One could argue that the Airflow paved the way for the Zephyr — arriving 17 months after the Airflow’s debut, the Zephyr was far less shocking than it might otherwise have been. On the other hand, the Zephyr demonstrated that an aerodynamic car did not necessarily have to be an ungraceful one. A nicely restyled, all-new Airflow, using the 128-inch (3,251mm) wheelbase of the C-10/C-17, might have done quite well as a Zephyr rival, although whether such a car would have sold well enough to justify its tooling costs is another matter.
Even if the Airflow had been as pretty as a Pierce Silver Arrow, its price would have made for an uphill battle in the middle-class market. The Airflow had definite strengths, but asking Depression-era buyers to pay a 25% premium for those advantages was a stretch. The high prices, of course, had less to do with its controversial aerodynamic styling than with its bridge-and-truss unitized construction, which was expensive to manufacture despite shortcuts like the interchangeable doors.
Chrysler could have offered a similarly aerodynamic shape with body-on-frame construction, as Peugeot did with the 402, and the Airflow’s Floating Ride certainly could have been applied to more conventionally engineered cars, as both Chrysler and its rivals soon did. However, Walter Chrysler was determined to make the Airflow a technological tour de force, which pushed its costs and prices beyond what the market was prepared to absorb.
We presume Chrysler understood the risks, but he taken bold gambles before and they had often paid off handsomely for him. When he acquired the Dodge Brothers company in 1928, for example, some observers had been incredulous because Dodge was so much bigger than Chrysler, but the deal proved to be a great success, significantly expanding Chrysler’s dealer network and production capacity for a very modest capital investment. If the Airflow had been a hit, it would have left rivals scrambling to catch up, giving Chrysler a commanding commercial advantage.
Many of the Airflow’s advances did eventually become common practice, but its dismal sales spoiled the corporation’s appetite for novelty for more than a decade. Had Walter Chrysler remained at the helm that might not have been the case, but Chrysler ceded the presidency to K.T. Keller in 1935. Although Chrysler remained chairman, his direct involvement was greatly limited after he suffered a severe stroke in May 1938. Keller was far more conservative than Chrysler, and in any case the Airflow had left division managers extremely wary of anything too radical or too new. It was not until the fifties that the Chrysler Corporation began to reclaim its reputation for sophisticated engineering, and even then (with some notable exceptions, like the limited-production Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Road Runner Superbird) the company tended to shy away from conspicuously aerodynamic designs well into the 1990s.
Walter P. Chrysler died on August 18, 1940, but the Three Musketeers remained with the company for another decade. Carl Breer was the first to retire, stepping down as head of research in 1949, but he remained a consultant and board member until 1953. Owen Skelton retired in 1951, although he too sat on the board of directors for a few more years. Fred Zeder never retired; he remained vice president of engineering and vice chairman until he died in 1951. His younger brother James, who had joined the company back in 1924, later became Chrysler’s chief engineer.
Given all the things Walter Chrysler and the Three Musketeers accomplished during the corporation’s first 15 years, it’s ironic that their best-known car is one of their few serious missteps. On the other hand, there are far worse things to be remembered for than a daring, ambitious, forward-thinking failure like the Airflow.
