The 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflows were called "the most influential car(s) of the 1930s." And no doubt it was -- but in its own time Airflows very nearly spelled disaster for Chrysler.
It was Carl Breer, one of the "Three Musketeers" of Walter P. Chrysler's great engineering triumvirate, who supplied the inspiration for the project. According to company legend, one day Breer was watching what he took to be a flock of geese in flight. But as they approached he came to realize that what he was seeing wasn't geese; he was observing a squadron of military aircraft on maneuvers.
It was one of those illuminating moments. If the airplane, or for that matter the bird, was shaped in such a way as to minimize wind resistance, could not the same principle be applied, Breer wondered, to ground transportation: to trains, to trucks, to passenger cars? Especially to passenger cars, for by that time (late 1927) some of the better automobiles were capable of speeds as high as 80 or even 90 miles per hour. Breer was just beginning to recognize the handicap posed by wind resistance.
With Walter Chrysler's blessing, work got under way on the development of a streamlined automobile. A wind tunnel was constructed at Dayton, Ohio, and there Breer and his cohorts, Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, undertook their research under a cloak of secrecy.
By the end of 1932, a prototype was on the road. Dubbed the "Trifon Special" in honor of an engineering laboratory employee, it was a semi-fastback four-door sedan. Carl Breer had originally proposed seating for three in front, two in the rear, but that idea was quickly shot down by the marketing people.
However, many of Breer's other proposals were incorporated into the Trifon Special. For instance, passengers were moved forward 20 inches from their traditional position. This had the effect, first, of reversing the previous weight distribution of approximately 45-percent front, 55-percent rear.
Second -- and even more importantly -- this positioning cradled all the passengers within the axles, largely eliminating the bouncing sensation that had typically been experienced by rear-seat occupants. And finally, it made possible the use of roomy, 50-inch-wide seats.
On the next page, learn about the structure of the Chrysler Airflow.
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Structure of the Chrysler Airflow
Taken for a demonstration ride in the prototype of the Chrysler Airflow, Walter P. was impressed by its comfort and performance. Oliver Clark took over the role of chief stylist, in charge of the streamliner's exterior design, and by the time the curtain was raised on the auto shows in January 1934, the Airflow was ready.
The original idea had been that the Airflow would be introduced only as a DeSoto. But as the car began to take shape, Walter Chrysler became increasingly enthusiastic about it. "I sincerely believe," he said, "it will bring about a whole new trend in personal transportation." Of course, he wanted an Airflow with his name on it!
The introduction of this revolutionary new automobile would be, he believed, an appropriate way to celebrate the upcoming 10th Anniversary of the founding of the Chrysler Corporation.
In the end there were four Chrysler Airflows, each with its own wheelbase, and all with straight-eight powerplants. In addition, DeSoto fielded a six-cylinder Airflow. The Chrysler Division's two six-cylinder lines retained their conventional styling, but DeSoto placed all its bets on the success of the Airflow -- with dismal results, as we shall soon see.
The Airflow's structure, appropriately enough, was designed by Dr. Alexander Klemin, chief of the Guggenheim Foundation for Aeronautics. Bodies, as author George Dammann has noted, "were constructed around a cage-like steel girder network, to which the body panels were welded." This was not, strictly speaking, "unit" construction; that would have to wait until the introduction of the 1941 Nash 600. Nor did it result in reduced weight, for the Airflows were heavier by several hundred pounds than their conventionally styled 1933 counterparts.
The structure was, however, a tightly integrated body-and-frame design in which the welded body contributed substantially to chassis rigidity. Chrysler was at pains to point out just how stout the Airflow really was. In one demonstration, an Airflow sedan was sent over a 110-foot cliff. Falling end over end over the face of the cliff, it landed on its wheels at the bottom -- whereupon it was driven away under its own power.
The Chrysler Airflow was met with short-lived enthusiasm. Learn more on the next page.
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Dampened Enthusiasm for the Chrysler Airflow
Performance was another selling point for the Chrylser Airflow. Out on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, a Series CV coupe ran -- the flying mile at 95.7 miles per hour, averaged just over 90 mph over 500 miles, and did 84.43 mph for 24 hours -- ample testimony to the car's durability, as well as its performance.
Initially, the Airflow received an enthusiastic reception. It was the sensation of the auto shows, where visitors are said to have placed orders in record numbers. The press, however, gave the new car mixed reviews. Dr. Klemin pronounced it "Splendid" -- but then, he was hardly an unbiased source.
Carolyn Edmundson, fashion artist of Harper's Bazaar, found the Airflow "breathlessly different-looking," which may or may not have been a compliment, depending upon how one looked at it. Britain's The Autocar gave it muted praise: "The more one sees of [them] the more they are apt to grow on one" And on this side of the Atlantic, MoToR suggested, "Look at the Airflows for two or three days and suddenly they will look right and conventional cars will look strange."
Unfortunately for Chrysler, the public's initial enthusiasm for the Airflow was short-lived. Increasingly, prospective buyers looked, then turned away without giving this radical new car a fair trial. Chrysler loyalists purchased the company's conventionally styled six-cylinder cars; others turned to Oldsmobile, which scored an impressive 128-percent sales gain during 1934. In 1933, 45 percent of all new Chryslers had been, straight eights, but with the coming of the Airflow that figure dropped to 31 percent.
Meanwhile, DeSoto -- with no conventional cars to offer -- was hurting badly. While most of the industry enjoyed a partial recovery that year from the effects of the Depression, DeSoto sales were off by nearly 39 percent.
The best seller among the Airflow Chryslers was the price -- leading Series CU, which rode a 123-inch wheelbase and was powered by a 298.7-cubic-inch, horsepower straight eight. At $1,345, it was priced midway between the "50"and "60" series Buicks.
The CU came in four body styles: four-door sedan (by far the most popular), Town Sedan (with blind quarter panels), Brougham (two-door sedan), and coupe. The last, easily the best-looking of the lot, was a true fastback, with the spare tire enclosed within the trunk; on the other body styles the spare was mounted externally.
The three larger Airflow series all bore the Imperial name. Wheelbases measured 128,137.5, and 146.5 inches, respectively, for the Imperial Series CV and the Custom Imperial CX and CW. The first two used a 323.5-cid, 130-horsepower engine, while the CW, the largest car Chrysler had ever built, employed a 384.8-cubic-inch straight eight rated at 150 bhp. Imperial prices started at $1,625 and ranged all the way to $5,145 for the Series CW limousines-the latter a figure $350 higher than a Cadillac V-12 in the same body style.
On the next page, learn about the Chrysler Airflow's demise.
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The End of the Chrysler Airflow
Once the initial enthusiasm had died down -- and that didn't take very long -- it quickly became apparent that the Chrysler Airflow's sales would not come up to expectations.
Design consultant Norman Bel Geddes was called in to "fix" the styling. He endowed the 1935 models with a new hood, which extended forward to a vee-shaped grille. Decorative hood louvers were added, the bumpers were redesigned, and the Brougham -- which had not been at all well received -- was dropped from the line.
All of which didn't help very much. Chrysler Airflow production, which had totaled 10,839 for 1934, fell to 7,751 in 1935. Fortunately for its dealers, Chrysler rushed two new conventionally styled cars to market for 1935. Known as the Airstream Six and Eight, these were particularly attractive cars, helping pace the division to a 35 percent sales increase for the year.
The Airflow received another facelift for 1936, this time featuring a prominent diecast grille. A humpback trunk was added to the sedan's rear, allowing the spare tire to be tucked inside. The Town Sedan followed the Brougham into oblivion as Airflow sales continued to fall, this time to 6,275 units. Again it was the Airstreams that kept the corporation and its dealers alive. Overall, Chrysler production rose that year by nearly 43 percent.
Only one Airflow series was offered for 1937, the ill-fated streamliner's final year of production. Though it actually represented a continuation of the 1934-1936 Imperials, it was known simply as the Chrysler Airflow (the company had other plans for the prestigious Imperial title). Sedan and coupe styles were offered, both priced at $1,610, a S135 increase over the previous year.
Alas, sales continued their downward trend, totaling just 4,600 for the season.
Or rather, 4,603. The big Custom Imperial CW still had its cadre of loyalists. Three more of these enormous cars were run up on special order during the Airflow's farewell season, one of them for Major Edward Bowes, host of radio's popular Amateur Hour show.
And then it was all over. Walter Chrysler, by then in his final illness, must have wondered what went wrong. Richard M. Langworth and Jan Norbye, in their Complete History of Chrysler 1924-1985, offer this explanation: "The normally canny Walter Chrysler approved this advanced concept without much apparent regard for whether the public would accept it. And that would prove to be Chrysler's -- both the man's and the company's -- first serious mistake."
Next, get specifications for the 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow.
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1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow Specifications
The 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflows had a revolutionary design, but were ultimately unsuccessful. Keep reading for specifications for the 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflows.
Engine: L-head I-8, solid valve lifters, 1-bbl carburetor (CW, 2-bbl) CU 299 cid (3 1/4 ´ 4 1/2-in bore ´ stroke), 6.5:1 compression ratio, 122 bhp @ 3,400 rpm CV & CX 323.5 cid (3 1/4 ´ 4 7/8-in.), 6.5:1 c.r., 130 bhp @ 3,400 rpm CW 384.8 cid (3 1/2 ´ 5-in.), 6,5:1 c.r, 150 bhp @ 3,200 rpm
Transmission: 3-speed selective, floor shift (CW, 4-speed; overdrive optional on other series after March 1934)
Suspension: Rigid axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes: Lockheed hydraulic drurn type (CW vacuum assisted)
Wheelbase (in.): CU 122.8 CV 128 CX 137.5 CW 146
Weight (lbs): 3,716-5,935
Tires: 7.50 ´ 16 (CW, 7.50 ´ 17)
Top speed (mph): 95 + (Series CV)
Production: 1934 CU 8,389 CV 2,277 CX 106 CW 67 1935 7,751 (all series) 1936 6,275 1937 4,603