchant for “different” when it comes to cars, trucks, and even motorcycles. In fact, one friend dubbed his driveway “the land of the misfit toys,” so there was just something about this DeSoto when it was towed into the yard. The car was complete, including the factory 330ci Hemi and all of its factory brightwork and interior pieces. Eventually, a local hot rodder pried the Hemi out of the DeSoto, but Leon couldn’t bring himself to scrap the complete car, so he waited.
Leon’s been messing with cars all his life, and he’s been through hot rods, customs, a little drag racing, rockcrawling, SCCA racing, and even motorcycles. What intrigued him, as well as his son, Warren, was landspeed racing. And Pikes Peak. And Power Tour®, along with One Lap of America.
They needed a car to do it all—and one that would be different. A plan was unfolding.
It was Warren who brought up the
prospect of going with diesel power to net the most bang for their buck, plus it was different. In looking at the DeSoto parked in the yard, now without its heart, the thought of dropping a Duramax drivetrain into the forlorn ’56 kind of made sense. The game was on.
At first, they thought they were just going to need to rework the DeSoto’s chassis a bit and beef things up underneath to get the engine to fit. Leon found a running and driving 2003 Chevy 2500HD pickup with more than 200,000 miles on it, which would provide the entire drivetrain and electronics. It was also about this time when they started to realize that the 1956 chassis was never going to live up to the demands of that kind of torque, power, and weight.
More thinking, measuring, and imagining ensued until their buddy and builder, Shawn Petta of Function Fab, determined that they can modify the truck chassis and, in theory, drop the body in place. Shawn and Leon knew about S-10 chassis swaps in street rods and Crown Vic chassis under fullsize Fords and pickups, but could the Silverado chassis and driveline actually be modified to squirrel under the big DeSoto body? Shawn got busy to find out.
The Silverado was stripped down to the running chassis and most all of the required electronic components to keep the necessary systems functioning. The instrument cluster, wiring harness, steering column, trans, and complete engine were kept in their original location. To lower the front end, a set of McGaughy’s drop spindles were used in conjunction with a set of lowering keys for the torsion bars.
The rear end was a completely different story. Obviously, the wheelbase of the two vehicles was different and rather than cut a section out of the middle, it was decided to reposition the rear axle forward on the existing frame. This would eliminate compromising the strength of the chassis, and they’d simply cut off the length they didn’t need.
Once located properly, Shawn set about fabbing a custom rear-suspension system consisting of a heavy-duty truck four-link system supported with QA1 coilovers, as well as a Watts linkage to reduce the side-toside movement and increase overall stability. As for the rear axle itself, Shawn started with a sheetmetal 9-inch housing, fit it with the stock GM 2500 axletubes and brake assemblies, and modified the mounting locations.
Meanwhile, the DeSoto body was pulled apart with the floor cut away to see where it would all come to rest on the chassis.
The body was kept in its aged patina, except for a couple minor modifications. In the rear, the quarter-panels were sliced a bit to make changing the rear wheels a lot easier and made to resemble something of a fender skirt.
The other necessary metalwork was done on the hood to add clearance for the turbo and air inlet. Leon didn’t want to have the turbo and plumbing peeking out from under the hood, so they cut the original hood and shimmed the skin from a 1956 Chrysler hood just high enough to add the extra clearance, and welded it in place. The bumpers, grille, mirrors, and trim are all original to the DeSoto.
One nice thing about the project is that the driveline was proven and still functioning as a 2003 Chevy truck. Even the ABS brake system was retained and still in place. An entire floorpan was created, then for added stability and aero, Shawn crafted an entire bellypan under the DeSoto. Sandwiched between the floor and the pan is a 5-inch open exhaust system crafted by Al Ledesma of Al’s Performance Exhaust, which snakes up and out the rear window.
All along, Leon had no intentions of making this a one-sanctioning-body race car. In fact, he wanted to keep it street-legal and went through huge headaches to have the Lexan windows function and the rear glass to remain in place. All the wiring, turn signals, and horn function as they did when the DeSoto was new.
The stock ECU, harness, and the accessory drive remain, though Leon had Dan Moschkaw update the head studs with a set from ARP and replace the injectors, filters,
and pump with FASS components. Warren added a 64mm Stealth turbo, and used a set of open manifolds and downpipe. A little tuning was required with the new 2.47 gears, which were coupled to a Gear Vendors Under/Overdrive unit that puts the final drive at 1.3:1 (which places the cruise rpm at about 2,800). Rod Coddens (aka “Idaho Rob”) of Adrenaline Truck Performance took to the task with his trusty laptop and EFI Live programming.
What was originally thought to be a 12- to 18-month build ended up taking four-plus years, but patience pays off and the “DeSotomaxx” was not only done but done right and ready to race.
Leon and Warren have run the DeSotomaxx at El Mirage three times now, turning in consistent 146-mph passes. It seems that they found their wall of air for the 7,200- pound brick and need more power to get through it. To learn what kind of power the tired Duramax was making, they took to the rollers at Hammer Performance. At the wheels, they saw 450 hp with 900 lb-ft of peak torque. Not bad for 200,000 miles, but not enough.
In 2017, they tackled Big Bend Open Road Race in West Texas, which is a 59-mile run from Fort Stockton to Sanderson. The fatherson duo ran the 100-mph target class just to get a feel for the event, to check the handling of the behemoth DeSoto at speed, but mainly to enjoy the experience. They ended up running third in their class and bringing home the trophy for Most Unique Vehicle.
For 2018, the plan is to head to Bonneville for Speed Week, but first will be serious updates to the drivetrain. A new engine is being built at Scoggin Dickey Parts Center Raceshop based on an all-new Duramax block. It’ll have a Callies rotating assembly to hold up to the increased rpm and higher boost from compound turbos. Knowing what they achieved on the lakebeds and the dyno, their goal is 1,200 hp with nearly 2,000 lb-ft of torque to send them into the 200s.
“The car doesn’t really fit any classes to go for a record in the SCTA, so 200 is more of a personal goal,” Leon told us. “The one class it does fit has a record over 270, and we’re not going to do that. But we will still drive the car on the street and enter other fun events, which is exactly what we built it to do.”
Records or not, Leon and Warren have already hit their number-one goal of having something completely unique at the racetrack and on the road. Who knows, maybe someday it’ll even get a paint job—but probably not.
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