Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

1934-37 Chrysler Airflow


Traveling at sixty miles per hour, a car uses most of its energy to push through the air. It dawned on late 1920s automobile designers that cars were wildly inefficient in this way. Airplane designers had already shown the increased efficiency of aerodynamic design, so it was no surprise when Austro-Hungarian lighter-than-air aircraft designer Paul Jaray embarked on an aggressive program of wind-tunnel testing prototypes, leading to the limited production 1934 Tatra T-77. 

In America, both Buckminster Fuller's radical Dymaxion  and William Stout's proto-minivan Scarab explored aircraft derived streamlining applied to the automobile.

Serious aerodynamic research was mirrored by a streamlining fad that led to cosmetic decorative effects appearing on many products, including cars. But in America, only Chrysler pushed car design forward in a great leap by mass producing truly aerodynamic designs when visionary engineer Carl Breer led the company to re-invent motorcar design. When he had a wind tunnel constructed to test aerodynamics, engineers were startled to find that typical cars were actually more streamlined when turned around backwards.

Licensing research from Paul Jaray, Chrysler completely re-thought the automobile from the ground up with its radical new Airflows. They weren't merely advanced styling exercises as their engineering was as advanced as their looks. 

Moving the engine forward and utilizing a unibody that cradled passengers within the frame and between the wheels gave a smoother, safer ride. This also allowed for lighter weight construction, which, combined with slippery bodywork, meant a more efficient car with better performance.

Airflows were offered as Chrysler, Imperial, and DeSoto brands, but unfortunately, they were complicated and difficult to build. Their radical construction resulted in unfortunate production surprises. This was dramatically demonstrated when early cars had an annoying problem of dropping their engines at 80 m.p.h.

The Airflows' radical new design coupled with initial build quality problems doomed the project from the start. Chrysler executives wisely kept conventionally styled cars in production and found they massively outsold the Airflows. For the 1935 model year, the company introduced new Airstream models that outsold their Airflows four-to-one. The public looked more favorably on the Airstream's fake streamlining and conventional engineering than that of the truly aerodynamic, far more advanced Airflows.

After four years of meager sales, Chrysler canceled all Airflow production and returned to building utterly conventional cars. Bearing the scars of huge losses, the company didn't take a chance on radically advanced styling until their dowdy conservatism began to hurt sales at which point they hired brilliant designer Virgil Exner in 1949. His "Forward Look" styling of the mid-to-late 1950s immediately found the popular acceptance that Airflows had failed to capture.

Today, the funky looking Airflows are popular draws at car shows and museums, enjoyed for their radical styling and respected for Chrysler's quantum leap that built a better car, even if few cared at the time.

By Jim Cherry