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The Chrysler Airflow

The 1934 Chrysler Airflow was designed with aircraft principles in mind. Unfortunately, bad press limited the Airflow’s success.

After making few changes through 1933, Chrysler made a major one, summoning the future with the most-radical production car yet attempted by a U.S. maker. Widely recognized as the first truly modern automobile, the 1934 Airflow was an "engineer's" car, which was hardly surprising. What was curious is that normally canny Walter Chrysler approved its daring concept without much regard for whether the public would like it.

As the story goes, Carl Breer spotted a squadron of Army Air Corps planes flying overhead in 1927, which inspired him to push with Zeder and Skelton for a streamlined automobile employing aircraft-type design principles. Wind-tunnel tests suggested a modified teardrop shape (and ultimately the Airflow name).


Placing the eight-cylinder engines over the front axles made for considerable passenger space. Seats were an industry-leading 50 inches across, and there was more than enough interior room for even the burly Walter P. Chrysler. What's more, the forward drivetrain positioning enabled all passengers to sit within the wheelbase, thus improving ride comfort for those in back. A beam-and-truss body engineered along aircraft principles provided great strength with less weight. Oliver Clark followed all these dictates with exterior styling that seemed downright strange. The Custom Imperial looked best, its long wheelbase allowing the rounded lines to be stretched out more -- and they needed every inch of stretch they could get.

But there was no denying Airflow performance. At the Bonneville Salt Flats a '34 Imperial coupe ran the flying-mile at 95.7 mph, clocked 90 mph for 500 miles, and set 72 new national speed records. Airflows were strong, too. In Pennsylvania, one was hurled off a 110-foot cliff (another publicity stunt); it landed wheels down and was driven away.

Unfortunately, the massive cost and effort of retooling delayed Airflow sales until January 1934 (June for Custom Imperials). Then, jealous competitors -- mainly GM -- began running "smear" advertising that claimed the cars were unsafe. All this blunted public interest that was initially quite favorable despite the newfangled styling, and prompted rumors that the Airflow was flawed. Save for a group of traditional Series CA and CB Sixes, the 1934 Chrysler line was all Airflow, and sales were underwhelming. While most makes boosted volume by up to 60 percent from rock-bottom '33, Chrysler rose only 10 percent. It could have been worse -- and was for DeSoto, which banked entirely on Airflows that year (all sixes).

Yet the Airflow wasn't nearly the disaster it's long been portrayed to be. Though Chrysler dropped from eighth to tenth in model-year output for 1932, it went no lower through '37, the Airflow's final year, when it rose to ninth. And though the cars did lose money, the losses were far from crippling. The Airflow's most-lasting impact was to discourage Chrysler from fielding anything so adventurous for a very long time. Not until 1955 would the firm again reach for industry design leadership.

There were also two immediate results of the 1934 sales experience. First, planned Airflow-style Plymouths and Dodges were abruptly canceled. Second, Chrysler Division regrouped around more-orthodox "Airstream" Sixes and Eights for 1935 and '36. Though not pure Airflow, this design's "pontoon" fenders, raked-backed radiators, and teardrop-shape headlamp pods provided a strong family resemblance, yet wasn't so wild that it discouraged customers. Airstreams literally carried Chrysler in those years.

Most 1937 Chryslers and all '38s had transitional styling of the period "potato school," carrying barrel grilles, rounded fenders, and pod-type headlamps. Ornate dashboards grouped gauges in front of the driver on '37s, in a central panel for '38. Offered in both years were revamped non-Airflow models comprising six-cylinder Royals and eight-cylinder standard and Custom Imperials.

An interesting 1938 hybrid was the New York Special combining the year's new 119-inch-wheelbase Royal chassis with Imperial's 298.7-cid eight. Distinguished by a color-keyed interior, it came only as a four-door sedan (a business coupe was planned, but it's doubtful any were produced). All eights were now five-main-bearing side-valve engines (the nine-main unit was dropped after '34). Volume recovered from the 1934 low of some 36,000 to over 106,000 by 1937, only to drop by half for recession '38; still Chrysler remained ninth.

The division fell back to 11th place for 1939 despite improved volume of near 72,500 -- and handsome new Ray Dietrich styling. Headlamps moved stylishly into the fenders above a lower grille composed of vertical bars, and all fenders were lengthened. Adding to the list of Chrysler engineering firsts was "Superfinish," a new process of mirror-finishing engine and chassis components to minimize friction.

Several familiar model names bowed for 1939: Windsor (as a Royal subseries), New Yorker, and Saratoga. The C-22 Royal/Royal Windsor line carried the 241.5-cid six from 1938 and rode an unchanged wheelbase,though a long sedan and limousine were added on a 136-inch platform. The 125-inch C-23 Imperial included New Yorker coupes and sedans and a brace of Saratogas.

Topping the line was the C-24 Custom Imperial: two long sedans and one limo on a 144-inch-wheelbase. All eight-cylinder offerings used the same 323.5-cid powerplant, with 130-138 bhp depending on the model. Dating from 1934, it would remain in production until the breakthrough hemispherical-head V-8 of 1951.

For more on the amazing Chrysler, old and new, see:

  • Chrysler New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Chrysler Used Car Reviews and Prices