THE JARAY PATENT
Engineer Paul Jaray (born Pál Járay) had a great deal common with Edmond Rumpler; like Rumpler, Jaray was Jewish, originally from Austria (although his family was Hungarian), but he spent his early career in the fledgling German aviation industry, joining Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH (Zeppelin Airship Works Ltd.) in 1912. Although Jaray eventually became Zeppelin’s chief designer, business was slow after the war, and Zeppelin allowed him to pursue a sideline: applying aerodynamic principles to passenger cars.
Jaray’s first car, built in 1921, was the Ley T6, a tiny streamliner with a skeletal frame, not unlike the Airflow’s bridge-and-truss system. Its drag coefficient was only 0.28, allowing it to reach a top speed of 62 mph (100 km/h) with only 20 hp (15 kW). Based on those experiments, Jaray applied for a patent in August 1922 on automobiles with streamlined bodies. It covered essentially any car whose aerodynamic form comprised one partial teardrop shape (the greenhouse) atop another (the body itself).
In 1923, Jaray left Zeppelin and moved to Zurich, Switzerland, where he and a business partner founded the consulting firm Stromlinen Karosserie Gessellschaft (roughly, “Streamlined Body Co.”). After his initial patent was issued in June 1927, Jaray licensed it to a number of automakers, initially German firms like Apollo and Maybach, later the Czech firm Tatra, where Jaray’s concepts became the basis of the remarkable Tatra T77 and T77a. The latter, launched in 1935, had a drag coefficient of only 0.21, better than any modern production car.
In 1932, Jaray established the Jaray Streamline Corporation of America, based in New York. Although the company developed a number of prototypes in hopes of interesting Detroit automakers (one based on a Chrysler Imperial chassis), they only managed to sell one license, to the coachbuilder Rollston.
Chrysler Engineering had at least some knowledge of Jaray’s work (the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Lowell Brown had sent a copy of one of Jaray’s articles to Owen Skelton in March 1933), but it’s unclear if they were aware of his 1927 patent. Either way, Chrysler was prepared to challenge Jaray’s claim in court, but an independent aerodynamics expert, hired as a consultant and prospective expert witness, advised against it. In June 1935, Chrysler settled out of court, agreeing to license the Jaray patent for a modest $5,000, plus a small royalty on Airflows exported to Europe.
The Jaray Streamline Corp. pursued similar action against Pierce-Arrow (over the Silver Arrow) and several other companies, but with the Depression killing smaller automakers left and right, the suits netted very little financial return. Jaray finally gave up and dissolved his U.S. firm, although he continued to work and lecture in Europe at least into the 1960s. He died in 1974.
AIRFLOW AND AIRSTREAM
Despite Walter Chrysler’s faith in the Airflow concept, sales remained sluggish for the rest of 1934. Total DeSoto production was 13,940, down a disheartening 31% from 1933. We’ve seen at least four different totals for the Chrysler Airflows, but the most commonly quoted figure is 11,292, fewer than 200 of which were the big CX and CW Imperials. Given the Airflow’s likely production costs — which, to our knowledge, Chrysler has never released — that can’t have been a profitable proposition. Fortunately, the strength of the other divisions, particularly Plymouth, kept the company out of the red; Chrysler posted a $9.5 million profit for the 1934 calendar year.
To placate their sales organization and unhappy dealers, DeSoto and Chrysler added new conventional models for 1935, dubbed Airstream. Sometimes credited to Raymond Dietrich (whom Walter Chrysler had hired in 1932), the Airstreams were actually designed by Phil Wright of Briggs, who had previously designed the 1933 Silver Arrow for Pierce-Arrow. Wright’s designs were done on spec; Briggs chief Ralph Roberts assembled them into an attractive bound volume, which he presented to Carl Breer. Breer’s own account suggests a certain bitterness toward the Briggs proposal, but it arrived at an opportune moment, and Chrysler agreed to put the designs into production with almost no changes. The Airstreams had some streamlined design cues, but other than the corporation’s new independent front suspension system, they were largely conventional in both concept and engineering.
The 1935 Airflows, introduced at the same time, sported a mild facelift, including reshaped hoods, sturdier bumpers, and new grilles based on those of the Airstreams. Although industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, a Chrysler consultant in this period, had offered a proposal for future Airflows, Chrysler apparently used very little of it. The facelifts were primarily the work of Ray Dietrich, some of his first Chrysler designs to each production. Dietrich would also do the facelifts for the 1936 and 1937 models.
At the beginning of the year, most Airflows carried even higher prices than in 1934; the new Model SG DeSotos were up a painful $200 across the line. That proved to be a serious miscalculation, and by mid-year, price cuts left the base Chrysler Airflow Eight (now called C-1, rather than CU) a full $100 cheaper than the previous year’s cars. Nonetheless, the Airflows remained significantly more expensive than their Airstream cousins, with a predictable effect on sales.
Carl Breer and other defenders maintained that the Airflow was simply ahead of its time, and it soon appeared they were correct. At the Chicago World’s Fair in the summer of 1934, Briggs showed off a mockup of sleek, rear-engine prototype developed by John Tjaarda, which was already in development as the Lincoln-Zephyr. A few months after the Briggs car appeared, Bendix unveiled the one-off SWC, a streamlined, front-wheel-drive fastback sedan intended to show off the full range of Bendix automotive products. The SWC looked a great deal like the Airflow; its designer, William Ortwig, later said the resemblance was coincidental, but the Bendix car did use an off-the-shelf 1934 DeSoto grille and headlights.
All of those were concept cars, but in the spring of 1935, Volvo launched its streamlined PV36 Carioca, followed that October by the aerodynamic Peugeot 402. Both the Peugeot and the Carioca looked broadly similar to the Airflow, although they were smaller and had conventional body-on-frame construction. While Volvo corporate historian Claes Rydholm denies that the PV36, designed by former Hupp engineer Ivan Örnberg, was based on the Airflow, author Vincent Curcio says Peugeot actually licensed the Chrysler design for the 402. We were unable to confirm that assertion, but while Peugeot was certainly aware of the Airflow (and the Bendix SWC, which was demonstrated to Peugeot engineers in the fall of 1934), it seems unlikely. Some sources indicate that Peugeot did license the Jaray patent for the 402 and its derivatives, which seems more plausible; we have no information about whether Volvo did so or not.
Although the Airflow no longer looked quite so unusual, sales continued to sink. Thanks to the Airstream and the popular all-new ’35 Plymouths — now featuring Airflow-style Floating Ride — Chrysler posted a record $35 million profit for 1935, but Airflow production fell to only 7,751 Chryslers and 6,797 DeSotos.