The Chrysler Airflow was introduced to a European audience at the Geneva Motor Show

Friday 16th March 1934

The Chrysler Airflow was introduced to a European audience at the Geneva Motor Show. Well ahead of its time, the Chrysler Airflow (also sold by DeSoto and Imperial with the same name), was a major engineering feat. In 1934, Chrysler brochures boasted, “It is the first ride-inside motor car… the first really spacious car…the first Floating Ride car…the first car ever to be built that literally ignores the kind of road it runs on… It is the first real motor car since the invention of the automobile.” Widely recognized as the first truly modern automobile, the 1934 Airflow was an “engineer’s” car, which was hardly surprising. What was curious is that normally canny Walter Chrysler approved its daring concept without much regard for whether the public would like it. As the story goes, Carl Breer spotted a squadron of Army Air Corps planes flying overhead in 1927, which inspired him to push with Zeder and Skelton for a streamlined automobile employing aircraft-type design principles. Wind-tunnel tests suggested a modified teardrop shape (and ultimately the Airflow name).Placing the eight-cylinder engines over the front axles made for considerable passenger space. Seats were an industry-leading 50 inches across, and there was more than enough interior room for even the burly Walter P. Chrysler. What’s more, the forward drivetrain positioning enabled all passengers to sit within the wheelbase, thus improving ride comfort for those in back. A beam-and-truss body engineered along aircraft principles provided great strength with less weight. Oliver Clark followed all these dictates with exterior styling that seemed downright strange. The Custom Imperial looked best, its long wheelbase allowing the rounded lines to be stretched out more — and they needed every inch of stretch they could get.

But there was no denying Airflow performance. At the Bonneville Salt Flats a ’34 Imperial coupe ran the flying-mile at 95.7 mph, clocked 90 mph for 500 miles, and set 72 new national speed records. Airflows were strong, too. In Pennsylvania, one was hurled off a 110-foot cliff (another publicity stunt); it landed wheels down and was driven away. Unfortunately, the massive cost and effort of retooling delayed Airflow sales until January 1934 (June for Custom Imperials). Then, jealous competitors — mainly GM — began running “smear” advertising that claimed the cars were unsafe. All this blunted public interest that was initially quite favorable despite the newfangled styling, and prompted rumors that the Airflow was flawed. Save for a group of traditional Series CA and CB Sixes, the 1934 Chrysler line was all Airflow, and sales were underwhelming. While most makes boosted volume by up to 60 percent from rock-bottom ’33, 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. There were also two immediate results of the 1934 sales experience. First, planned Airflow-style Plymouths and Dodges were abruptly canceled. Second, Chrysler Division regrouped around more-orthodox “Airstream” Sixes and Eights for 1935 and ’36. Though not pure Airflow, this design’s “pontoon” fenders, raked-backed radiators, and teardrop-shape headlamp pods provided a strong family resemblance, yet wasn’t so wild that it discouraged customers. Airstreams literally carried Chrysler in those years.

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