Chrysler Corporation (officially known today as Chrysler Group LLC) has long been noted for its engineering and design prowess. Over the course of its history, the company has repeatedly made its mark through its automotive engineering and design innovations. But over the years, Chrysler has also learned the hard way that innovation does not always translate into sales. During the 1930s, Chrysler introduced an advanced car that left a lasting influence upon automotive engineering and design, but failed to find acceptance with the American motoring public: the 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow.
Designed by a trio of famed automotive engineers known as “Chrysler’s Three Musketeers:” Carl Breer, Fred Zeder, and Owen Skelton, the Airflow was the first American car to feature a streamlined body and the very first car to be designed in a wind tunnel. These innovations resulted in the Airflow being fitted with a sleek body shell that looked completely unlike anything else on the road at the time. The Airflow’s body was given a rounded front end, which featured a “waterfall” grille and flush headlamps. Chrysler also smoothed out the car’s sides by integrating the fenders into the body panels. The Airflow’s aerodynamics was further improved by giving the body a tapered rear end. The performance gains realized from this attention to aerodynamics were striking. Chrysler discovered that the Airflow’s streamlined body gave it a higher top speed and made it significantly more fuel efficient than other comparable cars of the time.
Underneath its skin, the Airflow’s design was equally innovative. The Airflow was one of the first American cars to feature all-steel construction. In what was a precursor to unit construction, the Airflow’s body was built on a cage-like steel frame, which was enormously rigid and strong. To achieve a more even distribution of weight, the Airflow’s engine was mounted over its front axle. To give the car’s occupants a smoother and more comfortable ride, the Airflow’s passenger compartment was placed between the front and rear axles and the car was fitted with larger leaf springs. The Airflows were powered by well-proven Chrysler straight-8 engines, which were mated to a manual transmission equipped with automatic overdrive, another industry first.
The Chrysler Airflow debuted at the New York Auto Show in January 1934, where it was initially well received. But in terms of sales, the Airflow proved to be an expensive failure, which is attributable to several factors. To start with, the Airflow was introduced during the Great Depression, which shrunk the market for new cars. Chrysler also experienced delays in bringing Airflow into production, which caused many customers to cancel their orders. When production finally started in April 1934, the first Airflows were plagued by quality control issues, which further discouraged potential buyers. Most importantly of all, the motoring public did not like the Airflow’s looks, finding its streamlined body too unconventional for their tastes. In subsequent model years, Chrysler revised the Airflow’s body to give it a more conventional appearance, most notably by giving it a V-shaped grille, but to no avail.
Recognizing it as a financial failure, Chrysler pulled the plug on the Airflow after the 1937 model year. Although it flopped in the marketplace, it left a positive lasting impact upon the automobile industry for many years to come. A number of its innovations, most notably streamlining and wind tunnel testing, were subsequently adopted by other automakers and remain standard practice in the industry to this day. Around 29,000 Chrysler Airflows were built. Surviving examples have a devoted following today.
Chrysler Airflow 1936: Chrysler: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model: Airflow, 1934-1935, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Chrysler: The First Motor Car Since the Invention of the Automobile: Chrysler: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model: Airflow, 1934-1935, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 285-287.
The Great New Airflow Chryslers for 1935: Chrysler: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model: Airflow, 1934-1935, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 306, 319-325.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.