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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Developing the 1934-1937 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow
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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Competition for the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow
Unbeknownst to Airflow engineer Carl Breer, others were working along similar lines. One was Amos E. Northup, chief designer at Murray Body Company. His approach, however, was limited to a car's body, whereas Breer's vision involved the entire package: frame, suspension, engine placement, and interior layout as well as body styling.
Even so, Northup made a major breakthrough while under contract to the Reo Motor Car Company -- and saddled with limited resources to boot. It was, of course, the beautiful Reo Royale, introduced in 1930. A year later, Northup again set the industry on its heels with the trend-setting 1932 Graham "Blue Streak," the first car with "skirted" fenders.
Other streamlining experiments were much less visible but far more radical. In 1931, Detroit engineer John Tjaarda built the Sterkenberg, a futuristic rear-engine idea car that led to the Lincoln Zephyr. Attempting to interest financial backers, Tjaarda claimed this car "abolished heat, sound, fumes, and smell" and pointed out that its unorthodox pressed-steel frame could be welded at 44 points in just four seconds.
Even wilder was the Dymaxion, the creation of free-thinking futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, later famous as the inventor of the geodesic dome. A long, cigar-shaped three-wheeler built of duraluminum and balsa, it was tested at speeds of more than 115 miles per hour and was capable of up to 40 miles per gallon.
The Dymaxion's most widely publicized feature was its ability to turn 360 degrees with a radius its own length. Three were constructed in Connecticut but, for various reasons, production never materialized.
Predating all these efforts by several years were the unique machines of Dr. Edmund Rumpler in Germany, an engineer with an aviation background. His first attempt was a decidedly unconventional ovoid affair, with vestigial "wings" serving as fenders. Several variations on this theme followed, but none garnered much interest.
The 1934 Chrysler CU Airflow sedan’s radical profile.
Breer would spend the better part of six years developing the Airflow concept. He built many more scale models and evaluated them in the wind tunnel. Some of them didn't look much like cars, but they were necessary trial-and-error experiments for discovering the "rules" of aerodynamics.
The ultimate shape almost suggested itself: a teardrop modified to allow for a hood and windshield. It was a compromise, but it did yield greatly reduced air turbulence compared with conventional cars, plus minimal drag.
After determining the ideal shape, Breer turned his attention to the interior of the Airflow. Learn more on the next page.
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Refining the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow
Having arrived at the optimum envelope, engineer Carl Breer turned his attention to refining the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow by focusing on details like engine location and passenger seating.
Although a front-mounted engine was more or less assumed throughout most of the Airflow's lengthy gestation, Breer did see to construction of a half-dozen wood-and-metal mockups, some full size, to test the feasibility of a rear-engine layout.
Given the size and weight of Chrysler Corporation's existing engines, it was soon apparent that placing an inline six -- or, worse, a straight eight -- in the car's stern would result in unusual, and probably undesirable, handling characteristics. Needed but unavailable at the time was a light, compact, horizontally opposed power unit. In the end, though, the rear-engine configuration was ruled out because it would have wreaked havoc with assembly line procedures.
Initially, Breer had envisioned a passenger compartment with seating for three abreast in front and two in the rear in order to preserve his desired teardrop body shape. But with more than two in front, elbow room was deemed insufficient for best driver control, and Chrysler's marketing people wouldn't accept a back seat for less than three. A central driving position was tried and rejected.
Then Walter Chrysler heard that GM would launch a streamliner. Fearing it would steal his thunder, he rushed the Airflow into production. The stage was set for disaster.
After settling on a conventional drivetrain layout, Breer engaged fellow engineering "Musketeers" Owen R. Skelton and Fred M. Zeder to help him develop a running prototype for a car employing aircraft-type design principles. Dubbed the "Trifon Special" for test driver Demetrion Trifon, it was completed in great secrecy in December 1932.
Power was supplied by a standard Chrysler six moved 20 inches forward of its normal position and equipped with a crankshaft-driven fan. Front-end styling prefigured that of the eventual Airflow: a short, curved nose with faired-in headlamps and one-piece, rear-hinged "alligator" hood.
