GOING WITH THE WIND
The Airflows were facelifted again for 1936, with revised grilles and all-steel roofs. Sedans now had integral trunks with internal spare-tire storage. The interiors were also revised, eliminating some of the previous Streamline Moderne touches, like the chromed seat rails.
Reflecting the slow sales, the model lineup was simplified, as well, eliminating the business coupes and the Town Sedans, with their blind quarter panels. The big CW Airflow Custom Imperial was no longer listed, although about 10 were built as special orders.
Prices of both the basic Chrysler C-9 Airflow Eight and DeSoto Model S2 “Airflow II” were up as much as $150 for 1936, which put them in a very awkward market position. The six-cylinder DeSoto cost as much as a Packard One Twenty, which had a straight eight, 20 more horsepower (15 kW more), and the snob appeal of the Packard name. The Chrysler Airflow, meanwhile, competed directly with the new Lincoln Zephyr, which had a V-12 engine, a superior power-to-weight ratio, and styling that had been much better received. Interestingly, most 1936 Chrysler Airflow buyers opted for the pricier C-10 Imperial. Starting at $1,475, the C-10 was more expensive than the Zephyr, but noticeably larger and considerably more powerful.
This was the final year for the DeSoto Airflow, formally known as the Model S2 Airflow II. The new grille doesn’t look dramatically different from the 1935 model’s, but, like the grille of the 1936 Chrysler Airflows, it was now a one-piece, die-cast unit. Sedans accounted for most of the S2’s 5,000 sales; only 250 DeSoto coupes were built for 1936. (Photo © 2009 Bill McChesney; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)
While Lincoln sold around 15,000 Zephyrs and Packard more than 55,000 One Twenties in 1936, Airflow production amounted to only 6,285 Chryslers and 5,000 DeSotos. It was the sole black mark in what was otherwise a spectacular year for Chrysler: Plymouth sales topped half a million units and even Chrysler sold nearly 60,000 cars, thanks mainly to the handsomely facelifted 1936 Airstreams. Chrysler’s total production surpassed Ford’s for the first time and the corporation posted a net profit of $62.1 million, enough to repay the last of the debt Chrysler had assumed when it acquired Dodge in 1928.
The dismal sales of the Airflow II were apparently the last straw for DeSoto president Byron Foy and the DeSoto Airflow disappeared after 1936. The writing was on the wall for the Chrysler version as well, but it returned for one final encore, offered only in a single series. Since the C-10 Imperial had been 1936’s best seller, the 1937 C-17 Airflow was essentially that model, fitted with new trim and yet another new hood and grille, similar to those of Chrysler’s conventionally styled cars. However, the C-17 was no longer listed as an Imperial. For 1937, Chrysler had applied the Imperial name to all of its non-Airflow eight-cylinder cars, probably as a belated response to the Packard One Twenty. There was now a separate, conventionally styled Custom Imperial, although at least two CW Custom Imperials were updated with 1937 Airflow grilles, hoods, and bumpers. One was for Philippines president Manuel Quezón, while the other was built for Edward Bowes, host of the popular CBS radio show Major Bowes Amateur Hour, of which Chrysler had recently become the sponsor.
Sales of the C-17 were very similar to the previous year’s C-10 Airflow Imperial: exactly 4,600 units, 95% of which were four-door sedans. The last was built in October 1937, bringing the final tally of Airflow production to 55,655 cars (or fewer, depending on which 1934 figures you believe).
With that, the Airflow was dead, although Carl Breer’s group continued to use earlier models for aerodynamic research through at least 1941. The radial-engined, FWD mini-Airflow never got off the ground despite extensive development work and road testing. Chrysler tried to find a foreign licensee for the design in 1938, but with war brewing in Europe, they were unsuccessful. At least one of the two prototypes was eventually scrapped.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Airflow failed commercially because it was too advanced — that American buyers were simply not ready for functionally (as opposed to cosmetically) streamlined cars. However, even if we discount the popularity of the Peugeot 402 and its smaller 302 and 202 derivatives, the problem with that theory is the Lincoln Zephyr. The Zephyr’s exterior design and bridge-and-truss construction were just as radical as the Airflow’s, it certainly wasn’t any cheaper, and it had a variety of significant flaws. Nonetheless, it sold around 133,000 units between 1938 and 1942 and spawned the first Lincoln Continental. Clearly, buyers in that price range were not wholly opposed to aerodynamic design.