|When the talk turns to the Chrysler Airflow, the sum of the discussion is
usually: early attempt at streamlining that the public didn't like. In others words, nice try; call us again when
you have a winner.
This thumbnail sketch significantly under-rates the importance of the Airflow because, despite its commercial failure, Chrysler's brave attempt at innovation may well have been the most important vehicle of the 1930's. Not only did the Airflow lead the way in terms of aerodynamics (or "streamlining" as it was then called), it was the first mass-market car in the world to use the "modern" architecture that has now become standard.
Walter P. Chrysler was an American "automobile man." A promoter with a genius for marketing, he assembled an odd lot of automobile companies, including Maxwell and Dodge Brothers, and by 1930 he had himself a somewhat smaller version of General Motors. He offered consumers a variety of brands at a variety of prices, and, though his brands weren't market leaders, they were credible competitors. At the top of the line, for example, the Chrysler Imperial was in a league with Packard, Cadillac, Marmon and Stutz, taking a back seat only to the Duesenberg J.
Chrysler's success was based on a simple premise: staying in touch with the market. Its various divisions offered competitive cars at competitive prices in their individual segments. Neither wildly good nor abysmally bad, they offered reasonable value.
But Chrysler also enjoyed having a reputation as an innovator. He first made his name in the business by pioneering four-wheel brakes in the United States in the 1920's, and, rather than being dictatorial, he encouraged his engineers to examine new and better ways of doing things.
One of his engineers who did just that was Carl Breer. One evening while at the wheel of his car, he noticed the similarity between the shape of then-current airplanes and that of birds, and began musing how archaic auto design was in comparison. In the late Twenties, most automotive design could be characterized as one box stacked on another. All the car's equipment -- lights, horn, bumpers, spare tire -- were hung somewhere on the two boxes and allowed to wave in the breeze.
Just from eyeballing some airplanes, Breer intuitively got the impression that taking a similar approach to automotive design could result in some real benefits. He contacted a Dayton, Ohio-based engineer named Bill Earnshaw, who in turn contacted the co-inventor of the airplane, Orville Wright, and before long they were testing shapes in a small wind tunnel. Seeing the progress was being made, Breer then authorized the construction of a larger wind tunnel at Chrysler's Highland Park, Michigan, research center with the full support of Walter P. Chrysler himself.
One of Breer's earliest and most startling findings was that the conventional sedan of that era (circa 1930) was actually more aerodynamically efficient traveling in reverse than moving forward. The reason for this was the abrupt, nearly vertical tail of then-current automobiles, which created turbulence and a partial vacuum that acted as an invisible anchor.
To remedy this, a sloping or tapered tail was much preferable to the contemporary practice, which is why avant garde exercises like William B. Stout's Scarab and Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion had pronounced teardrop shapes with the "big end" of the teardrop in front. These two vehicles packaged their passengers in a rather blunt forward section of the vehicle and put the engine in a tapering tail. To a somewhat lesser extent the production Tatra 77 did the same thing.
Of course, moving the passenger compartment forward necessitated some other changes. Because Chryslers were powered by a beefy straight eight engine, moving the passengers forward meant moving the engine forward as well. While the vast majority of cars in the Twenties and Thirties positioned their engines well behind the front axle, in the Airflow part of the engine actually extended ahead of the front axle, even though the majority of the engine's mass still lay behind it. Though radical at the time, this, too, has become conventional practice.
A final pioneering advance of the Airflow was its unique frame. Instead of a simple "ladder" of beams and girders that characterized most chassis construction of the time, the Airflow used a "space-frame" not unlike the best contemporary aeronautic practice. Where virtually all automotive bodies of the early Thirties were separate structures that were bolted to the frame, the Airflow's frame ran up the fender line, across the cowl and encircled the door openings. In many ways it was very similar to the construction method used on today's Saturn automobiles in that the body panels are hung from the chassis, and it anticipated so-called unit-construction that is ubiquitous today.
