THE CHRYSLER AIRFLOW GOES INTO PRODUCTION
If it had strictly up to the engineers, the Airflows probably wouldn’t have arrived until the 1935 model year, perhaps even later. However, the tenth anniversary of the first Chrysler was fast approaching, and Walter Chrysler wanted to show off the new car at the New York Auto Show in January 1934.
Part of the urgency may have stemmed from reports of a secret GM prototype called the Albanita, which GM Engineering had begun testing at the corporate proving grounds in Milford, Michigan in the spring of 1933. The Albanita was a streamlined, midsize sedan, slightly smaller than the Trifon Special, sporting several features later introduced on production Chevrolets, including an all-steel Turret Top and vent windows. The GM car rode an unusual backbone chassis and was powered by a Ford flathead V8.
Chrysler was almost certainly aware of the Albanita; former GM testers claimed that observers from other automakers made such frequent appearances outside the proving grounds that project director Ollie Schjolin started carrying a rifle to discourage them. However, Chrysler may not have realized that the Albanita was only an engineering testbed, which GM Engineering was to evaluate the backbone frame and two different types of independent suspension. Some GM engineers believed that the Albanita prompted Chrysler to rush the Airflow into production, fearing that their thunder was about to be stolen.
Since they required entirely new tooling and equipment, the production Airflows were undoubtedly expensive to build, driving up their retail prices. Chrysler management decided to introduce the new models in the more-expensive DeSoto and Chrysler brands, although there were tentative plans to add Dodge and Plymouth versions later. Carl Breer and research chief Ken Lee also started work on a compact, with front-wheel drive and an unusual 67 cu. in. (1,091 cc), five-cylinder radial engine, either for export markets or as a possible economy model for North America.
The smallest and cheapest U.S. Airflow would be the DeSoto Model SE, offered in four body styles, powered by a 242 cu. in. (3,960 cc) flathead six. A Chrysler Airflow Six, the CY, would be offered only in Canada, sharing its 115.5 in. (2,934 mm) wheelbase and engine with the DeSoto; six-cylinder U.S. Chryslers would retain conventional styling and engineering. The smallest U.S.-market Chrysler Airflow, the CU Airflow Eight, would be offered in the same body styles as the DeSoto, but on a 122.8 in. (3,119 mm) wheelbase, with a 299 cu. in. (4,898 cc) straight eight.
Above that would be two Airflow Imperial Eight series, the CV and CX, riding either a 128 in. (3,251 mm) or 137.5 in. (3,492 mm) wheelbase and using a stroked 324 cu. in. (5,301 cc) eight. At the top of the line would be the massive CW Airflow Imperial Custom Eight, riding a 146.5 in. (3,721 mm) wheelbase and available as either an eight-passenger sedan or limousine, with or without blind quarter panels. To cope with their three-ton mass, all CWs would be powered by the big 385 cu. in. (6,306 cc) nine-bearing eight first introduced on the CG Imperial in 1931.
Most of the major stampings for Airflow bodies were made by Budd, although Chrysler itself manufactured the complex front clips and the CW Imperials were built as semi-customs by the coachbuilder LeBaron, which had been owned by Briggs since 1927. Despite the proliferation of wheelbases and body styles, all Airflows had a remarkable degree of commonality, surpassing even GM’s new A-B-C-D bodies. The Chrysler CU, for example, shared the same roof panel and rear clip as the short-wheelbase DeSoto and Chrysler CY, with welded-in extensions to the floorpan and side stampings ahead of the firewall to allow room for the longer straight-eight engines. The Imperials simply added more welded-in sections to create their longer wheelbases. All sedans shared the same rear clip, while all coupes shared their own tail section. Perhaps the most ingenious trick was the use of interchangeable doors, allowing Chrysler to create five different door configurations with only two sets of basic tooling. Such commonality helped to reduce production costs, offsetting some of the expense of unitized construction.
While their engines and three-speed gearboxes (synchronized in second and third gears) were largely conventional, the Airflows introduced an important new mechanical feature: an automatic overdrive. Invented by Rex Keller and manufactured by Borg-Warner’s Warner Gear division, the overdrive unit was essentially a centrifugally operated two-speed rear axle. When engaged via a dashboard switch, it shifted automatically into its 0.70 overdrive ratio whenever speeds exceeded 40 to 45 mph (64 to 72 km/h), shifting back if speed dropped below 25 mph (40 km/h). Unlike the Columbia unit popular for Fords and Lincolns a few years later, there was no automatic ‘kickdown’ to direct drive.
Carl Breer said the overdrive was an afterthought, added when production Airflows proved to significantly heavier and thirstier than originally intended. In 1934, the overdrive was combined with freewheeling, which automatically disengaged the clutch whenever the driver lifted completely off the throttle. (The freewheeling feature was dropped in 1935 — some U.S. states were beginning to outlaw it, concerned about its deleterious effect on engine braking — but Chrysler’s brochures listed it as standard on Imperials as late as 1936.)
