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Public wasn't ready for Airflow's innovations

November 05, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

Controversy can be stimulating, except when it comes to building and selling cars.

Walter P. Chrysler found out the hard way in 1934 when he introduced his radically styled Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow coupes and sedans. In so doing, he broke with established design convention and injured the bottom line of his company.

Today, these quaint museum-quality antiques don't appear particularly exceptional or avant-garde, they just look, well, old. However, compared to other vehicles built during the same era, the Airflow was as ground-breaking as they come.

It was Chrysler's chief designer, Carl Breer, who came up with the idea of reducing wind resistance in automobiles after observing birds and aircraft in flight. The result, he believed, would be a car that would look smarter, go faster and consume less fuel than "normal" looking vehicles. Chrysler also hoped that the Airflow would be the kind of breakthrough machine needed to vault his company out of the middle of the pack and into a much stronger sales position.

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After consulting with no less a luminary than Orville Wright, who, with his brother, Wilbur, had been the first to successfully achieve powered flight, Breer and a small group of associates began secretly testing different shapes in a full-scale wind tunnel that Chrysler had constructed at his company's research center.

One of the revelations garnered in the wind tunnel was that automobiles of the late 1920s and early 1930s were far more aerodynamic backing up than moving forward. This ultimately led to a smoother front-end design containing a rounded (instead of upright) grille and headlights slotted into the fenders instead of the traditional method of perching them on top. At the rear, full fender skirts and a tapered rear helped reduce drag, adding to the car's slippery silhouette.

Engineering advancements that went into the Airflow's development included reversing the weight distribution - traditionally around 45/55 front/rear at the time - by shifting part of the engine over the front wheels and moving the rear seat ahead of the rear axle. This adjustment kept the front of the car more firmly planted at highway speeds, significantly improved ride quality and resulted in more spacious seating.

The methods developed to construct the Airflow were also ahead of their time. Traditional body-on-frame construction was abandoned in favor of a space frame upon which the body panels were welded in place. This system didn't reduce weight, but it made the body significantly more rigid than previous models.

All Airflows were originally destined to carry the DeSoto label, but company founder Walter P. not only insisted the Chrysler brand name be used, but that the Airflow be fitted with a more powerful eight-cylinder engine. As well, Chrysler ordered that the cars be sold in a variety of wheelbases and that a line of opulently dressed Chrysler Custom Imperial limousine versions be built.

Meanwhile, the mid-priced DeSoto Airflow was offered in one standard wheelbase and was powered by a more modest six-cylinder motor.

After a six-year development period and rigorous testing (including speed and durability runs at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah), the Airflow was finally unveiled at the 1934 New York Auto Show. Prices ranged from $1,000 for the base DeSoto version, all the way up to $5,000 for the stretched Imperial limousine.

Initially, the public response was extremely favorable, even though reviews in the press were lukewarm at best. But when the anticipated surge in sales failed to materialize, design changes were quickly implemented for the following year. In a major about-face, the Airflow's rounded nose was replaced by a more traditional-looking pointed grille in an upright position.

Despite these "fixes," sales continued to tumble as loyal buyers began switching to other brands. Fortunately, Chrysler continued to make conventionally styled models that continued to sell in decent numbers. Unfortunately for DeSoto, the Airflow was the only car available and brand sales dropped by nearly 40 percent.

By 1937, the company finally threw in the towel and the car that was designed to be ahead of its time quietly went out of production.

Given its high expectations, the Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow four-year sales total of around 55,000 was considered a failure. Only a few years later, the public would come to embrace many of the engineering and styling advances pioneered by these exceptionally sturdy and surprisingly quick automobiles.

For Chrysler and its Airflow, the future, it seemed, would just have to wait.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' automotive history writer.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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