However, the Trifon was a semi-fastback four-door sedan with integral trunk and not the full fastback style ultimately chosen. It also had a one-piece windshield instead of the two-piece screen used on most production Airflows.
Shortly after it was completed, Walter Chrysler got a demonstration ride in the Trifon Special (it was given a plush interior for the purpose), and he was overwhelmed by its superior ride and roadability. Breer had been struggling with weight distribution to reduce ride-motion frequency and to synchronize front and rear suspensions to reduce pitching.
The forward engine, with its center of gravity above the front axle, definitely helped the ride. It also allowed the back seat to be moved forward so that the entire passenger compartment was cradled comfortably within the wheelbase for the first time. The results were weight distribution reversed from the typical 45/55 percent front/rear, plus considerable interior space within rather compact external dimensions.
The Chrysler Airflow body line in Highland Park,
1934 -- Walter Chrysler was eager to get
the Airflow to this phase.
Still, Breer was dissatisfied, and despite the boss's insistence that they get on with it, adjustments and refinements continued. The decision to begin tooling up the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow for production didn't come until the early summer of 1933.
Continue to the next page for details on the process of moving the Airflow into production.
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Producing the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow
As an "engineer's car," the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow was the sort of thing that naturally appealed to Walter Chrysler, and he gave it his wholehearted endorsement. But there was another, more important reason that accounted for his eagerness to start producing the car.
General Motors, he had heard, was about to launch a streamliner of its own, and he feared any delay would allow his rival to steal the Airflow's thunder. Accordingly, he decreed that the car would be launched in January 1934, which just happened to coincide with the opening of the annual New York Auto Show.
Guests at a 1934 bash for
the DeSoto Airflow
included baseball great
Babe Ruth (left), division
chief Byron C. Foy
(center), and a certain
Walter P. Chrysler.
Production engineering now accelerated to full steam, and fresh funds were allocated for tooling, final design details, and other expenses. The first production prototype quickly took shape in a sealed-off area of the Highland Park engineering building, and road tests were underway by fall 1933 in a secluded area called Strubles Farm on the Au Sable River about 200 miles north of Detroit.
Chrysler obviously knew the element of surprise would be important in launching such a radical new product, and he didn't want rivals -- especially GM -- finding out what he was up to.
When it did appear, the Airflow was a sensation. Never had there been a production car like this. True, Pierce-Arrow had shown its stunning V-12 Silver Arrow show car the previous year. But at $10,000, it was clearly available only to the wealthy -- and precious few at that.
The Airflow, on the other hand, was a product of the world's third-largest automaker and aimed directly at the mass market. It not only looked like the "car of the future" but was actually within reach of ordinary people.
Chrysler Corporation's newest were prominently featured in trade journals and Sunday supplements, but writers seemed hard-pressed to describe the precedent-breaking Airflow design. Writing in MoToR, technical editor Harold T. Blanchard observed: "After you've looked at them for two or three days, you become accustomed to them."
He went on to state that the Airflow offered extraordinary interior room and a new weight distribution that provided an exceptionally smooth ride unlike that of any other car on the market.
Just to be sure the public didn't miss the point that the Airflow was a harbinger of the future, Chrysler publicists posed one alongside the Union Pacific Railroad's M-1000 streamliner locomotive at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, one of the best-known automotive public relations photos of all time.
The Chrysler Series CU Airflow Eight four-door
poses with the Union Pacific’s M-1000 streamlined
locomotive at Chicago’s Century of Progress
Continue to the next page to learn more about the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow introduced in 1934.
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1934 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow
Originally, the Airflow was to have appeared only with the DeSoto badge, but that changed when the boss decided there ought to be a Chrysler version to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his namesake marque.
Thus, the new model bowed under both nameplates -- the 1934 Chrysler/
DeSoto Airflow -- encompassing five different wheelbases and as many engines. Smaller versions were also being prepared for Dodge and Plymouth Divisions in anticipation that the public would flock to the Airflow concept. They didn't.
