The story of the Chrysler Airflow begins in 1927 when Chrysler engineer Carl Breer was driving across Michigan. As he drove he noticed some birds flying alongside and then overtaking his car. Reflecting on his observation that the birds' natural streamlining allowed them to swiftly move through the air, he returned to Chrysler and set to work testing car body designs in a wind tunnel to find the most efficient shape; and thus the Chrysler Airflow was created! At least that is the romantic mythology created by Chrysler's marketing department. The reality was a little more prosaic.
Carl Breer, Chrysler's chief designer and the leader of the Airflow project.
1920s car design had become rigidly standardised, with straight sided, often open bodywork mounted high on top of a rigid chassis. Flat windscreens and radiators and numerous external appendages in the form of headlights, horns, external gear shifters and handbrakes, spare tyres and fuel cans were standard. There was often very little to differentiate one marque from another. The one area where there were real differences between marques was their engines and gearboxes, which became progressively more powerful and efficient over time. However, the engineers at Chrysler noted that quantitative improvements in engine output and efficiency did not translate into an improvement into the cars overall performance. The problem was that the faster the car moved through the air, the greater the effect of wind resistance pushing against it.
Form by Function. Chrysler's promotional film to sell the design features of the Airflow.
Chrysler's 1933 range featured flashy, luxurious but conventional cars.
The lack of aerodynamic consideration in car design was an obvious issue that the team at Chrysler sought to address. They engaged aeroplane pioneer, Wilbur Wright, to consult on wind tunnel testing and then built their own wind tunnel where they conducted detailed tests of rough body style maquettes and documented the results. Promising body styles were then worked up into vehicle models and subjected to the same rigorous testing. By this process they developed a practical, streamlined automotive body design that did away with all extraneous exterior fittings. Even the spare tyre was mounted within its own streamlined case at the rear of the car.
A clay mock up of the Airflow with a more conventional grill design. This was replaced in the final version.
The use of wind tunnel testing was in itself a novel exercise, but the team took it even further. They decided to dispense with received wisdom and design the car from the ground up, working through every feature of the car's design from scratch. This led to a raft of revolutionary features, such as placing the car's engine over the front axle for better weight distribution and placing the passengers within the space between the axles, so that they would experience a better ride. Customer comfort wasn't the Chrysler team's only consideration. Up to this point car manufacturers had given little consideration to passenger safety and the death toll from even low speed accidents, especially roll-overs, was high. Chrysler's new car had a new chassis suspended between the wheels rather than sitting over the wheels, which lowering the cars centre of gravity.
Combined with independent four wheel suspension, the new car was less liable to flip over in a tight turn than contemporary cars. The car's body was built as self-supporting, steel cage for strength. Chrysler would famously demonstrate the car's structural integrity by driving one over a 70 foot cliff and then driving away. Safety glass was standard on all windows.
The famous Airflow safety film. It seems quaint these days but it was revolutionary in an era when passenger safety was the last concern for car manufacturers.
The Airflow cars came in a number of different models, split between Chrysler and stablemate DeSoto. DeSoto offered two smaller, six cylinder engine models in two and four door versions. The company was so confident in the new cars that all other DeSoto lines were cancelled. Chrysler offered a bigger, eight cylinder engined version in two door coupe, four door sedan and a luxury 'Imperial' version, but the company hedged their bets and production of the companies existing lines continued.
The Airflow cars were unveiled with great publicity at the 1934 New York Motor Show - and almost immediately struck with a consumer backlash. The cars most distinctive feature - the enormous chrome ribbed radiator grill that flowed uncompromisingly over the curved bonnet - was a particularly polarising feature. Critics slammed the car as ugly and - completely counter-factually - declared to be unsafe. Chrysler resorted to producing publicity films and demonstrations, such as driving the car over a cliff, in an attempt to reverse negative public impression. It did not help that the first run of cars in 1934 experienced build issues that were quickly rectified, the car was simply too radical for the conservative American consumer of the day. In Europe however, the car was lauded for its design qualities, winning a design award at the Monte Carlo Motor Show.
The Chrysler Airflow unveiled at the 1934 New York Motor Show
From there Chrysler began walking back many of the car's unique features. The first change came in 1935 with a new, more conventional upright grill. In 1936 the car received a large boot that opened from the outside. It compromised the car's streamlining but offered more practical storage space.
The 1935 Airflow, shown here with Chrysler's Imperial model, had a conventional radiator grill.
By 1937 the Chrysler dropped the Airflow name from its models and the cars had lost most of their distinctive 'airflow' features.
But these changes did not have the desired effect. Sales remained slow - and for DeSoto, disastrous - and in 1937 Chrysler withdrew the range. Despite being labelled a lemon, total sales over four years were a little over 27,000 units. This would have been a respectable production run for a British or European producer of the time but was a dramatic failure in the US market.
Although the Desoto brand were still called Airflows, they had little in common with their namesakes and had reverted to conventional design.
Looked at today, the Chrysler Airflow does not appear as radical as the contemporary Tatra T77 which was unveiled the same year. The reactions to both the cars however were significantly different. The Tatra was lauded as an avant-garde expression of modernism and the company was swamped with more orders than it could accommodate. The American audience found little appealing in the Airflow, despite all of Chrysler's attempts to link it to the modernist movement in architecture and aeronautics. They were also never able to shake the first, negative and unwarranted, opinion of the car. By 1935 the car looked like its stablemates and their likeness continued to grow year on year. The Airflows were in fact excellent cars and they really did live up to Chrysler's claim to being, "The First Modern Car" and all elements of their design and manufacture would be adopted by all car companies around the world within a few years. They were not even that far ahead of their time - maybe only 5 years. By 1940, all Chrysler's competitors would have adopted streamlining and unit construction.
1934 Desoto Airflow brochure
Chrysler's Official 'Story of the Airflow Cars' 1963