The 1934-1937 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow concept is rightfully credited to Carl Breer, one of the bright young engineers known from the earliest days of Chrysler Corporation as "The Three Musketeers." Breer and his equally talented colleagues, Owen R. Skelton and Fred M. Zeder, had formed an engineering consulting firm in 1921 after working together at Studebaker for several years.
Chief Airflow architect Carl Breer (right) with
Chrysler Engineering colleagues Fred Zeder
(center) and Owen Skelton in a 1933
company publicity photo.
It wasn't long before their fresh design thinking caught the attention of Walter P. Chrysler, then winding up a two-year tour of duty as manager of Willys-Overland and preparing to resume his role as president of ailing Maxwell Motor Corporation, which he would take over later that year. Chrysler had met the trio when they came to the Willys-Overland plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where they were assigned to develop a new model that Chrysler wanted to build there.
Through a convoluted set of circumstances, that car ultimately became the Flint under the aegis of William C. Durant. But it impressed Chrysler, who insisted that Zeder, Skelton, and Breer come to Detroit to create a modern new automobile that would bear his name. The Flint was thus the direct forerunner of the first Chrysler, the officially designated Model 70, which made its public debut in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel in New York City in January 1924.
With its powerful, high-compression six-cylinder engine and Lockheed four-wheel hydraulic brakes, the car was an instant success that enabled Chrysler to set up a new corporation in 1925 to take over Maxwell's assets. Breer was named head of research, and he would remain in charge of advanced engineering until he retired from Chrysler Corporation in 1949.
As the story goes, Breer conceived the Airflow concept while driving to his summer home early one evening in 1927. Traveling near Selfridge airfield, he spotted what he first thought was a flock of geese flying overhead, only to find it was a squadron of Army Air Corps fighter planes practicing maneuvers. This led him to ponder the time-honored design ideal "form follows function," and he soon began wondering why aircraft were becoming ever more streamlined while cars remained little more than boxy carriages haphazardly perched atop cart-sprung wheels.
Breer was then seized with the urge to break free of the hidebound constraints that he realized were limiting the automotive design progress. Not only did he recognize that the automobile's basic form needed drastic change, but that this change could be used to effect big improvements in ride, handling, comfort, and convenience.
An automobile doesn't have to fly, of course, but perhaps it could be made to move more efficiently on the ground if its design borrowed something from the shape of birds -- or aircraft. Approaching the problem scientifically, Breer went to William Earnshaw, an engineer at a research laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, giving him a car for making measurements of air-pressure lift and distribution.
He also talked with none other than pioneer aviator Orville Wright, who assisted Earnshaw in designing a small wind tunnel where Breer subjected various scale models -- blocks of wood in different shapes -- to aerodynamic analysis. Before long, Walter Chrysler became interested, and approved construction of a much larger wind tunnel at the company's headquarters complex in Highland Park, Michigan, so Breer and his team could continue their research.
During the next three years they tested hundreds of shapes, plotted eddy curves, noted turbulences, checked wind resistances, and calculated drag numbers. "In those days, when we needed something, we just went ahead and built it," Breer told Automotive News in 1964. "We pioneered by not wasting time." The Airflow had been born.
Learn what other automakers were coming up with during this period in the next section.
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