The five-passenger brougham fastback two-door
sedan in 1934 Chrysler Series CU guise. It was one
of four body styles in that year’s Airflow Eight
line, each priced at $1,345.
This strategy created a near-disaster for DeSoto, which relied exclusively on the Airflow for 1934, while Chrysler hung onto conventional styling for its six-cylinder models.
Designated Series SE, the DeSoto Airflow rode a 115.5-inch wheelbase and offered a choice of four body styles -- two-door coupe and brougham sedan, six-window four-door sedan, and a four-window four-door town sedan. All were powered by the familiar 241.5-cubic-inch L-head six, rated at an even 100 horsepower.
general sales manager
Joseph W. Frazer “asking
you to compare” the 1934
Chrysler Airflow Eight.
The all-straight-eight Chrysler Airflow lineup initially consisted of three model groups. At the bottom was the 123-inch-wheelbase Series CU, with the DeSoto's four body
types and a 298.7-cid engine packing 112 horsepower.
Next up was the Series CV Airflow Imperial Eight on a 128-inch wheelbase and without the brougham model. Its 323.5-cid powerplant produced 130 horsepower and, like all Chrysler engines that year, boasted an aluminum cylinder head.
Pride of the fleet was the Series CW Airflow Custom Imperial, spanning a huge 146.5-inch wheelbase and powered by the company's largest eight, a 384.8-cid nine-main-bearing unit rated at 145 horsepower. Body styles comprised eight-passenger four-door sedan and town sedan in standard and limousine form, the latter with division window and different trim for the separate chauffeur's compartment.
All CW bodies were supplied by the famed LeBaron coachworks. Chrysler prices ranged from $1,245 for any Series CU up to $5,145 for the impressive Custom Imperial town limousine. The DeSotos were priced at $995 across the board.
In construction, the Airflows were completely different from other cars of their day, a fact that may be difficult to appreciate in ours. While the 1934 Plymouth had a newly designed independent front suspension, the Airflows were a throwback in having a tubular front axle, the same type as on the very first Chryslers.
Nevertheless, the DeSoto brochure boasted that you could read a newspaper at 80 mph over almost any road. Rear seat passengers sat 20 inches ahead of the rear axle instead of directly over it, because the engine, the heaviest single component in any car, was moved a corresponding distance ahead to rest over the front axle.
This left riders almost at the car's exact center of dynamic balance, aided by slightly front-heavy weight distribution (55/45 percent front/rear) compared to that of conventional cars, where the rear axle usually carried most of the load. Also enhancing ride comfort were extra-long leaf springs with more leaves all around. On the Chrysler CU, for example, the front springs measured 44.125 inches and the rears 52.5 inches, with no fewer than 10 leaves at the front and eight in the back.
What other features made the 1934 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow unique? Find out on the next page.
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Distinctive Features of the 1934 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow
The result of all the 1934 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow's engineering innovation was what Chrysler called "Floating Ride," and the cars included a number of distinctive features.
Blared the DeSoto brochure: "No matter whether you are sitting in the front seat or the back, you can relax completely and utterly . . . you ride comfortably 'amidships' . . . experience no bumping, bouncing, or vibration of any kind. The bumps just seem to flow under the car without reaching you. It is impossible to realize how great a relief this is until you actually try it."
Actor/singer Dick Powell takes the wheel of the
1934 DeSoto Series SE Airflow sedan.
Also missing in the Airflow was the typical composite body common to virtually all other cars of the period. In its place was one complete steel unit "built like a modern bridge."
Box girders ran longitudinally up from the front, into the roof rails and down to the tail, and were joined with vertical and horizontal members to create an exceptionally strong structure that Chrysler claimed was "40 times more rigid than a conventional frame and body . . . The entire car moves as whole instead of the frame vibrating against the body," although this was not, in fact, true unit construction.
Flush headlamps were
a 1934 feature.
