Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5
The 1930’s was a time of upheaval, the great depression creating unprecedented hardship for many throughout the world, and political un-rest seemingly becoming the norm. In the early 1930’s the dark clouds of National Socialism were gathering over Germany, while in Britain the battle between two great railways was capturing the imagination of anyone with even a passing interest in things mechanical.
In one corner was the London and North Eastern Rail Company (LNER), the other the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). Competition between the LNER and LMS was mainly in terms of the premium London to Scotland traffic. The LNER’s “Flying Scotsman” won international acclaim, however both railway companies knew that, in the battle for prestige, having the fastest locomotive would result in increased patronage.
To obtain faster speeds the great steam engines became bigger, but it was the “streamlining
” steelwork that was to capture the imagination, designers finally acknowledging that it was not only their job to make the locomotives go fast, but to look fast too.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Walter P Chrysler and Chrysler Corporation struck upon a similar concept, albeit in the automotive field rather than locomotive. Their creation was the Chrysler “Airflow” (and cheaper DeSoto Airflow), a car that boasted a plethora of new ideas and innovation, even though it is best remembered today for its streamlined design.
The Airflow was inspired by designer Carl Breer, and there are many theories that remain to this day as to how Breer came up with the idea. One such theory is that he once watched a gaggle of geese travel through the air in a “V” flight pattern. Another claim is that the inspiration came from watching aircraft, some say of the motorized military type, while others claim it to be from airships, which were popular up until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937.
Breer, along with fellow Chrysler engineers Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, began a series of wind tunnel tests, with the cooperation of Orville Wright, to study which forms were the most efficient shape created by nature that could suit an automobile
. A wind tunnel was constructed at Chrysler’s Highland Park facility, where over 50 scale models were tested by April 1930.
Their engineers found that then-current two-box automobile
design was so aerodynamically
inefficient, that it was actually more efficient turned around backwards. Applying what they had learned about shape, the engineers also began looking into ways that a car could be built, such as the use of a monocoque body to help ensure structural rigidity while reducing overall drag, thus increasing the power-to-drag ratio as the lighter, more streamlined body allowed air to flow around it instead of being caught through upright forms, such as radiator
grilles, headlights and windshields.
Traditional cars of the day were the typical two-box design, with about 65% of the weight over the rear wheels. When loaded with passengers, the weight distribution tended to become further imbalanced, rising to 75% or more over the rear wheels. This may have made them unsafe on slippery roads, however braking systems still relied heavily on retardation via the rear wheels, so the uneven weight distribution’s biggest impact was on handling, and the resultant harsh ride incurred by fitting stiffer springs to the rear axle.
|Why the preamble about streamlined locomotives at the start of the article?
At Unique Cars and Parts, we think the more likely reason for adopting the
Airflow design was based on this, and not the flock of geese...
To better address the Airflow’s handling
dynamics, the Chrysler designers moved the engine forward over the front wheels, and passengers too were all moved forward so that they were seated within the wheelbase, rather than on top of the rear axle. The weight distribution had approximately 54% of the weight over the front wheels, which evened to near 50-50 with passengers, and resulted in more equal spring rates, better handling, a far superior ride quality, and more interior space.
The passenger compartment used a full steel body instead of the usual timber structural framing members, the benefits of this design providing far greater rigidity, and allowing a much wider front seat (50 inches across) than comparative cars, while the rear seat too could be made much deeper.
The Airflows grille work cascaded forward and downward forming an arc, which was a complete design departure from the usual “bolt-upright” radiators. The Airflow’s headlights were semi-flush to areas immediate to the grille. The front fenders enclosed the running surface of the tyre
tread. The rear wheels were encased through the use of spats. Instead of a flat panel of glass, the windshield comprised two sheets of glass that formed a raked "vee" both side to side, and top to bottom.
Prior to the Airflow's debut, Chrysler did a publicity stunt in which they reversed the axles and steering
gear, which allowed the car to be driven "backwards" throughout Detroit. The stunt caused a near panic, but the marketing department felt that this would send a hint that Chrysler was planning something big. Alas the marketing blitz came a little too early, the cars introduction being months prior to the car going into production, which subsequently peaked at only 6,212 units in May 1934 – very late in the year and barely enough to give every dealer a single Chrysler Airflow.
Streets ahead in design and handling, the monoque shell and engine
placement over the front wheels were innovations that remain to this day
The factory had not accounted for significant manufacturing challenges and expense due to the unusual new Airflow design, which required an unprecedented number and variety of welding techniques.
The early Airflows arriving at dealerships suffered from significant problems, mostly the result of faulty manufacturing. According to Fred Breer, son of Chrysler Engineer Carl Breer, the first 2,000 to 3,000 Airflows to leave the factory had major defects including engines breaking loose from their mountings at 80 mph (130 km/h).
But that wasn’t the only problem facing the Airflow. GM and Ford knew Chrysler had come up with a far superior car to anything they had, both in the showrooms or on the design tables.
The choice was either catch up, or run a smear campaign to discredit the newcomer. The decision was taken to do both, and word soon spread that the Airflow’s were unsafe – which was anything but the truth. Whether the smear campaign did indeed have any significant impact, or whether the Airflow’s radically new design was just a little too much too quickly is a point of conjecture, but whatever the case sales were underwhelming.
Save for a group of traditional Series CA and CB Sixes, the 1934 Chrysler line-up was all Airflow. While most makes boosted volume by up to 60 percent from rock-bottom 1933, Chrysler rose only 10 percent. It could have been worse - and was for DeSoto, which banked entirely on Airflows that year (all sixes). 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.
Production figures: 1934:
CU 8,389 CV 2,277 CX 106 CW 67 1935:
7,751 (all series) 1936: