The Depression was hardly the right time for anything startlingly different, yet the 1934-1937 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow -- a "car of the future" -- should have been a sales smash. Ironically, it almost was. Here's a thought-provoking new look at the first truly modern automobile, its troubled birth, and its enormous impact on Detroit engineering.
A brace of 1934 DeSoto Airflows
at a Los Angeles fuel stop.
See more classic car pictures.
Among the great and not-so-great American cars of the tumultuous 1930s, none were more influential or predictive than the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow. Yet despite being at the very forefront of styling and engineering progress, it proved an unmitigated sales disaster.
The Airflow was unquestionably a mistake of major proportions, a failure so complete that it would cast a pall over Chrysler Corporation design for the next 20 years. Company founder Walter P. Chrysler introduced it in early 1934 by declaring, "I believe it will bring about a whole new trend in personal transportation." And he was right -- judging by the similar but far more successful Lincoln Zephyr, which arrived just two years later.
But the Airflow is remembered today chiefly as a marketing flop. For years its name was the best-known synonym for that in automotive circles, at least before the Edsel.
Commented one well-known industry analyst of the period: "Its appearance is unusual, but once you get used to it you will admire it." Yet by and large, that never happened. For all its many real advances, buyers avoided the Airflow like the proverbial plague. Many were put off by its looks. Some shied away because of ill-founded rumors. Thus it was that these unique and brilliantly conceived motorcars quickly became the objects of scorn and ridicule as few cars have before or since.
Nevertheless, the pioneering Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow must rank as one of the most significant single designs in U.S. automotive history. Although its styling remains controversial to this day, it was the first example of streamlining in American mass production and, as such, largely established the shape of the automobile as we know it today.
Then too, in its basic construction, engine placement, ride quality, and many other areas, the Airflow marked a complete break with existing design conventions, which for the most part were simply extensions of horse-and-buggy practices.
Who developed the idea for this new kind of automobile? Get details on the next page.
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