Produced from 1934 until 1937, the Chrysler Airflow was the original full-size American production vehicle that used streamlining as a basis for building a sleeker automobile, one less susceptible to air resistance. Though it ended up being what is considered by some a commercial failure, Chrysler did made an effort at a fundamental change in automotive design with the Chrysler Airflow.
Chrysler's Engineer Carl Breer's was responsible for the concept of the Airflow, due to his curiosity about ‘how forms affected their movement through the environment'. Carl Breer was ahead of his time in terms of aerodynamics. Extremely revolutionary for the 1930s, the sales unfortunately preempted the Airflow's demise. Breer's journey into his concept began while viewing geese travel through the air in a 'V' flight pattern. Sources say he also watched military planes on their practice maneuvers, while others say his interest in lighter than air airships and how their shapes helped them move through the atmosphere inspired him.
Breer, with fellow Chrysler engineers Fred Zeger and Owen Skelton began a series of wind tunnel tests with the assistance of aviation expert Orville Wright to study which forms were the most efficient shapes in nature that could be suitable for an automobile. These three innovators in the late 1920s and early 1930s were known as The Three Musketeers. Their sole focus in the beginning was engineering, and during a day trip near Selfridge Air Force Base in Michigan Breer noticed geese flying in formation which sparked his thinking about how object moved through air. At the Highland Park site Chrysler built a wind tunnel and tested at least 50 scale models by April of 1930. The engineers learned that then-current two-box automobile design was so aerodynamically ineffectual, that it was actually more efficient turned around backwards. In 1932 a prototype called the Trifon Special was constructed, followed by a production model in 1934.
The engineers chose to look into ways that a vehicle could be built, by applying what they learned about shape, to utilize monocoque construction to strengthen the construction of the car while reducing its overall drag, which also increased the power-to-drag ratio as the more streamlined (though lighter) body allowed air to flow around it instead of ‘being caught through upright forms, such as radiator grilles, headlights and windshields'. At the time, traditional vehicles were the typical two-box design, with around 65% of the weight over the rear wheels. The weight distribution had a tendency to become further imbalanced when loaded with passengers, rising to 75% or more over the rear wheels, which unfortunately resulted in unsafe handling characteristics on slippery roads. Due to this, passengers were subjected to a harsher ride because of the higher spring rates in the rear.
Needing superior handling dynamics, an innovative suspension system was designed. The engine was moved to the front over the wheels in contrary to traditional automobiles of the time and the passengers were all moved forward so they saw within the wheelbase, instead of on top of the rear axle. Resulting in more equal spring rates, better handling and superior ride quality, the weight distribution was approximately 54% of the weight over the front wheels which evened to near 50-50 with passengers.
Before the Airflow debuted, Chrysler did a publicity stunt where they reversed the axles and steering gear, which allowed the car to be driven ‘backwards' throughout Detroit. The stunt did the trick, though it caused a near panic, but the marketing department felt that this would send a hint that Chrysler was planning something monumental. The finished product was nothing like any American production car to date.
Sleek, and low in comparison to other cars on American roads, the Airflow was heavily influenced by streamline design movement. The grille work cascaded forward and downward forming an arc where other makes featured bolt-upright radiators. The front fenders covered the running surface of the tire tread, and in the rear, Airflows covered the rear wheels through the use of fender skirts. Headlights were semi-flush to areas adjacent to the grille.
The windshield was composed of two sheets of glass that formed a raked 'vee' both side to side, and top to bottom instead of a flat panel of glass. At a time when automakers like Ford, GM and even Chrysler continued to use wood structural framing members in their car bodies, the Airflow utilized a full steel body to carry its passengers which rested between the wheels instead of upon them. The rear seat was deeper, and the front seat was wider than in other vehicles. The Airflow possessed a better power to weight ratio, and its structural integrity was stronger than any other similar models of the day.
