A milestone in the automotive history, this car was hardly a success. It is listed among the 50 worst cars of all time. But its place in the Streamline Hall of Fame is secured.
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.
(via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
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).
(via paul.malon @ Flickr)
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.
1934 DeSoto Airflow and the City of Salina express train (via Captain Geoffrey Spaulding @ Flickr)
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.
1934 DeSoto Airflow Coupe (by bsabarnowl @ Flickr)
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.
1934 Chrysler Airflow Sedan ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
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).
1934 DeSoto Airflow Sedan ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
1935 DeSoto Airflow Six-Passenger Sedan ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
1935 DeSoto Rumble Seat Coupe ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
1935 DeSoto Town Sedan ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
1936 Chrysler Airflow Sedan (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
(by sjb4photos @ Flickr)
1936 DeSoto Airflow Sedan (by Dmentd)
1937 Chrysler Coupe ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
1937 Chrysler Sedan ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
1937 Chrysler Sedan (by Rex Gray @ Flickr)
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.
1935 Chrysler Airflow & Airstream ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
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.
1937 Chrysler Custom Imperial Sedan ad (via aldenjewell @ Flickr)
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.
P.S. Where Chrysler failed, Ford Motor Co. succeeded with their 1936 Lincoln-Zephyr. The Airflow will remain in history as the first American mass-production car designed to scientific streamline principles. It influenced a number of foreign car builders like Volvo and Toyota. And... isn't it gorgeous?
1934 Chrysler Imperial Airflow (via coconv @ Flickr)
Headline picture (1934 Chrysler Imperial Airflow) via paul.malon @ Flickr