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Chrysler Airflow - an inspirational automotive design.... left fallow!


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Many of the cars in my family's past touched on key transitions in the Automotive industry.

I summarize our touching on Chrysler's Aerodynamics in this substack post


And I summarize the post below:


My parents endorsed the view that Chrysler innovated car design and engineering ahead of the other auto companies. With that in mind, they purchased a 1948 Chrysler Windsor as their first car. And, as you can tell with the “fastback” below… it matched the Chrysler streamlined look of the day….

In April of 1951 my sister Cathy models her cool new Easter jacket in front of our 1948 Chrysler Windsor as I look out the window in my mother’s arms.

Cathy outside family's 1948 Chrysler Windsor while Helen and John look out passenger side window.


Child vs. Car - 1951

But in fact the Windsor represented Chrysler’s cop out on true aerodynamic design and advanced engineering as this story explains.

The Airflow


“Carl 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. Chrysler built a wind tunnel at the Highland Park site, and tested at least 50 scale models by April 1930. Their engineers found that then-current two-box automobile design was so aerodynamically inefficient that it was actually more 30% better aerodynamically when tested as if being driven backwards.”1

With the wind tunnel, they identified the best streamlined car body possible …




…and designed it as the Chrysler Airflow.

They also realized that the standard, heavy “ladder” chassis with “two-boxes-on-top” car frame led to overweight, unbalanced and poorly riding results. They invented a “truss frame” design that used the contours of the car body box as elements of the car’s overall frame - saving weight and space and allowing aerodynamic and weight balanced design.





These were radical engineering breakthroughs that worked and still drive the automotive world today.




It revolutionized car design but it did not become a U.S. market success. In part the Airflow fell flat because the U.S. economy in 1934 was still in the depths of the Great Depression. In part the Air Flow came “ahead of its time.”

For example, the wind cheating design — mostly stuck in slow moving traffic — brought on the prophetic derision of Perry Barlow in his New Yorker Cartoon of February 10, 1934.


Taras Grescoe 🚇 on Twitter: "Do you know Smeed's Law? The British engineer  stated speed of urban traffic is self-regulating—attempts to increase it  are self-defeating. Avg. speed for #London traffic in 1949:


Perry Barlow / The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank ; Publication Date: 1934-02-10; Image ID: TCB-106072

Chrysler’s video, “Fashion Follows Function” presents a superbly described visual review of Chrysler’s breakthrough. The video gives one a sense of the monumental market education task this introduction required.

Also, unfortunately, building them proved complicated and difficult. They were on the one hand trying to streamline the “sheet metal” and outside elements, like lights and grills - a huge engineering task. AND, on the other hand, they were trying to manufacture the first unibody - a single skeleton for lower frame and body vs. the ladder chassis and box atop of conventional design.




Illustration produced by Chrysler to show the reinforced-steel body construction

The manufacturing processes all required their own radical redesigns. Not surprisingly, their radical construction efforts resulted in unfortunate production surprises. This was dramatically demonstrated when early cars had an annoying problem of dropping their engines at 80 m.p.h.2

Chrysler hedged its bet. For the 1935 model year, when the Airflow met market resistance, Chrysler kept the ten year old Chrysler Six platform in production and refreshed the appearance, giving it the nameplate "Airstream". These traditional old ‘Airstream’ cars — with fake streamlining and conventional engineering — outsold the the truly aerodynamic, far more advanced Airflows four-to-one.




Chrysler advertisement for Airflow AND the (fake streamlined) Airstream appearing in Colliers Magazine March, 1935

“After four years of meager sales, Chrysler canceled all Airflow production and returned to building utterly conventional cars. (Walter Chrysler by this time had stepped away from the business and was in poor health.) Bearing the scars of huge losses, the company didn't take a chance on radically advanced styling until their dowdy conservatism began to hurt sales in the early 1950’s.”3

Regardless of Chrysler’s success or failure, designers the world over saw the revolutionary benefits of the Airflow design. General Motors introduced a fastback coupe appearance on all of their nameplates from 1942 until 1950. Countries with more expensive fuel considered these practical efficiency designs more important than styling and they imitated the Airflow. Volvo got a smaller copy of the Airflow into production; Peugeot with their 202 and larger 402 models found major sales success, and imitating the Airflow would be a secret of the success of a brand-new venture in the auto business called Toyota.




The 1936 Toyota AA “influenced” by the Chrysler Airflow — By Mytho88 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4755900

Back to the Family


Here’s another shot of out Chrysler Windsor’s “stream lined” - sloped sculpted rear end - two years later in 1953 pulling a trailer full of children - hitch attached to the bumper. !! - But that’s a topic for ANOTHER post.




Morals of the Story

  1. Build a better mousetrap and the world won’t beat a path to your door; you’ve got to convince them.

  2. Timing is everything and the time will eventually come.

  3. Markets do not make leaps; they evolve.

  4. Manufacturing process design is every bit as important as product design.



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