The "girder-trussed" arrangement was not engineer Carl Breer's alone but also reflected input from the Budd Company and Chrysler's chief body engineer, Oliver Clark. Incidentally, Budd ended up supplying most Airflow sheetmetal aft of the cowl, while the entire front end was built up as a subassembly at the Dodge plant in Hamtramck.
Besides its solid front axle, the Airflow was curiously old-fashioned in retaining the traditional fabric roof insert, although this was replaced for 1936 by a solid steel panel, a response to GM's introduction of the "Turret Top."
Inside, the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow could comfortably accommodate three in front on a seat 50 inches wide, 10 inches broader than those of ordinary cars. The seat itself was mounted high off the floor on a novel chrome-plated tubular frame (also used for the rear bench), which allowed air to circulate beneath and flow back to the aft compartment for more efficient heating and true windows-up ventilation.
Center-latch doors revealed a vast interior with
chair-height seats on chrome-tube frames.
With so many fabulous features, the Airflow seemed destined to sell. Find out what really happened on the next page.
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1934 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow Sales
For all the 1934 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow's virtues, many buyers just couldn't ignore its new shape. In retrospect, it was probably too different for the general public to accept. In fact, the Airflow's appearance generated extreme reactions rarely associated with an automobile: strong admiration or intense dislike, and these feelings affected sales.
Maintaining the 1934 Chrysler CU Airflow under the hood.
he most controversial elements were probably the rounded snout with its "waterfall" grille, plus the slabbed sides and the spatted rear wheel openings. Said industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, the Airflow was a "case of going too far too fast."
Frederick Lewis Allen, editor of Harper's magazine, described it as being "so bulbous, so obesely curved as to defy the natural preference of the eye for horizontal lines."
Yet there were many who either liked the styling or could at least overlook it, because Chrysler and DeSoto dealers took in a high number of Airflow orders in the first few weeks following the official launch. But because of the considerable retooling involved for the radical new design, production didn't get underway until April 1934, a critical four-month delay.
Even then, the first cars off the line were far from perfect, again reflecting the Airflow's unfamiliar engineering and Walter Chrysler's production hurry-up. Word of these difficulties got around and combined with the lack of cars to blunt much of the public's high initial interest. Worse, it led to rumors that the Airflow was flawed -- a lemon. As a result, many would-be buyers canceled their orders.
Airflow was ultramodern
apart from the sedans’
external spare tire.
A further sales setback came in the form
of a smear campaign launched by competitors, GM among them, against the 1934 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow's all-steel body.
Chrysler gamely tried to counter this by staging one of its well-known publicity stunts, in which an Airflow was pushed off
a 110-foot cliff in Pennsylvania. The car landed on its wheels and drove away under its own power, battered but intact. It was a convincing demonstration, but it didn't do much good. The Airflow had been crippled.
In an attempt to get sales moving, Chrysler instituted several rounds of modifications to the Airflow. The first of these showed up as early as June 1934, when the somewhat fragile grille was strengthened and simplified on all models.
At the same time, a new Series CX Custom Imperial variant arrived on a 137.5-inch wheelbase, powered by the CV's 130-horsepower engine and offered in the same four closed body styles, including a limousine.
Priced as low as $2,245, the CX was intended to bridge the size and price gap with the huge CW, which gained 5 horsepower for a total of 150. The basic Series CU also got a power boost, to 122 horses. Beginning in March, both the DeSoto and Chrysler Airflows gained a standard automatic overdrive for their three-speed transmissions.
Geared to give a 30-percent reduction in engine rpm at a given road speed, it consisted of a simple planetary gearset mounted on the transmission's output shaft and engaged via a centrifugal clutch, which locked the satellite cage to the shaft at speeds above 40 mph depending on throttle position. Automatic downshifts were made at or below 25 mph.
Invented by William B. Barnes, it was supplied by Warner Gear. Together with their streamlined styling, it made the Airflows quite economical.
Continue to the next page to see how these Airflow improvements impacted the 1935 models.
