Changing Winds: The 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow

BUILDING THE BOULEVARD RIDE

A smooth ride was not on the menu for most passenger cars of the late twenties and early thirties except perhaps for limousines, whose long wheelbases and prodigious sprung weight masked many sins. The gradual adoption of low-pressure tires and shock absorbers had helped a bit (the latter hadn’t even been offered on many cars of the twenties, including the original Chrysler Six), but solid axles, stiff semi-elliptical springs, and substantial unsprung weight still made for less than cloud-like comfort. On relatively smooth roads, the driver and front passenger didn’t fare too badly, but back seat passengers, perched above or behind the heavy rear axle, were not so fortunate.

1934 Chrysler CU Airflow interior Chrysler Historical Collection
The Airflow’s seats were mounted quite high, allowing better circulation of heated air to rear passengers and making the most of the available legroom. Some taller drivers complained that the high-mounted seats hurt visibility, so they were lowered somewhat on later models. The rear seat back flips up from the bottom to access the luggage area; Airflow sedans didn’t gain exterior luggage access until 1936. (Photo © 1934 Chrysler Group LLC – Historical Services; used with permission)

Carl Breer discovered that the packaging changes of the streamlining project did much to improve that sorry situation. First, allowing rear passengers to sit within the wheelbase rather atop the axle proved to be far more comfortable. Second, moving the engine forward put about 55% of the car’s static weight on the front wheels, compared to perhaps 40-45% for conventional sedans of the era. With less weight on the tail, the rear springs could be substantially softer. Breer’s team found they could lengthen (and thus soften) the front springs to match, avoiding a pendulum effect and reducing the overall frequency of the ride motions by about 25%, which, as Breer often noted, put it closer to a natural walking pace. Chrysler advertising christened it the “Floating Ride.”

Surprisingly, this was achieved without independent front suspension, although Chrysler was then developing a double-wishbone layout for Plymouth, Dodge, and conventionally engineered six-cylinder Chryslers. While the production Airflow’s tubular front beam axle might seem a retrograde step in an otherwise sophisticated car, Breer decided that IFS simply wasn’t necessary. It’s important to remember that a major rationale for Detroit’s adoption of independent suspension in this era was not better handling, but a smoother ride. The revised spring rates and altered weight distribution achieved that without the added cost, complexity, and maintenance headaches of early IFS systems.

1934 Plymouth PE Deluxe sedan front 3q
The more expensive 1934 Plymouths, like this PE Deluxe sedan, had double-wishbone front suspension with coil springs, but the 1935 PJ models reverted to a front beam axle, moving the engine about eight inches (20 cm) forward and adopting longer, softer leaf springs for an Airflow-style “Floating Ride.” Plymouth didn’t return to IFS until 1939.

BRIDGE AND TRUSS

Since the streamlined car was already laid out very differently than conventional models, Breer decided it was also a good candidate for new techniques in body construction.

Most passenger cars of the early thirties used body-on-frame construction with a heavy, rigid ladder-type frame. The body itself was usually steel or aluminum panels over a wooden framework, although all-steel bodies were becoming increasingly common. The Dodge Brothers had adopted them early on; Plymouth went all-steel in 1930, followed by Ford in 1932. For the streamlined Airflow, however, Breer and Clark opted for something far more advanced: a steel monocoque.

Like streamlining, monocoque construction dated back to the end of World War I. Although it was gaining popularity in aviation in the late twenties and early thirties, Italian engineer Vincenzo Lancia had applied for a patent on self-supporting automobile bodies in 1919, likely inspired by shipbuilding practice, and the first unit-bodied Lancia Lambda went into production in 1922. Thanks to its greater weight and space efficiency, monocoque construction gradually found favor in Europe, but American automakers remained wary. In 1931, for example, Joseph Ledwinka and William Mueller of the body supplier Budd had found no takers for their unit-bodied FWD prototype, although historian Michael Lamm believes their car was the inspiration for the unit-bodied Citroën 11CV ‘Traction Avant,’ which debuted in early 1934; Budd developed the tooling for the Traction.

