1934 DeSoto Airflow
1934 DeSoto Airflow. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Chrysler Corporation’s Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow models launched in 1934 are remembered for their unorthodox styling and poor sales. These unfortunately overshadowed the advances in the Airflow’s engineering, which brought together several emerging trends.

These related not only to streamlining, as aerodynamics was then called, but to a forward-mounted engine, which provided “between-the-axles” seating. The Airflow’s forward engine and passenger compartment could be called the real precursors of the Chrysler’s “cab-forward” design of the 1990s.

The Airflow’s styling was based on the “Art Deco” school of design, the clean, pure lines that succeeded the elaborate and sinuous Art Nouveau. Art Deco really flourished between the two world wars.

The Airflow’s genesis occurred in 1927 when Chrysler research chief Carl Breer became entranced by the ease and grace of what he thought was a soaring flock of birds. The “birds” proved to be military aircraft on manoeuvres. Why not, he thought, apply the same streamlining principles to the automobile. Such Europeans as Gabriel Voisin and Edmund Rumpler had already done pioneering aerodynamic experimentation.

Breer proposed his “rational” engineer’s car to Walter Chrysler. Chrysler agreed, and Breer and associates, Owen Skelton and Fred Zeder, Chrysler’s crack “Three Musketeers” engineering team, began work on the concept.

They consulted aviation pioneer Orville Wright, and conducted wind tunnel testing. One revelation was that some contemporary cars were more aerodynamically efficient going backwards than they were travelling forward!

The teardrop, then considered the ideal streamlined shape, dictated a long, sloping profile, requiring Breer to move the seating ahead to provide sufficient headroom under the tapered roof.

Relocating the engine some 457 mm (18 in.) ahead put it above the front axle line rather than behind it, and placed the rear seat ahead of the axle. This increased passenger space, and reversed the then common 45/55 per cent front/rear weight distribution.

Cradling the passengers within the wheelbase gave a better ride, and allowed a lower rear seat placement for extra headroom. And the forward weight bias reduced the car’s pitching motion on rough roads, giving it better directional stability.

Thus, the pursuit of new styling resulted in some important technical advancements. Forward-mounted engine and between-the-axles seating would soon become the industry standard.

A prototype Airflow was ready by late 1932. Walter Chrysler was impressed, and approved production. The target was 1934 to celebrate the Chrysler marque’s 10th anniversary, and to counter a rumoured streamlined design that was coming from General Motors. Chrysler didn’t want to be upstaged, and the rushed development would, unfortunately, sow the seeds of the Airflow’s later problems.

In addition to the forward engine and seating, Breer and company designed a body/chassis that was much stronger than normal. Although not full unit construction, it was made almost entirely of steel, with a steel framed superstructure.

Tying the body and frame members tightly together gave some of the strength of unitized construction. In response to GM’s and other competitors’ smear advertising campaign alleging that the Airflow’s all-steel body was unsafe, Chrysler personnel pushed one off a 33.5 m (110-ft) cliff in Pennsylvania. The car was battered but could still be driven away.

The new Chrysler/DeSoto model was introduced at the New York Auto Show in January, 1934. DeSotos went exclusively to the new Airflow design, while Chrysler offered both Airflow and conventional models.

The Airflow was truly a break with the past. Its zeppelin-inspired body had a vertical bar “waterfall” grille, and lines that curved up from the triple-bar bumper, and swept gently down to a tapered tail.

The Airflow’s styling met with mixed but generally favourable reaction. Orders came in, but due to the hurried development and radical new design, production was delayed until April, 1934. This resulted in only about 12,000 Chrysler and 14,000 DeSoto Airflows being sold in 1934. In spite of the Airflow’s breaking 70 American Automobile Association stock car records on Utah’s Bonneville salt flats, much of the public’s ardor had cooled.

Under the guidance of famed industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, Chrysler facelifted the 1935 Airflows with one-piece bumpers and a new grille. As a hedge, however, the company also revised its conventional “Airstream” model.

When 1936 sales slipped to just 6,274 Chrysler and 5,000 DeSoto Airflows, It was decided to discontinue the car after the 1937 model year. The Airflow experience would settle Chrysler into a conservative styling mode for almost 20 years.

The usual reason cited for the Airflow’s failure was that its styling was just too far ahead of its time. While true in part, there was also the fact that it never fully recovered from its rushed development.

The Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow, despite an early demise, did initiate the between-the-axles seating and forward engine placement that became virtually universal. For this and its Art Deco lines and pioneering in streamlining, it deserves its niche in automotive history.

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