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1935 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow
The Chrysler/DeSoto Airflows also had fine performance, and skeptics took another look -- just in time for the 1935 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow to arrive on the scene -- after a Chrysler Airflow Imperial coupe broke more than 70 national and international American Automobile Association (AAA) records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah during the summer of 1934.
In a non-stop 24-hour run, the car averaged 84.43 mph and hit speeds in excess of 95 mph. Another Imperial managed a creditable 18 mpg on a cross-country economy sprint.
The DeSoto Airflow was equally impressive: 86.2 mph in the flying mile, 76.2 mph average for 500 miles, and a 74.7-mph average for 2,000 miles, again under AAA auspices.
The 1935 Airflow story was one of fewer models,
minor technical updates, a more stylish grille, and
sturdier but less attractive single-bar bumpers.
Shown is a restored 1935 Chrysler Series C1
Airflow Eight coupe.
But by this time the damage had been done. Although the Airflows were exceptional cars, they just didn't sell -- at least not in sufficient numbers to return even a portion of their development costs. Just under 12,000 of the Chryslers reached buyers in 1934, far less than expected and a bitter disappointment for Carl Breer and his team of engineers.
At DeSoto, sales slumped by a whopping 47 percent and, because it had no companion lines to fall back on, unlike Chrysler, the division ended the year in a considerably weakened position.
In a year that saw most companies boost production by up to 60 percent, Chrysler Corporation volume rose only 20 percent. Most of that was due to the success of the conventional Dodge and Plymouth lines and the square-rigged Chrysler Series CA and CB Sixes that accounted for more than half of the Chrysler make's total sales.
An oft-ignored fact is that despite the Airflow's underwhelming sales, Chrysler Corporation actually made money in 1934, although it lost a bundle on its new streamliners.
Walter Chrysler kept the faith in this
1935 beauty's sales potential.
Nevertheless, Walter Chrysler was convinced that the Airflow was still a very salable product. But he was pragmatic enough to yield to his sales manager, Joseph W. Frazer, who insisted on additional changes.
Especially important to Frazer -- and, ultimately, the company -- was a more conventionally styled companion line designed to win back customers who'd been scared off by the Airflow. Enter the Chrysler and DeSoto Airstream for 1935, available on no fewer than five different wheelbases and with a choice of six-cylinder (both makes) and straight-eight (Chrysler only) power.
Despite certain streamlined styling features like pontoon fenders, raked grilles, and teardrop headlamp pods, these were rather conservative cars that appealed primarily on that basis. Still, the Airstream's speedy completion and quick production startup showed just how quickly Chrysler could respond to the market, even if it was a tacit admission of the Airflow's failure.
Responding to criticism of the 1934 front end, Chrysler gave the 1935 Airflows what appeared to be a hastily tacked-on "widow's peak" grille and replaced the multi-bar bumpers with far stronger but less attractive single-bar units.
The Chrysler CU, CV, and CX series became the C1, C2, and C3, respectively, and the DeSoto SE became the Series SG. Chrysler dropped its 298.7-cid eight and used the 323.5-cid engine for all its 1935 Airflows except the immense CW, then in its last year as a cataloged series.
At a slight additional charge, Chrysler customers could order a high-compression head for more power. The standard C1 engine, now reduced to 115 horses, gained five horsepower in this guise, with the C2/C3 version going from 130 to 138 horsepower.
Although Airflow sales continued to slide, surprising few except Messrs. Chrysler and Breer, the corporation recorded record profits of $35 million this year. Again, it was Dodge, Plymouth, and trucks, together with the new Airstreams, that more than carried the languishing Airflows.
Although Airflow sales were less than impressive, Walter Chrysler had long had high hopes for the model -- even considering other Airflow marques. Get details on the next page.
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Walter P. Chrysler had high hopes for the Airflow, and so did Carl Breer, its chief architect. Both men felt this advanced design virtually reinvented the automobile, and they, therefore, expected an enthusiastic public response to the initial Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow models.
As we know, their hopes were quickly dashed by poor sales in the wake of several unforeseen problems. Had things been different, though, we might have seen a Plymouth Airflow.