1932 Trifon Special side © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber WPC per
Although it used the 242 cu. in. (3,960 cc) DeSoto six, the original “Trifon Special” prototype (seen here in the basement of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Detroit) was somewhat smaller than the production DeSoto Airflow: 189 inches (4,801 mm) long on a 115-inch (2,921mm) wheelbase. Nonetheless, it had a lavishly appointed interior with burled walnut trim, reversible seat cushions, armrests with integral storage compartments, and rear-seat vanity mirrors mounted on the B-pillars. At one time, the wooden artillery wheels were fitted with louvered covers, which were later used on CW Imperials. (Photo © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber; used with the permission of Cars in Depth and the Walter P. Chrysler Museum)

Chrysler’s approach, also developed in partnership with Budd, was not quite a monocoque. Commonly described as “bridge-and-truss” construction, it used stressed exterior panels welded to a cage-like steel structure that included the frame, the cowl and windshield frame as well as vertical members through the roof pillars and horizontal rails above the door openings. While the structured looked some like a tubular space frame, it was not self-supporting, relying on the exterior panels for its torsional stiffness. The bridge-and-truss system was bulkier and heavier than true monocoque construction, but it simplified production, allowing the engine and running gear to be installed before the exterior panels were attached, much like a body-on-frame design.

When the Airflow was introduced, there were some ugly rumors that its metal framework, with no wood bracing, was unacceptably flimsy. It was true that the framework itself was not very rigid, but it wasn’t intended to be. When the sills and exterior panels were welded in place, the unitized structure was extremely strong, and Chrysler boasted that it had 40 times the torsional stiffness of a body-on-frame design. Chrysler eventually laid the rumors to rest in dramatic fashion by demonstrating that the Airflow remained drivable even after being pushed off a 110-foot (33-meter) cliff. In the summer of 1934, they also hired Barney Oldfield’s “Hell Drivers” racing team to roll Airflows in a sand pit as part of an hourly demonstration at the Chicago World’s Fair.

The downside of that strength was added weight. Breer said that ideally, unitized construction would have saved up to 200 lb (90 kg) over a body-on-frame design, but as the development process continued and exterior design and trim were refined, the cars grew progressively heavier. The production Airflows weighed substantially more than the body-on-frame cars they replaced, in some cases by more than 250 lb (115 kg). Later models, with different grilles and stouter bumpers, would be heavier still.

THE TRIFON SPECIAL

The first true Airflow prototype was built in great secrecy in the summer of 1932. Powered by a DeSoto straight six, it had bridge-and-truss construction, relocated engine, a repackaged interior layout, and Floating Ride suspension. It had no grille and carried no Chrysler badges or identification of any kind. When the company registered and licensed it with the state of Michigan for road testing, the prototype was identified as the 1932 Trifon Special, taking its name from test engineer Demitrion Trifon.

Because the company did not yet have its own proving grounds, Chrysler made a deal with two farmers outside Grayling, Michigan, north of Detroit, to use their land for testing. Test crews did not drive the prototype on public roads and engineers and executives heading up to Grayling were asked to drive non-Chrysler vehicles to avoid attracting attention.

1932 Trifon Special rear © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber WPC per
The Trifon Special prototype had various features that the initial production Airflow sedans did not, including a one-piece, roll-down rear window, an integral trunk with external access, and an all-steel roof. The latter two features were added to production cars in 1936, but all Airflows had fixed two-piece backlights. (Photo © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber; used with the permission of Cars in Depth and the Walter P. Chrysler Museum)

The first Trifon was an awkward-looking beast with curious proportions: the work of engineers, not stylists. Even the production Airflows were developed with little input from either Chrysler’s fledgling in-house styling department or Briggs Mfg. Company, which provided much of Chrysler’s exterior design work in those days. Chrysler’s Art & Colour section, founded in 1928, still focused primarily on detailing, upholstery, and trim; its chief, Herbert V. Henderson, had previously been an interior designer. Both Henderson’s group and Briggs designers contributed to the nicely detailed, Streamline Moderne interiors of the production cars, but their involvement in the exterior design was limited to details like the rear fender skirts. For better or worse, the Airflow’s shape was primarily the work of Carl Breer, Oliver Clark, and Chrysler’s body engineers.

Aesthetics aside, the Trifon Special drove quite well, with excellent ride quality even on bumpy country roads. After months of testing, Breer and his team finally invited Walter Chrysler himself up to Grayling for a test ride. Chrysler was extremely impressed and told Breer and Clark that he wanted to put the car into production. Chrysler was not daunted by its radical design; he thought it would serve as a new corporate flagship, demonstrating how far the Chrysler Corporation had come in ten years and setting a new direction for the future.

1932 Trifon Special front © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber WPC per
Because the Airflow’s wide front seat made for a wider-than-normal windshield area, Carl Breer and Oliver Clark originally wanted to use one-piece curved glass on all models, judging that a conventional split windshield would be unattractive at that size. The Pittsburgh Glass Company developed the curved windshield for Chrysler, seen here on the 1932 Trifon Special, but it proved prohibitively expensive and was used only on the CW Imperials. (Photo © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber; used with the permission of Cars in Depth and the Walter P. Chrysler Museum)

19 Comments

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  1. A wonderful article. I still have some very vivid memories of the Pennsylvania AACA vintage car shows back in the 1970’s when a couple of Chrysler Airflows would show up. And definitely got noticed, unlike my personal ’37 Buick Special.

    Now, how about some follow-up! I’d love to see an article on the Lincoln Zephyr, and would especially love to see something on the Hupp Aerodynamic’s of 1934-35. The 1937 Ford wouldn’t be out of line, either. The mid-30’s were definitely a wonderful time for automotive design.

    1. I would love to do the Zephyr and the original Continental, if I can put together enough pictures. (The fact that I was unable to find a ’36 or ’37 Zephyr photo to include in this article, as a contrast with the Airflow, tells you how many I have right now..!)

  2. I’d like to second the earlier commenter, the mid ’30s to early ’40s period really was a fascinating early golden age in automotive styling, where for the first time styling really was given a high priority over the more utilitarian looks of the 20s-early 30s, even if the customers of the day didn’t always go for the more radical examples of streamlined Art Deco, as was the case with the Airflow and shark nose Grahams.

    Although I appreciate the need to jump around a bit for variety, please do consider more articles on the ’30s streamliners in the future, as it is such a fertile era. – the Cord 810/812 would be a great read.

    As an aside, I read an article a few years back about an architect or fashion designer (some creative professional) in Manhattan who had a really special custom CW restomod built, taking an original Airflow body and interior and retrofitting it with a modern drivetrain and undercarriage, apparently the owner loved the Art Deco style and was using it as a daily driver in the city. Wish I had saved the article, but as I recall, there weren’t many pictures with it, but definitely an interesting project.

    1. I’m not categorically opposed to restomods, but doing it with a car as rare as a CW Imperial seems…wrong. I don’t know if they’re on the list of capital-C Classics (if not, they ought to be), but they’re extremely rare, with a lot of unique components (dashboard, brakes, springs, driveshaft, wheels, windshield). The CW is so huge and so heavy that even with a modern drivetrain, it would be a handful in city traffic — it’s bigger and heavier than an Escalade ESV. Admittedly, if it was in sad shape to start with, restoring it would be a serious pain in the ass, but still…

  3. Very interesting as always Aaron, I had a passing knowledge of the Airflows but it is great to read about the detail – I can’t imagine more than a few current cars would warrant the same attention!

    I saw a 1934 Airflow last year (with flat camera batteries!) and I remember previously one of the later model ones with what was quite evidently a tacked-on traditional grille. Looking at the photos perhaps what made the car look so jarring is the horizontal line of the hood which gives the optical illusion that the nose of the car is higher than the cowl, and I find the 6cyl cars better looking because the shorter nose lessens that impact. On the point that aero design per se was not sales-proof perhaps a slight taper for a less bulbous appearance, and wider-set headlights, would have made a difference?

    Rob it would be interesting to hear more about that car too.

    1. John,

      I hadn’t thought about the nose seeming higher than the cowl, but looking at the photos again, I see what you mean. It’s exacerbated by the position of the hood ornament, which gives the tip of the nose a bit of a ‘ski jump’ flair, even on the ’34s, where the original hood line actually slopes downward quite a bit. I imagine that is one of the factors that contributes to what I think of as a ‘stubby’ look to the whole car (especially sedans). The 1934 CU is quite a big car, but its rounded contours make it look smaller than it actually is, an effect that only the really long wheelbases of the CX and CW Imperials offset to any great degree.

