The Rearview Mirror: Chrysler’s First Airflow

Sketch illustrating the aerodynamic flow of the Chrysler Airflow Concept.

When Chrysler needed a name for its new battery electric crossover, the automaker reached into its substantial past to offer a vision of its future. Cheating the wind has become even more important today, an essential part of extending a battery’s range or extracting the most mileage from a gas-powered car. 

Yet choosing the name Chrysler Airflow was truly surprising, for the name conjures up a time when Chrysler fielded a car too advanced for its era.

An inspiration in the sky

It’s August 1927, and Chrysler engineer Carl Breer is driving from Detroit to Lake Huron to escape the summer heat. Up ahead, Breer saw what he thought was a flock of geese, but instead was a squadron of fighter aircraft returning to Selfridge Field. Noting the planes’ aerodynamic shape, he began pondering how air flows around an automobile. For Breer, it was a natural way to pass the time.

The 1934 Chrysler Airflow was the first car built with unit-body construction and aerodynamic design.

Breer, along with Owen Skelton and Fred Zeder, worked at Studebaker during World War I, but would be recruited by Walter Chrysler to design a new car for Willys, where Chrysler was working after leaving General Motors.

While the car they produced was eventually marketed by Billy Durant as the Flint, the trio, known as the Three Musketeers, stayed with Chrysler as he moved to Maxwell Motors. It would later be acquired by Chrysler Corp., which Walter Chrysler formed in 1925.

A hunch leads to a radical new design

When Breer returned to the office, he asked William Earnshaw to investigate automobile aerodynamics. Having come from Dayton, Ohio, Earnshaw turned to Orville Wright, who suggested building a small wind tunnel to measure wind resistance using wooden models. The tunnel was put in use in Ohio by November 1927, and would be replaced by a new wind tunnel at Chrysler’s Highland Park headquarters in September 1928.

The 1934 Chrysler Airflow fit into the streamlining of the time, when even locomotives were built using aerodynamic design principles.

During the next 19 months, 50 models would be tested, revealing that a car’s front end was one of the leading causes of wind resistance. In fact, running the era’s cars in reverse reduced drag by 30 percent. By eliminating the era’s square lines and smoothing out the body, they could drastically reduce drag. 

The new vehicle was taking shape, with a waterfall front grille and a sloping rear. This necessitated moving the rear seat forward, ahead of the rear axle. This improved ride comfort, but required all components be moved forward as well. This incidentally improved front-to-back weight distribution, as cars of that era commonly carried 60% of the vehicle’s weight on the rear tires. Moving the seat forward also provided space for the fuel tank to be safely located ahead of the rear axle. 

As if the radical shape wasn’t enough, the new Chrysler employed unit body construction, rather than body-on-frame, which was used industry-wide. The innovative new approach to car building took years, but by 1932, a protype was readied. Dubbed the Trifon Special, it underwent a year of testing before its debut at the New York Auto Show in January 1934.

The success that never came

Walter Chrysler and a 1934 Chrysler AIrflow model. The car would prove to be one of his few errors in judgement.

Walter Chrysler expected the car to be a huge success, and with good reason. He’s a man who knew nothing but success, having saved General Motors, Willys, Maxwell and having created Chrysler Corp., which by 1932, was second in sales only to General Motors. 

Initial reaction at the show proved strong, and for the next six months, Chrysler unleashed an advertising blitz to keep interest in the car alive as it was being readied for production. And the automaker was in a hurry. Rumor had it that GM was bringing out its own streamlined designs for 1935.

The new Airflow was offered as a Chrysler and Imperial with 8-cylinder power, which would be sold alongside carryover conventionally styled 6-cylinder-powered Chryslers. But DeSoto would be offered only as an Airflow with 6-cylinder power. 

But the heady rush of the New York show proved to be an aberration. Production delays prevented cars from reaching dealers until April, leading to rumors that cars were flawed. Of course, GM’s ad campaign against the Airflow didn’t help, in which it denounced “ill-timed or dubious experiments.” 

Of course, the cars did have flaws, not unusual considering their innovative design. But some of the flaws proved serious enough, such as engines breaking loose at 80 mph, that the car’s reputation was doomed. By model year’s end a mere 11,292 Chrysler Airflows had been built, compared to nearly 25,000 conventional Chryslers. For DeSoto, it was even worse, selling a mere 13,940 DeSoto Airflows. Considering the brand sold 25,232 cars the year before, it proved to be disastrous. 

The Airflow’s shape was innovative. Here it’s seen in red against a 1935 Buick Series 60.

The Airflow’s aftermath

But the car’s biggest problem was its design, particularly the waterfall grille. It was too radical compared with what had come before it. But the Airflow had been crafted by engineers, not designers. To increase its appeal for 1935, Chrysler brought in industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, who endowed the front end with a more convetional grille. But it didn’t help.

The Airflow would last through 1937. And while sales weren’t great, its design influenced the industry at large, which followed its approach, but no so dramatically.

The failure of the Airflow would linger at Chrysler for two decades, as the automaker’s styling became far more risk averse and conservative. It wouldn’t be until 1957, and Virgil Exner’s dramatic new designs, that Chrysler would lead the industry in automotive styling. 

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