The Airflow project reached fruition in 1933, largely under the auspices of the DeSoto Division. That same year, Plymouth introduced its first-ever six-cylinder car, the PC. Curiously, it was fractionally smaller in basic dimensions than its four-cylinder PB predecessor, but unfortunate styling made it look like a lot less car and it did not sell well.
Nevertheless, Walter Chrysler wasn't at all averse to "compacts," and he loved the Airflow. In fact, he saw Breer's bold new concept as the basis for an all-Airflow corporate lineup by 1935 or 1936.
It was at about this time that Breer showed his boss a copy of a new book called Horizons. Filled with drawings of futuristic aircraft, ships, and automobiles, it was written and illustrated by industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. Mr. Chrysler was suitably impressed, and Bel Geddes signed on as a company consultant in September 1933.
When he arrived at Chrysler, Bel Geddes took on three tasks: suggest styling improvements for the forthcoming Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow; develop a 100-inch-wheelbase version, possibly for the Plymouth badge; and draw up proposals for a compact Plymouth even smaller than the PC.
While none of his face-lift ideas were seen on later versions of the senior Airflows, the Plymouth Airflow progressed as far as full-scale interior and exterior mockups as Project P-113.
It was more integrated and thus better looking than the production models, but by the time it was finished, the entire compact-car program had been canceled. Engineering resources were more urgently needed elsewhere, mainly for finalizing the 1934s. Also, Chrysler executives had decided that, based on the PC experience, future Plymouths ought to be larger, not smaller.
DeSoto Division at Chrysler also had toyed with compacts on the way to their final design for the Airflow -- at one point building a wooden mock-up of a 100-inch-wheelbase three-window coupe that would have served nicely as the basis for a Plymouth Airflow (had one ever been required).
in mid-1933, it was more conventionally shaped, with freestanding
headlamps, a 1932-1933 DeSoto-style "barrel" radiator, and a rumble
seat. More predictive were its all-steel "turret" top, rear-hinged
"alligator" one-piece hood, and interchangeable doors.
A 1935 Chrysler Airflow Imperial C2 prototype
poses with its new Airstream running mate.
Ultimately, all these machinations were sidetracked by the production Airflow's disappointing sales and Chrysler's hasty regrouping around Ray Dietrich's more conservative "Airstream" look for 1935 and beyond. Even so, Walter Chrysler didn't give up on compacts -- or the Airflow concept. Neither did engineer Carl Breer, who continued streamlining experiments on full-size Airflows while investigating smaller extensions of the basic design. Significantly, the company launched a new series of compact-car studies in 1934, the year the Airflow debuted, under the "A-Series" designation.
Despite troubled sales, Chrysler continued to produce the Airflow. See what the 1936 model had to offer on the next page.
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1936 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow
In the end, despite all their experimentation, Chrysler had no need for either compact cars or Airflow-based Plymouths. The latter were made redundant by the success of Airstream styling, which was corporate-wide by 1936 (including the 1936 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow, discussed below) and quickly put sales back in the pink.
As for compacts, the public was far from ready to embrace such cars in significant numbers, particularly once the national economy began its slow but steady recovery after 1934. Chrysler's last experimental small car of the decade was the AW, built in 1937 and all but identical in appearance to the standard 1938 Plymouth.
The basic four-door remained the most popular
Chrysler Airflow for 1936. Part of the C9 series,
it retailed new for $1,345.
For 1936, all Airflows got new die-cast grilles, taillamps sensibly relocated into the rear fenders, a steel roof insert, and a long-overdue bustleback trunk on sedans. In addition, body style offerings thinned and most of the original design's interesting "art deco" touches, including the tubular seat frames, went by the wayside.
Model designations at Chrysler changed to C9, C10, and C11. The CW disappeared as part of the advertised line but was still available to special order. The 1935 DeSoto Series S2 was billed as the "Airflow III," but there were now just two models, five-passenger coupe and four-door sedan, priced at $1,095 apiece.