      Deciding to mount the headlights in the leading edges of the body sides, rather than the fenders, was really limiting, both in spacing and light size. I don’t know why they didn’t mount the lights in the front fenders, as John Tjaarda did with the Zephyr. (The production Zephyr’s front end was mostly redone by Bob Gregorie, but the fender-mounted lights were on the original Briggs prototype.) I think the headlights of the ’36-’38 Zephyrs still look a bit awkward, but their spacing makes the Lincoln look lower and wider than the Airflow, even though it really isn’t.

      I imagine these are all reflections of the fact that the Airflow was [i]engineered[/i] more than actually [i]designed[/i]. The role of the stylists appears to have been to decorate the shape given them by the engineers, in which they had little if any say.

  4. Very nice article, Mr. Severson! I’m the president of the Airflow Club of America and I happened to find this site while searching for some other material. It’s nice to see a recent article about the Airflow. We are a small (425+) member club. We just had our National Meet in Durango, Colorado and I drove my 1935 C2 (Imperial) from Seattle WA. There are not many 76 year old cars which cruise smoothly down the road at 75 mph in overdrive. I did the return trip (1,300 miles) in two days. I own a 35 Packard, a 37 Cord and numerous other cars of the era and none can match the “modern” ride and drive of an Airflow.

    You are right, Engineering called the shots when the Airflow was designed. It was truly radical. Besides being quiet and smooth at 75 mph, it has gobs of art deco everywhere.

    The 6 cylinder cars (all DeSotos) are true to the Airflow spirit, but after riding in a prototype, Chrysler wanted an Airflow with his name on it. The Imperial Coupes are very well proportioned with six extra inches behind the B pillar.

    I am not opposed to rods, but if a CW was rodded it would break my heart so don’t verify it, please!

    In 1934, Chrysler did offer a retrofit grill which replaced the pure “waterfall” look with a more traditional grill – as was found on the ’35 models. With each passing year, as sales never materialized, Chrysler tried to make the front end look more conventional.

    Visit the website at airflowclub.com. Check out the video of the Airflow being pushed off a cliff and driving away (in the Library section). If anyone would like to see an Airflow close up, let me know and I’ll link you up with the closest members. fwd9@hotmail.com

    Thanks again for a nice article!

    1. Frank,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I’ve seen the story that the Airflow was originally intended [i]only[/i] as a six-cylinder DeSoto in a number of secondary sources. Do you have an original source for that account? As it stands, I’m afraid I’m rather skeptical of it.

      It’s true that the 1932 Trifon Special prototype was a DeSoto-size, six-cylinder car, and Carl Breer does say that he and Oliver Clark started with a six-cylinder model in laying out the packaging for the Airflow; they wanted to determine the minimum dimensions necessary to achieve both the aerodynamic profile and minimum passenger space they were looking for. However, Breer makes no mention of intending to [i]only[/i] offer the Airflow as a six, and his account indicated that the decision about which brands would offer it was made later. All he says on that subject is that they decided it would be sold by Chrysler and DeSoto; he says nothing about any plan to market it as a DeSoto-only product.

      Breer does say that Walter P. Chrysler was very excited about introducing the Airflow to celebrate Chrysler’s 10th anniversary. Based on Breer’s description of WPC’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s hard to conceive Chrysler [i]not[/i] wanting an Airflow with his name on it — if somebody suggested otherwise, I’m not sure who or why. From a business standpoint, certainly, offering the Airflow only as a DeSoto six wouldn’t have made much sense. The development costs were undoubtedly high, and DeSoto’s annual volume was not; it hadn’t topped 40,000 units since before the Crash. Also, even if there were some original plan to only offer it as a six, why didn’t the U.S. Chrysler line get the CY?

      Now, given the antipathy some of the corporation’s management apparently had toward the Airflow project, it’s entirely possible that getting the individual presidents to accept it was quite a battle. I suppose it’s possible that DeSoto president Byron Foy was less opposed than his colleagues; I really don’t know. However, my suspicion is that if there was a debate over who would offer the Airflow, it was more a matter of internal resistance than any overarching plan of what the Airflow should be.

      It would certainly be fair to call the six the baseline Airflow, since the larger eight-cylinder cars were created by splicing additional sections into the body panels and frame, but I don’t know that that means the bigger cars were somehow an afterthought. From Breer’s account, I think it was just easier to start with the smaller version, to establish the minimum package dimensions. That makes sense — if you know you have acceptable passenger room on the shorter wheelbase, it’s easy to make it bigger, whereas if you base your engineering on the larger version, it’s harder to scale it down without compromising utility space.

