Changing Winds: The 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow

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).

1934 Chrysler CU Airflow Eight sedan front 3q © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber WPC per
1934_Chrysler_CU-AirflowEight-sedan_grille_R1934 Chrysler CU Airflow Eight sedan grille © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber WPC per
This Chrysler CU four-door sedan, photographed at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum and sporting Ontario license plates, is a late 1934 model, identifiable by its simplified grille. Early 1934 Chrysler Airflows had 39 vertical grille bars, but later in the year, Chrysler substituted a cheaper version with only 21 bars, a change suggested by design consultant Norman Bel Geddes (apparently one of the only suggestions Chrysler actually used). Note the winged hood ornament, which has a Chrysler blue ribbon emblem at its center, and the functional engine compartment cooling louvers, seen here in their open position. (Both above photos © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber; used with the permission of Cars in Depth and the Walter P. Chrysler Museum)

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.

1934 Chrysler Airflow Six CY front 3q © 1992 Richard Spiegelman per
While all DeSoto Airflows had sixes, the only six-cylinder Chrysler Airflow was the short-lived CY Airflow Six, offered in the Canadian market in 1934. The CY was essentially a DeSoto SE (including the DeSoto’s headlights, horn grilles, and cooling louvers) fitted with CU-style bumpers, grille, and dashboard. Built for only one year, CY production totaled fewer than 500 units, most of them four-door sedans like this one. We don’t know if any were exported to Europe or other overseas markets. (Photo © 1992 Richard Spiegelman; used with permission)

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.

1934 Chrysler Airflow Imperial Custom CW front 3q © 1990 Richard Spiegelman per
Although it sports a 1935 grille and hood, this CW Airflow Imperial Custom is actually a 1934 model, apparently built for the late Huntington Hartford, heir to the A & P supermarket chain. Chrysler offered a kit to allow dealers to install the revised grille and hood on earlier Airflows, presumably to help unload leftover 1934 models, although some first-year buyers probably requested such conversions. Converted or not, CWs are extremely rare; total production has been estimated at around 107 units. (Photo © 1990 Richard Spiegelman; used with permission)

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.

1935 Chrysler Airstream coupe 2-4 front 3q © 2006 Jack Whitaker per
Except for a rare long-wheelbase version of the CZ Deluxe Eight series, 1935 Chrysler Airstreams were shorter, narrower, lower, and up to half a ton (455 kg) lighter than comparable Airflows. More importantly, they were at least $200 cheaper, model for model. Nearly 60% of 1935 Chrysler buyers opted for the less-expensive C6 Airstream Six. CZ Airstream Eights outsold Airflows, but only by about 1,500 units. (Photo © 2006 Jack Whitaker; used with permission)

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.

1935 Chrysler Airflow front 3q Bill Burris 2007 CCBYSA20
1935 Chrysler Airflow rear 3q Bill Burris 2007 CCBYSA20
Notable features of the facelifted 1935 Chrysler Airflow included a squared-off hood, a new stamped-steel grille (with a combination of die-cast and stainless steel trim), one-piece bumpers, revised cooling louvers and parking lamps, and a new hood ornament. The short-wheelbase C-1 traded the CU’s 299 cu. in. (4,894 cc) engine for the 324 cu. in. (5,301 cc) engine used in the bigger C-2 and C-3 Imperials. With a single-throat Stromberg carburetor and 6.2:1 compression, it made 115 gross horsepower (86 kW), down 7 hp (5 kW) from its smaller-displacement predecessor, but 15 lb-ft (20 N-m) more torque, now 240 lb-ft (324 N-m) at 1,200 rpm. (Front 3q and rear 3q photos above © 2007 Bill Burris; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

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.

1935 DeSoto Airflow sedan front 3q Bill McChesney 2008 CCBY20-Gen
1935 DeSoto Airflow sedan dashboard Bill McChesney 2008 CCBY20-Gen
The 1935 DeSoto SG Airflow had an attractive new hood and grille, along with revised bumpers, different cooling louvers, and a new dashboard. Unfortunately, its $1,195 price tag — cut to a still-hefty $1,015 during the model year — pitted it against eight-cylinder rivals of greater prestige. Nearly 75% of 1935 DeSoto buyers opted for the much cheaper Model SS Airstream Six. (Front 3q and dashboard photos above © 2008 Bill McChesney; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

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.

Peugeot 402 sedan front 3q Stahlkocher 2006 CCBY-SA30-UnportASmod
Although the Peugeot 402 bears a general resemblance to the Airflow, it differs significantly in both proportions and detail. Among other things, the Peugeot mounts its headlights behind the grille, rather than in the nose, it has no running boards, and both its front and rear doors (which are not interchangeable) hinge at the B-pillars. We find it more attractive than the Airflow, and it was certainly more popular, selling something like 75,000 units in various iterations before the fall of France in 1940. (Photo © 2006 Stahlkocher; modified by the author and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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.

16 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.

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