Special thanks are due to Bill Burris, George Camp, dave_7, Rex Gray, Pat McLaughlin, Bill McChesney, Ronnie Schreiber of Cars in Depth, Richard Spiegelman, and Danielle Szostak-Viers of the Chrysler Historical Collection (now FCA US LLC – Historical Services) for their assistance with images and information for the article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources on the Airflow included “1938 Dodge RX 70 (Airflow Design Series): Legendary Rarities,” Dodge Legends Exhibit Vehicle Overview, Chrysler Heritage (no date, chryslerheritage.iconicweb. com, accessed 29 May 2011); The Airflow Club of America, The Airflow Club of America Quick Reference Guide, airflowclub. connect2websites. com, accessed 15 May 2011; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1934-1937 Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow” (18 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1934-1937-chrysler-desoto-airflow.htm, accessed 14 May 2011); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Jim Benjaminson, “Chrysler at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair,” Plymouth Bulletin, reprinted with permission at Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 28 May 2011; Carl Breer and Anthony J. Yanik, The Birth of Chrysler Corporation and Its Engineering Legacy, Second Edition (Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., 1960, 1995); Dr. David George Briant, “Chrysler Corporation’s Pulsating Years: 1926-1938” (25 December 2008, WPC Club, Inc, www.chryslerclub. org/ walterp .html, accessed 12 May 2011); Arch Brown, “Chrysler’s Magnificent Mistake: 1934 Airflow ‘CU,'” Cars & Parts, August 1992, pp. 22-26; Arch Brown, “SIA comparisonReport: Battle of the Streamliners: Chrysler Airflow vs. Lincoln Zephyr,” Special Interest Autos #120 (November-December 1990), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Lincolns (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books), ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 12-20, and The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 60-67; Don Butler, “Adventures in Airflow, Part II” Cars & Parts January 1981, pp. 20-29; “Chrysler Airflow- aero-modded (Part-1)” (12 June 2010, Ecomodder.com, ecomodder. com/ forum/ showthread.php/ chrysler-airflow-aero-modded- part-1-a-13538.html, accessed 24 May 2011); “De Soto Airflow Series SE 1934 United States” (no date, Classic Carbase, www.classiccarbase. com, accessed 23 May 2011); Craig Fitzgerald, “Winds of Change,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car Vol. 4, No. 12 (August 2009), p. 8; Vincent Curcio, Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); James M. Flammang and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Chrysler Chronicle: An Illustrated History of Chrysler – DeSoto – Dodge – Eagle – Imperial – Jeep – Plymouth (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International Ltd., 1998); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Charles K. Hyde, Riding the Roller Coaster: A History of the Chrysler Corporation (Great Lakes Books) (Chicago, IL: Wayne State University Press, 2003); Howard S. Irwin, “The History of the Airflow Car,” Scientific American August 1977 (Vol. 237, No. 2), pp. 95-106; Michael Lamm, “Magnificent Turkey,” Special Interest Autos #16, April-May 1973, reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers, pp. 34-41; Frank Marcus, “Mythbusted! At long last, science answers the question: Do the 1959 Chevy’s gullwing fins produce lift?” Motor Trend Classic #7 (September-October 2006), pp. 52-57; Richard Millman (“Bill-W”) on a thread posted on the Antique Auto Club of America forum 18 December 2009 to 20 June 2010, forums.aaca. org/ f147/ 1934-chrysler-desoto-airflow-door- same-273970.html, accessed 20 May 2011; “Mopar’s Star Cars: Were these two FWD, five-cylinder experimentals Chrysler’s answer to GM’s X-Cars?” Special Interest Autos #10 (April-May 1972), reprinted in Hemmings Classic Car #80 (May 2011), pp. 50-54; Gerald Perschbacher, “Walter Chrysler defended the Airflow in 1935,” Old Cars Weekly 22 April 2004, p. 12; Joel Prescott, “Like an Airplane on Wheels,” Car Collector July 1993, pp. 6-11; “Three Musketeers – ZSB” (2009, Walter P. Chrysler Museum, wpchryslermuseum. org, accessed 26 May 2011); Bruce R. Thomas, “Trifon Special: Birth of a Classic,” originally published in TORQUE (the publication of the Classic Car Club of America – Michigan Region) and reprinted with permission in Antique Automobile September-October 1971, nn (3 pages); Dr. David Zatz, et al, “Chronological history of Chrysler Corporation, Dodge, and Plymouth” (no date, Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 12 May 2011); a 1934 Chrysler dealer briefing on the new Imperial Custom line (Chrysler Bulletin No. 899), 24 May 1934, excerpted in WPC News Vol. 28, No. 7 (March 1997). Additional details came from the Online Imperial Club website (www.imperialclub. com, last accessed 29 May 2011). Some production figures were supplied by Danielle Szostak-Viers of the Chrysler Historical Collection (now FCA US LLC – Historical Services) in emails to the author 13 May and 16 May 2011.
Information on Chrysler’s non-Airflow cars of this period came from Jim Benjaminson, “New from the ground up: Plymouth for 1935 and 1936,” Plymouth Bulletin, and “Now for the Second Million: Plymouth cars of 1934,” Plymouth Bulletin, reprinted with permission on Allpar, www.allpar. com, accessed 21–22 May 2011; Terry Boyce, “1937 Chrysler Imperial: American Art Deco,” Special Interest Autos #84 (November-December 1984), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers, pp. 74-81; Arch Brown and Bud Juneau, “1935 Chrysler Airstream: Ray Dietrich to the Rescue,” Special Interest Autos #168 (November-December 1998), The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers, pp. 42-48, 57-59; Arch Brown, “1935 Plymouth: ‘A New Picture of Car Value,'” Special Interest Autos #172 (July-August 1999), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Plymouths: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich(Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 4-21; Jeffrey I. Godshall, “1938 Chrysler Imperial: Chrysler’s Last Convertible Sedan,” Special Interest Autos #132 (November-December 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers, pp. 82-91; Michael Lamm, “1931 Chrysler 6,” Special Interest Autos #40 (May-July 1977), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers, pp. 20-25; and Ross MacLean, “drive report: A 1936 Chrysler Airstream,” Special Interest Autos #4 (March-April 1971), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Pre-War Chryslers, pp. 68-73.