As an added fillip several of the body pieces were more or less interchangeable. For example, the stamping for the right front door was very similar to the left rear. This made for some production efficiencies, when Chrysler gave the okay to proceed.
Though far from beautiful, the final Airflow design that was conceived by Breer, engineering director Oliver Clark, and a team that included Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, was a revelation. Unveiled at the 1934 New York auto show, the Airflow, which was offered in both Chrysler and De Soto versions, stopped traffic and generated tens of thousands of inquiries. Sadly, though, no production versions were ready for delivery, and by the time they were, negative buzz was all around.
Some said Chrysler's competitors started a whispering campaign about the Airflows; others believe that the teething problems the first cars experienced muddied the Airflow's reputation; still others will tell you that while the idea behind the Airflow was good, it's execution was just plain ugly. For whatever reason, the public shied away from the new-as-tomorrow car.
Chrysler hedged its bets on the launch by continuing to offer conventionally styled and engineered models concurrently, but De Soto, which was Airflow only, saw its sales drop 47 percent. Chrysler executives quickly reacted by ordering a fast re-style of the Airflow, but, to their credit, they kept the model in production through the 1937 model year.
Though history records the Airflow a failure, the pioneering work done by Breer and his intrepid staff of engineers has lived long past the model's premature death and is a silent but important part of every car we drive today.
Streamlining originated from a 19th century interest in nature, and the realisation that fishes and birds had evolved into highly efficient shapes. Wind-tunnel testing a typical car showed it had less air resistance going backward. The 1934 Chrysler Airflow was re-engineered to reduce drag. The stylists decorated the car with Art Deco motifs - tripled bumpers and air intakes, vertical chrome grilles, rubber mats and tubular framed seats. The airflow, though technically ahead of its time was a sales disaster, nearly bankrupting Chrysler, and in part resulted in streamlining's move from the hands of engineers and into the pens of stylists. Aircraft used new materials and techniques in monocoque structures.
Here a split emerges between 'streamlining' and 'streamform'. The first results from technical studies, where the second is purely aesthetic. 1930s designers fell into both camps - Dreyfuss, Bel Geddes and Buckminster Fuller streamlined for functional reasons, where Loewy and Earl appropriated streamform purely to increase sales.
Designed by chief engineer Carl Breer and two of his best engineers, Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton (see below), the Chrysler (and DeSoto) Airflow was introduced in 1934. The advanced aerodynamic design was initiated in 1927, prototyped in 1932 and tested in a wind tunnel advised by Orville Wright. It became known as "the first streamlined car."
Though similar to the nascent 1932 Volkswagen (by Ferdinand Porsche), the 1933 streamlined Czech Tatra (by Paul Jaray) and the 1933 Briggs "Dream Car" (by John Tjaarda), it was much less graceful of line and form. All four were probably influenced by the pioneering work in 1921 by Austro-Hungarian engineer Paul Jaray, who began testing car models in wind tunnels. But the Airflow was the first to test the mass market with a radically different appearance than other cars of the day. The biggest visual problem was the stubby, featureless rounded front end that was ridiculed as ugly.
The Airflow failed disastrously in the market. This was despite a more conventional grille hastily fashioned by Ray Dietrich (see below) on the front of a more successful companion model, called the Airstream, and despite hired promotional comments by the most famous industrial designer of the time, Norman Bel Geddes. The Airflow was produced until 1937, with revised (more conventional) grills and nose form changes each year. Fortunately, Chrysler had continued parallel production of its conventional design that avoided financial disaster of the company.
For decades, the Airflow was the example cited to and by designers when considering designs that seemed too advanced for acceptance by the general public.
Nevertheless, its innovative features such as a highly rigid steel body frame, unitized body construction,
automatic overdrive, one-piece curved glass windshield and passenger weight distribution (shifting passenger
compartment 20 inches forward) pioneered in engineering advancement, and its form had significant influence on all
future car designs. The 1936
In 1993, Chrysler promoted a "radical new design" called "cab-forward" design. Déjà vu! In fact, the 1934 Chrysler was the first "cab-forward" arrangement, placing rear-seat passengers ahead of the rear axle for a smoother ride.
