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Chrysler Airflow

Chrysler Airflow

By Jack Nerad

Chrysler Airflow 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.
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