Additional information on other early streamliners came from “1932 Bergholt Streamline at the Concours d’Elegance of America at Meadow Brook” (2010, ConceptCarz.com, www.conceptcarz. com, accessed 26 May 2011); “Albanita!” Special Interest Autos #15 (February-March 1973), pp. 50-53; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1923-1931 Lancia Lambda” (2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1923-1931-lancia-lambda.htm, accessed 21 May 2011), and the “1935-1942 Peugeot 402” (no date, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1935-1940-peugeot-402.htm, accessed 22 May 2011); “1924 Rumpler Tropfen-Auto RU 4A 106 in ‘Metropolis, 1926” (30 May 2006 to 10 February 2008, IMCDb.org, accessed 18 May 2011); “Founding Fathers of the Automotive Industry: Paul Jaray” (n.d., Unique Cars and Parts, www. uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 14 May 2011); Kevin Guthrie, “The Benz Tropfenwagen and Alfa Romeo 512: Rear Engined Grand Prix Cars” (30 October 2008, Suite101.com – Auto Racing, www.suite101. com, accessed 18 May 2011); Neal Jacquot, “Volvo 1935 Carioca not a Copy of the Airflow!” Airflow Newsletter, Airflow Club of America, Vol. 49, No. 6 (June 2010), pp. 3-4, which refers to an article by Volvo corporate historian Claes Rydholm in Rolling Magazine: the publication of the Volvo Club of America, March-April 2010, pp. 18-23; Paul Jaray, “Motor Car,” U.S. Patent No. 1,631,269, applied 19 August 1922, issued 7 June 1927; David LaChance, “The Internationalist,” Hemmings Classic Car October 2008; Michael Lamm, “1939 Lincoln Zephyr,” Special Interest Autos #6 (July-August 1971), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Lincolns, pp. 22-27; Michael Lamm, “Two Look-Alikes: Ford & Citroën,” Special Interest Autos #9 (January-March 1972), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Prewar Fords: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 44-51; Vincenzo Lancia, “Automobile,” United States Patent No. 1,372,148, applied 21 November 1919, issued 22 March 1921; Pete Leatherwood, “Mr. Bendix and His Car” [podcast] (27 March 2006, Studebaker National Museum, studebakermuseum.blogspot. com/ 2006/ 03/ mr-bendix-and-his-car.html, accessed 27 May 2011); Alex Oagana, “The Origins of Streamline Design in Cars” (5 January 2009, Autoevolution.com, www.autoevolution. com, accessed 23 May 2011); “Rumpler, Edmund” (7 August 2005, The Androom Archives, www.xs4all. nl/ ~androom/ biography/ p012525.htm, accessed 18 May 2011); Guillaume de Syon, “The Teardrop That Fell From the Sky: Paul Jaray and Automotive Aerodynamics,” ITEA Journal No. 29(1), March 2008, pp. 14-16; Toyota Motor Corporation, 75 Years of Toyota, “Vehicle Lineage: Toyoda Model AA Sedan (1st),” 2012, www.toyota-global. com, accessed 15 September 2014; “Volvo PV36 Carioca (1935)” (no date, NetCarShow.com, www.netcarshow. com; accessed 28 May 2011); and the Wikipedia® entries for the Peugeot 402 (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/ Peugeot_402, accessed 22 May 2011), Edmund Rumpler (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/ Edmund_Rumpler, accessed 18 May 2011), the Rumpler Tropfenwagen (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/ Rumpler_Tropfenwagen, accessed 18 May 2011), and the Tatra 77 (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/ Tatra_77, accessed 14 May 2011). Thanks to Pat McLaughlin for bringing the Bendix SWC and Bergholt Streamline to our attention.
Some history of the Chrysler Building came from Kenneth L. Massey, “History of Walter P. Chrysler and the Chrysler Building” (no date, Allpar, allpar. com, accessed 11 May 2011).
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