The Men Behind the Airflow
Engineers Carl Breer (1883-1970), Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, were famous as the original design team of the
first car introduced in 1924 by Walter P. Chrysler (1875-1940, who was at the time president of the Maxwell Motor
Company). The new car featured improved 4-wheel hydraulic brakes and many other engineering innovations. It also
proved to be the last successful start-up of a new car company in the US. In 1925 Maxwell became the Chrysler
Corporation and Breer was named director of research, a position he held until his retirement in 1949. By 1929,
"Innovation Guarantees Success"....not always. The Chrysler Airflow is the supreme example of "good things gone bad." When designer Carl Breer sat down with fellow engineers Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton to design the Ultimate Motor Car, they envisioned scads of orders pouring over dealers desks and the public demanding, "more, more,more"....who would guess them wrong? Perhaps, you can relate by picturing the times: square box cars with long hoods and side mounted tires, each one looking exactly like the other with the exception of different colors. With the success of the huge Dodge Company, built solely on the back of this legendary trio, who would guess this God-like group would send the company off on the road to near financial chaos by creating a premature "space mobile?" The Airflow was so innovative and different, it wouldn't "catch on" for 65 years(?). Carl Breer was given "Carte Blanche" and he in turn gave the term new definition. He took the streamlined effect of military aircraft of the day and applied the 'wind tunnel effect' to a fresh, new, Modern automobile. Ironically though, despite the fact many of the cars of this period carried big V-12's and V-16's this group opted to keep costs down by offering their cars with smaller motors. This futuristic rocket had a firecracker for an engine.
It was surmised that these Buck Roger's Spaceage styling gimmicks would sell cars. Mr. Breer felt he could integrate function with style. Thus, was created the first Wind Resistant production passenger car. The other ground breaking innovations fell into place as a result of this premise: initially, a rear engine was envisioned but, it proved too costly (and everyone thought the Tucker was first in 1948!) The rear deck was so sloped in design, a front engine design was necessary, with a rear seat placed, for the first time, in front of the rear axle. The result, a far smoother ride for passengers. Since the front hood was sloped so radically, the engine had to be set back at a 5% slope with the fan re-positioned directly to a fan vibration dampener. Another first, the all-steel body was attached by a grid work of steel while everyone else in the market place was still using wood framing- over steel- panels. This Chrysler Space Age Motorcar was made with interchangeable body stampings between models (Desoto, Imperial, and Chrysler)..another first ! Created and designed when long hoods increased status, the Chrysler had no hood. Still, with enthusiasm high in the Corporate Office, Chrysler decided to make the new Airflow their "Top of The Line" model and offer it as the only model in the Desoto lineup. Worse yet, they only offered two Six Cylinder models in 1934. The Eight cylinder was added later (and is the most sought after ). This imbalance resulted in total production of Airflows at a mere 30% of final production. By 1935, Chrysler was forced to wisely return to their tried and true "box style" with the Airstream model, with it's conventional boxy body styles. The Airflow Buck Rogers space mobile continued for another 3 years total before disappearing from the roads forever.
Chrysler finished 1935, 10th in sales overall. Walter P. Chrysler was elected President of Chrysler Motor Car Company that year. Driver David Haartz established 72 Stock Car Speed and Endurance records at Daytona Beach, Fl. driving a Chrysler Airflow Coupe and then averaged 18.1 miles per gallon driving a similar car, coast to coast, from Los Angeles to New York City. Today the Chrysler Airflow is a major collector's item, a Milestone Classic and is proudly added to our permanent museum display.
For more information please read:
Carl Breer & Anthony J. Yanik - The Birth of Chrysler Corporation and Its Engineering Legacy
Vincent Curcio - Chrysler: The Life and Times of An Automotive Genius
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