History and profile of the Chrysler Airflow
From 1934 to 1937, the Chrysler Airflow was produced in a unique streamlined style. It was actually the first American full-size automobile that used a streamlining design in hopes that the car would be affected less by air resistance. Unfortunately, the Airflow wasn't the success Chrysler had hoped it would be.
Designing the Airflow
The Airflow's design spawned from the ideas and curiosity of Carl Breer, a Chrysler engineer. He wanted to learn how a vehicle's shape and build would affect its movement through the air. Along with other engineers named Owen Skelton and Fred Zeder, Breer performed several wind tunnel tests to study various forms that had been created by nature and to find out which form would best fit on an automobile. Orville Wright aided in these experiments as well. A wind tunnel was built by Chrysler at the Highland Park site, where at least 50 scale models were tested before April 1930. The testing revealed that the two-box body design was so inefficient aerodynamically that it worked better backwards.
The engineers also tested a unibody design that was meant to strengthen the car's build but also reduce its weight. This design would enable the power output of the engine to increase. With a streamlined body, the air could flow around the car instead of getting trapped in upright features such as the grille, radiator, windshield or headlights.
Rethinking weight distribution
Traditionally, automobiles of that day were of a two-box design. Around 65% of the weight was over the rear wheels. With passengers in the car, the weight was even more off-balance - more than 75% over the rear wheels. This caused handling problems during slippery road conditions. The spring rates for the rear had to be higher, so passengers had to endure a harsher ride.
This realization brought forth a new suspension system design by Chrysler that would help achieve exceptional handling. With this system, the engine was moved forward. It now sat over the front wheels. The passengers were moved forward as well. They were seated within the wheelbase of the car instead of over the rear axle. Now, the weight distribution was around 54 percent over the front wheels, an almost 50-50 split for passenger weight. The spring rates were equal, and the cars handled better and gave a much smoother ride as well.
Announcing the Airflow
Chrysler had a strange way of announcing the Airflow for its debut. As a publicity stunt, Chrysler reversed the axles and steering gear, allowing the car to be driven backwards. This stunt caused a lot of panic in the streets, but got the message across that Chrysler was introducing something big - something different from any other car in America.
The only problem is the Airflow was introduced months before Chrysler produced it. Production numbers reached only 6,212 models in May of 1934. This was late in the year, and the number of vehicles produced were barely enough for each dealer to have even one Airflow to offer. There were manufacturing challenges at the factory, and the expenses were greater than usual to create a vehicle because of the new design. The Airflow design required many expensive welding techniques.
Many of the early Airflow models had serious manufacturing problems. Fred Breer relayed that the first 2,000 to 3,000 models left the factory with major defects. One major defect was that the engine would break loose once the car reached 80 mph.
The Airflow's design was based on the streamlining movement. It was a low, sleek car compared with other American cars. Its grille was of a cascading style and formed an arc where other models usually kept their radiators. The headlights were semi-flush to areas along the edge of the grille. The tire tread's running surface was enclosed with front fenders. The rear wheels were encased with fender skirts.
The Airflow's windshield had two sheets of glass forming a raked "vee" look from top to bottom and side to side. This replaced the usual flat-panel glass. It had a full-steel body resting between the wheels instead of on the wheels. Also, the Airflow had a wider front seat and deeper rear seat than most other cars. The weight-to-power ratio was better as well.
1934: Its debut year
The Airflow's debut year, 1934, proved to be one of disaster. Chrysler was scheduled to offer the Airflow along with a six-cylinder model of its mainstream models from 1933. DeSoto was scheduled to offer Airflows only and no other model types. The engine used was an I8 flathead engine. A two-door coupe and a four-door sedan were offered for Airflow's introduction.
After six months, Chrysler realized the Airflow was a sales disaster, and made things worse with a discrediting ad campaign. The Airflow was modern, but it is believed that buyers weren't ready for the new look. Maybe it was too advanced for its day. Airflows did sell respectively, with 10,839 being produced within the first year. However, other sedans and coupes by Chrysler outsold them 2.5 to 1.
On DeSoto's end, sales were far worse for its first year. This was bad news because Airflows were the only models offered by DeSoto for this year.
Overall, the Airflow provided a learning experience for Chrysler. Though its first year was a disaster, Chrysler was still able to get some decent years out of the model before it was discontinued in 1937.