Changing Winds: The 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow

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.

1936 Chrysler Airflow Imperial C10 sedan front
The die-cast ‘fencer’s mask’ grille of the 1936 Chrysler Airflow was again based on that of the contemporary Airstream models, although its actual shape was quite different. All 1936 Chrysler Airflows except the CW had the 324 cu. in. (5,301 cc) eight. In the short-wheelbase C9, it had a single-throat carburetor, making 115 hp (86 kW) with the standard iron cylinder head or 120 hp (89 kW) with the optional aluminum head. The C-10 Airflow Imperial and C-11 Custom Imperial both had the aluminum head and a two-throat carburetor, giving 130 hp (97 kW) with 6.5:1 compression or 138 hp (103 kW) with the optional 7.45:1 compression ratio. Even with the low-compression engine, the Imperial had significantly more power and torque than the Zephyr’s sometimes troublesome 267 cu. in. (4,380 cc) V-12. (Author photo)

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.

1936 Chrysler Airflow Imperial C10 sedan side
Despite its 128 in. (3,251 mm) wheelbase and 215.9 in. (5,483 mm) overall length, the C-10 Airflow Imperial was identical to the smaller Chrysler C-9 Airflow from the B-pillars to the front bumpers. The C-10′s greater length was achieved by welding in an extra section around the rear door area; the center bar of the C-10′s split rear quarter window marks the trailing edge of that insert. Except for the vent windows, each of the C-10 sedan’s front doors was effectively interchangeable with the rear door on the opposite side. The same was true of the shorter-wheelbase C-9 and DeSoto sedans, but on those cars, the lower edge of each rear door was curved to clear the rear wheelhouse. (Author photo)

1936 DeSoto Airflow sedan front 3q Bill McChesney 2009 CCBY20-Gen
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.

1937 Chrysler Airflow front 3q Dave 7 2010 CCBY-SA20 Generic
The revised front-end styling of the final C-17 Airflow was again modeled on that of the 1937 standard cars. All were developed under Ray Dietrich, who had become Chrysler’s chief stylist in 1935. The leading edge of the C-17′s hood prow extends slightly ahead of the grille, a sharp contrast with the sloping hood of the 1934 Airflow. C-17s again had a 324 cu. in. (5,301 cc) engine with either 130 or 138 gross horsepower (97 or 103 kW), although compression ratios were reduced to 6.2 and 6.5:1, respectively. (Photo © 2010 Dave 7; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

1937 Chrysler C17 Airflow coupe side © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber WPC per
A very rare C-17 Airflow coupe, photographed in the basement of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. According to Chrysler Archives, only 230 coupes were built for 1937 — the last two-door Airflows. (Photo © 2011 Ronnie Schreiber; used with the permission of Cars in Depth and the Walter P. Chrysler Museum)

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.

POSTSCRIPT

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.

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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