How did the 1936 Chrysler Airflow stack up to its competitors? Use the chart below to find out:
Comparative Specifications: 1936 Chrysler Airflow vs. the Competition
| || Chrysler Airflow C9||LaSalle Series 50 ||Buick Series 80 ||Auburn 852 ||Lincoln Zephyr |
| C.R. (:1)||6.2*||6.25||5.45||6.5||7.1|
| Main bearings||5||5||5||5||4|
| Wheelbase (in.)||123.0||120.0||131.0||127.0||122.0|
|Brakes||hydraulic|| hydraulic ||hydraulic|| hydraulic ||mechanical|
| Brake area (sq. in.)||198.8|| 207.0 ||181.4||194.2||168.0|
| Tire size||7.00x16||7.00x16||7.00x16||6.50x16||7.00x16|
| Body construction||unit||composite||composite|| composite ||unit|
| Body builder||Budd|| Fisher ||Fisher|| Auburn ||Briggs|
| Weight (lbs.)||3,828||3,745||4,098||3,835||3,470|
*6.5:1 optional; 120 horsepower @ 3400 rpm
Sources: MoToR, November 1935; NADA Official Used Car Guide, May 1937; MoToR, January 1936.
This turned out to be another banner year for Chrysler Corporation, which saw sales soar by nearly 28 percent. However, of the 71,295 Chryslers built during 1936, fewer than nine percent were Airflows. Model year volume for the DeSoto Airflow was down to a paltry 5,000 units.
Continue to the next page to learn about the 1937 Chrysler Airflow.
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1937 Chrysler Airflow
Time finally caught up with the 1937 Chrysler Airflow, and in more ways than one. Now four years old, the design that had seemed so radical back in 1934 was more or less established orthodoxy in Detroit. Perhaps it hadn’t been so “wrong” after all . . .
Nevertheless, the end was clearly in sight for Chrysler’s aerodynamically inspired car. DeSoto threw in the towel after three disheartening years to rely solely on its more popular Airstream-styled models. Chrysler, having already tooled up for 1937, had little choice but to continue with the Airflow for one final year.
The last Airflow lineup was a brace of C17
Chryslers for 1937. Only 4,370 of these four-door
sedans were built.
Known simply as the Airflow Eight, this Series C17 was essentially the previous year’s Imperial C10, riding the same 128-inch wheelbase and retaining its 323.5-cid engine. Only coupe and sedan body styles were fielded, each priced at $1,610. They were arguably the best-looking Airflows of all, sporting yet another new “nose job” marked by a gently rounded and raked grille, plus reworked hood louvers.
The main mechanical change was adoption of a Bendix-built vacuum power brake system. But all this was little more than a token effort, and after precisely 4,600 of the 1937s had been built, the Airflow was consigned to history.
In the end, the Airflow was a breakthrough automobile doomed by rumor. After all, it was a rumor about a competitor’s streamliner -- a car that, ironically, never materialized -- that led Walter Chrysler to rush the Airflow to market before it was really ready.
And it was the rumors resulting from that botched introduction that sealed the cars’ fate almost before they’d had a chance to prove themselves. Perhaps it only goes to show the truth of that old axiom: “haste makes waste.”
Yet if it accomplished nothing else, the Airflow will always be remembered because it prodded a somewhat reluctant auto industry into embracing new technology and design concepts. It undoubtedly influenced the development of the Lincoln Zephyr, and it accurately forecast the shape of cars to come later in the 1930s and into the 1940s.
No, it’s not an Airflow but a 1939 Peugeot 402B,
a frank copy of the forward-thinking Chrysler design.
Moreover, its impact wasn’t limited to Detroit. The French-built Peugeot 402 was a frank copy of the Airflow, right down to its rounded nose and waterfall grille. And the soundness of engineer Carl Breer’s original design was confirmed in Germany by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, whose “people’s car” for Adolf Hitler was nothing less than a scaled-down derivative of the rear-engine Airflow prototypes.
Sadly, the Airflow seems destined to be remembered mainly as a “loser,” as it has been for so many years, and that’s a shame. The car that blazed more new design trails than any other deserves a better fate.
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