      If someone can point me toward a primary source for the DeSoto-only story — first-person accounts of the meeting where it was decided, etc. — I’ll happily accept that, but otherwise, I’m inclined to think that story may just be a misinterpretation of Carl Breer’s account, one that has, as they say, grown in the telling.

      I wholly agree on the CW. I’m not keen on the idea of heavily customizing the Airflow to begin with — it’s relatively rare, of obvious historical interest, and already pretty wild looking without any help — and the idea of cutting up a CW is the sort of thing that gives historians night terrors!

  5. Aaron,
    In the text on page one, it states that the Rumpler Tropfenwagen was powered by a 2.5 W6. Is this a misprint of V6? Or was this a prelude to to todays W8 Volkswagen?

    1. Nope, that’s not a typo. The early Tropfenwagen had a 2,580 cc Siemens & Halske engine with three banks of two cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of it, but I imagine it was rather bulky.

  6. another expertly written and beautifully illustrated article on these avant garde art deco cars that were way ahead of their time in terms of both styling and engineering-please do an article on the history of De Soto

  7. I own a 1935 Chrysler Airstream c-6 Coupe.
    I’ve been able to determine thru internet research that there were 1975 like models made. What I can’t find is how many of them were standards and how many were deluxe. Does anyone know or know how I can find this info.

    Tx

    1. Dennis,

      The information I have indicates that the six-cylinder Airstream C-6 models weren’t grouped into standard and deluxe versions, only the CZ Airstream Eight. Your number is what I show for business coupe production, as well.

      1. Thank you for the reply that’s interesting to hear, but I’m still confused. I’ve seen, what I believe are photo’s of some C-6’s with parking lights on top of the front fenders & horns mounted thru the stainless grill work on the fenders below the headlites on ea. side of the grill..in addition these cars have 2 windshield wipers. In addition to that I’ve seen photos of C-6’s with no parking lites on the fenders – grill work on the lower fenders
        with no horns & also a single wiper. I’m confused about the differences, could it be as simple as diff. options? What are your thoughts.
        Tx
        Dennis

        1. The Deluxe models were introduced after the start of the 1935 model year. At least on CZs, the dual horns were initially standard and then were deleted on non-Deluxe Eights when the Deluxe was introduced; the horn layout you describe sound like the early and late non-Deluxe CZ arrangements. Chrysler’s factory production figures don’t distinguish between Deluxe and non-Deluxe CZs, probably because of the midyear change. Now, I don’t know anything about a Deluxe version of the six-cylinder cars — all of that applies to the Eights.

          Is it possible that some of the confusing pictures you’ve seen were actually mislabeled CZs? A quick image search just now revealed at least once set of photos labeled as C-6s that are pretty clearly late CZ Deluxes (they even have the winged "8" badges on the catwalks) and there was definitely that variation with the eight-cylinder cars. I could see the parking lamps being a dealer or owner add-on, but the horns do seem like a production variation.

  8. Finally! The story of the Airflow in enough detail for me to understand these beautiful machines. Thank you for this piece!

    They may not have sold well, but their influence was certainly felt around the world. You mention the Volvo Carioca and the <i>Fuseau Sochaux</i> Peugeots (the last of which were made in 1949!), but there is also the first "proper" car from the land of the rising sun: the 1936 Toyota AA. None survived, so Toyota actually built one for their museum in the 1990s.

    Along with Cords, Marmons, Franklins, shark-nose Grahams and the Zephyr, these Chryslers are the epitome of 30s American cars for me.

    1. I must admit had always been a little skeptical of the Toyota link, but the 2012 edition of Toyota’s official history specifically says the Toyoda Model AA took its inspiration from the Airflow. It wasn’t just the styling either; the engineers at Toyoda (not spun off of the parent company as Toyota Motor until 1937) recognized and sought to emulate what Breer and crew had done with the Airflow’s weight distribution and ride. Very interesting.

      1. I should add that while the Model AA was the first Toyota automobile, it was NOT the first Japanese car. The first Japanese-built four-wheeled automobile was made in 1904 and the first gasoline-powered car was in 1907. However, people really didn’t have enough money to create a sustainable domestic passenger car industry until much later. According to the numbers I’ve seen, it wasn’t until 1951 that Japanese companies built more than 2,000 passenger cars in a single calendar year.

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