As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, the Art Deco movement influenced everything from industrial design through architecture, including automotive design. In 1934, the limited-production Stout Scarab tried to change the future of family transportation, while in Europe the Tatra 77 debuted to stunned audiences, with both featuring a shape that rewrote the book on automotive design. Another car, introduced the same year by Chrysler, also sought to define the future of the automobile, and while the Chrysler Airflow was never a commercial success, it did leave a lasting imprint on the automotive industry.
Carl Breer, who with colleagues Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton would form the engineering triumvirate referred to as Chrysler’s “Three Musketeers,” noted that both migrating geese and military aircraft flew in “V” patterns to optimize aerodynamics. Convinced that airflow could have a profound impact on automotive design, Breer consulted aircraft engineer Bill Earnshaw and Orville Wright, and soon the group had constructed a crude wind tunnel for the primary purpose of designing Chrysler’s next line of automobiles.
Tests of conventional automotive designs revealed some startling data: The tall vertical surfaces of conventional automobiles created massive amounts of drag, meaning that cars of the day would have been 30 percent more efficient if the body was reversed on the chassis. Ideally, Breer realized, cars should be shaped like the rigid airships of the day, which allowed the easy passage of air around a pointed nose. Such a design may have been aerodynamically optimum, but it was also impractical for a road-going vehicle that still needed style to lure buyers into showrooms. The compromise was a concept called the Trifon, produced in the late 1920s, which Chrysler went to great lengths to keep secret from the public.
In production form, the Trifon became the Chrysler (and De Soto) Airflow, revealed to the public in January of 1934. The first American production car to be shaped in a wind tunnel, the Airflow looked like little else on the road at the time. Instead of a tall vertical grille and a long hoodline, the Airflow featured a “waterfall” grille that canted back into the hood itself. Front fenders mirrored this curve, but lacked headlights mounted atop them; instead, these lights were blended into the front of the car to reduce drag. The Airflow’s two-piece windshield was steeply raked (by standards of the day, at least), and conveyed a sense of motion even when the car was parked. In the rear, fenders were skirted to reduce turbulence, while the roofline curved gracefully to the rear bumper, following the lines of the minimized rear fenders.
As stunning as the Airflow was on the outside, it was equally revolutionary beneath the skin. Gone was the body-on-ladder-frame construction of conventional automobiles, replaced by an “envelope” design that used steel body panels welded to a steel space frame. The resulting design was exceptionally strong, and an early demonstration film showed a test driver rolling the Airflow with minimal deformation to the roof, then simply starting the car and driving it away. Later stunts undertaken to prove the car’s safety to a skeptical public including pushing the car off a 110-foot cliff, then righting it and driving off.
Breer wanted to produce a car with superior handling ability as well, so his engineering team located the Airflow’s inline eight-cylinder engine over the front axle, while the rear passenger seat was moved forward of the rear axle. As a result, the Airflow’s weight distribution was reported to be 54 percent front and 46 percent rear with just the driver in the car, or an optimal 50/50 distribution with the driver and passengers. The space frame design allowed the Airflow to be lower than conventional automobiles of the day, and this dropped center of gravity further enhanced the car’s handling.
Chrysler offered the Airflow in a wide array of trims and multiple body styles, including two-door coupe, two-door brougham, four-door town sedan and four-door sedan in base (CU) trim. Larger CV Imperial Airflow models were offered in two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and four-door town sedan variants, and at least one chassis and cowl-only CV model was built. In Custom Imperial trim (CX and CW models), the Airflow came exclusively with four doors, in sedan, town sedan, limousine or town limousine variants. To hedge its bets against a fickle buying public, Chrysler carried over conventional models for the 1933 model year as well, but its De Soto brand would receive only Airflow models to sell.
Chrysler Airflow models all received inline eight-cylinder engines, which varied in displacement and output depending upon model range. Airflow (CU) models received a 299-cu.in. L-head engine rated at 122 horsepower, while Imperial and lesser Custom Imperial models (CV and CX series) received a 323.5-cu.in. L-head engine rated at 130 horsepower. Finally, range-topping Custom Imperial CW models carried a 384.84-cu.in. L-head eight, rated at 145 horsepower. Airflow models also came with an impressive array of standard features, including Lockheed hydraulic brakes (vacuum assisted on CV, CX and CW models), an automatic vacuum-operated clutch, automatic overdrive (CW models), and anti-roll bars (CW models).
The Airflow’s reveal came at the New York Auto Show in January of 1934, but Chrysler had not yet begun producing inventory for distribution to dealers. Initial consumer interest was high, but production was taking longer than anticipated due to the Airflow’s complex construction methods (which included more welds, and more types of welds, than traditional automobiles). Six months would pass before customer deliveries would begin, and early production cars quickly developed a reputation for poor build quality. Owners reported everything from squeaks and rattles to engine mount failures, and rival automakers were quick to add to Chrysler’s misfortunes. Some publicly questioned the safety of the Airflow’s radical space frame design, leading Chrysler to perform the 110-foot drop test off a Pennsylvania cliff for newsreel footage. Even this wasn’t enough to convince a public now distrustful of the Airflow’s innovations, and the sales slide began to pick up momentum.
For the Airflow’s sophomore year, Chrysler restyled the nose to give the car a more conventional appearance and at the same time dropped under-performing models (like the four-door town sedan models) from the lineup. Conventional models (now called Airstream) continued to outsell Airflow models, and sales of the streamlined Chryslers fell from 10,838 in 1934 to 7,751 in 1935. This downward progression would continue, and in 1937, the Airflow’s final year on the market, Chrysler would build just 4,600 examples. As bad as the news was for Chrysler, it was even worse for De Soto. In 1933, the division sold 22,737 automobiles, but following the 1934 introduction of the “Airflow only” business model, sales plummeted to just 13,940 cars. In response, Chrysler scrambled to provide De Soto with conventional automobiles to market in 1935, and the division’s financial ruin was narrowly averted.
The immediate result of the Airflow’s failure was a change in design philosophy at Chrysler. Bold innovation was out, replaced by a conservative design aesthetic that would be the hallmark of the brand until the Virgil Exner years of the mid-1950s. While the Airflow was, perhaps, a bit too innovative for the day, it’s equally likely that the pendulum swing to the opposite direction of “take no chances, stylistically,” also had a negative impact on Chrysler sales.
Though the Airflow was never the sales success envisioned by Walter P. Chrysler (and by Carl Breer), it did predict a future where the wind tunnel would become as important to car design as the slide rule (and later, the computer). It advanced the idea that body-on-ladder-frame construction was, perhaps, not the only way to design an automobile, and that a lower center of gravity and optimized weight distribution were key to improving production car handling. Viewed in that light, the Chrysler Airflow was anything but a failure.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily. Written by Kurt Ernst.