The Airflow was debuted months before it was put into production, and in May 1934 it peaked at only 6,212 units, very late in the year, and barely enough to give every dealer a single model. Because of the unique and expense involved in the new Airflow design, the factory had not accounted for this, so it required a bizarre number and variety of welding techniques. Unfortunately the original Airflows that arrived at dealerships had numerous problems, mostly due to faulty manufacturing. Fred Breer, the son of Chrysler Engineer Carl Breer, commented that the first 2,000 to 3,000 Airflows left the factory with major defects that included breaking loose from their mountings at 80 mph.
Chrysler and its junior running mate, DeSoto were scheduled to offer the Airflow in 1934, with DeSota offering nothing but Airflows. Chrysler however chose to continue to offer a six-cylinder variant of its more mainstream 1933 models. The Airflow was produced in both 2-door coupe and 4-door sedan variants and used a flathead I8 engine. Today it is believed that only three 1934 Imperial Airflow still exist. An Airflow Six, model CY was produced by Chrysler of Canada, basically a DeSoto Airflow with a Chrysler grille, instrument panel, bumpers and emblems. The Airflow Six was dropped at the end of 1934 after a total of 445 units were built.
The Chrysler lineup of eight cylinder Airflows included model CU Airflow Eight model CV Airflow Imperial Eight, the model CX Airflow Custom Imperial, and at the top of the line, the CW Airflow Custom Imperial with a body built by LeBaron on a 146.5 inch wheelbase. The CW Airflow featured the industry's first one-piece curved windshield on a production automobile.
Unfortunately the first six months of the Airflow's introduction was a complete sales disaster. Making things even worse, General Motors launched an advertising campaign that was aimed at further discrediting the Airflows. Many critics believe that the Airflow's unpopularity stemmed from its looks. The Airflow's hood, headlamps, fenders and waterfall grill merged into something that some critics called 'an anonymous lump'.
Though it was incredibly modern in looks, the public wasn't ready for it. Following the wake of the Great Depression, the Airflow was just too advanced and too different for many consumers. Though it sold in quite respectable numbers during its first year, Chrysler's traditional sedans and coupes outsold the Airflow drastically by 2.5 to one. The first year for the Airflow peaked at 10,839 units. Unfortunately the DeSoto fared much worse than Chrysler in 1934. DeSoto's sales numbers plunged when they lacked a 'standard' car to sell. The Airflow design looked ‘sleek' on the Chrysler's longer wheelbase, but on the DeSoto appeared to be stubby and short.
In 1935 Chrysler took steps to respond to the negative feedback about the Airflow. They made modifications to the body that brought the front of Airflow more in line with public taste. One of the major changes was the placement of a slightly peaked grille that replaced the waterfall unit of 1934. Also for this year, Chrysler unveiled an all-steel standard which both Chrysler and DeSoto sold as the Chrysler Airstream and DeSoto Airstream. While the Airflow was considered to be streamlined, the Airstream only appeared to be streamlined, making it incredibly popular as it outsold the Airflow models.
In 1935 the Airflow models were the same as the previous year with the exception of the Airflow Eight two door sedan which was dropped. For 1935 the Chrysler Airflow production dropped below 8,000 units for 1935 which was around four Airstreams produced for every Airflow
In 1936 the Airflow received a truck tacked onto the body of the car which eliminated its smooth backside, while the grille also became more pronounced. 4,259 of the four-door Imperial sedan were produced during this year, breaking the 1,000 unit mark. Other than this model, total Airflow production sank to 6,275 units, in comparison to the concurrent Airstream models, which sold more than 52,000 units for 1936. This year would be the final year that Chrysler's premium Imperial model range would carry the Airflow.
1937 was the final year for the Airflow, and it was reduced to just one model; the Airflow Eight. It was available as a two-door coupe and a four-door sedan. Before the Airflow program was cancelled, a total of 4,600 units were produced. In 1937 a Airflow Custom Imperial, model CW*, limousine became the official vehicle of Philippines president Manuel L. Quezon. In 1978 the historic vehicle was restored and is on display in Quezon City, Philippines.By Jessica Donaldson