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1934-1937 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow

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 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow's unusual profile
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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