PUNCHING A HOLE IN THE AIR, BUT NOT THE MARKET
While the Airflow entered pilot production by December 1933, ramp-up was very slow, and only about 60 cars had been built by early January. Nonetheless, the Airflow made its scheduled debut on the main stage of the New York Auto Show on January 6, after weeks of teaser advertisements in major magazines.
The Airflow made quite an impression, even on jaded auto show regulars. Streamlined show cars were increasingly common in the early thirties; the spectacular Pierce Silver Arrow had debuted in 1933 and Buckminster Fuller’s wild three-wheel Dymaxion was parked out front at the 1934 show, after Chrysler arranged to displace Fuller from the main stage. However, the Airflows were full-fledged production models, aimed (excepting the big Imperials) at the conservative middle-class market. Some show goers were entranced, others were simply appalled. When the independent Market Research Corp. of America asked visitors to name the best- and worst-looking cars in the show, the Airflow topped both lists. Like the “coming or going” postwar Studebakers and Ford’s Edsel, the Airflow became the butt of many jokes, although the DeSoto version won top honors at the Monte Carlo Concours d’Elegance in both 1934 and 1935.
While Chrysler sales reps left the New York show with thousands of advance orders, the company was initially able to fill only a handful of them. Airflow production didn’t really get up to speed until almost three months after the show, during which time many frustrated customers either opted for the cheaper, more orthodox-looking Chrysler CA and CB Sixes or took their business elsewhere.
Customers who did receive early-production Airflows were not necessarily any happier. The Airflow’s design was basically sound, but its manufacture involved many new assembly techniques, and teething problems were inevitable. In his memoir, Carl Breer downplayed those issues, but in an interview with author Michael Lamm in the early seventies, his son Fred recalled Breer reading angry letters from disgruntled owners and Chrysler dealers about the many failings of the early production cars. Most of those problems were addressed quickly enough, but they did nothing for the new car’s reputation, nor did rumors about the Airflow’s lack of structural integrity.
For those willing to wait — and embrace its controversial looks — the Airflow offered excellent performance. Even the six-cylinder DeSoto was capable of around 85 mph (136 km/h), not bad for a 3,600 lb (1,630 kg) car with only 100 gross horsepower (75 kW). With the optional overdrive, racing driver Harry Hartz averaged a commendable 21.4 mpg (11 L/100 km) in an AAA-supervised run from New York to San Francisco. The eight-cylinder Chrysler CU, meanwhile, could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in a bit over 20 seconds, lively for the time, with a top speed of over 90 mph (145 km/h). A CV Imperial coupe, also driven by Harry Hartz, set more than 70 production car speed records at Bonneville in mid-1934, hitting 95.7 mph (154.1 km/h) in the flying mile and then averaging over 18 mpg (12.9 L/100 km) between Los Angeles and New York City. Both were excellent figures for any big mid-thirties automobile.
Such speed and economy came at no sacrifice in comfort. Although outward visibility left something to be desired, Airflows were quite roomy. Even the front seats could seat three abreast, where conventional Chryslers of the period were a little tight even for two. With their ample weight and slow steering, no Airflow was particularly nimble, but they handled with composure and their reasonably tight turning circle aided low-speed maneuverability. As advertised, the Airflow’s “Floating Ride” was superb, rivaling even some IFS-equipped contemporaries.
Unfortunately, even when Airflows finally became available in quantity that spring, sales were well below expectations. Aside from the styling, the major sticking point was prices, which started some 20-25% higher than the conventionally engineered models the Airflows replaced. The DeSoto Model SE Airflow, for instance, cost up to $330 more than the 1933 Model SD, making it roughly the same price as the eight-cylinder Model CF that DeSoto had dropped two years earlier due to lack of demand. The Chrysler CU Airflow Eight, at $1,345, was more expensive than most 1933 CQ Imperials. The U.S. economy was better in 1934 than it had been in 1932, but not that much better.
The Airflow’s lackluster sales provoked sharp divisions among Chrysler management. The sales organization, then headed by Joseph W. Frazer (later of Willys-Overland and Kaiser-Frazer fame), blamed the weak business on the Airflow’s quirky looks and wanted to see it replaced, or at least supplemented, by conventional models; even some of the engineering staff agreed. Carl Breer naturally defended the Airflow, as did Walter Chrysler, who called it the car of the future, resisting efforts by DeSoto and Chrysler managers to kill it.
On May 24, the Airflow’s woes were compounded by a new problem: a pending lawsuit file by the Jaray Streamline Corporation of America, charging Chrysler with patent infringement.