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 Dodge in 1928, for example, some critics likened the deal to a minnow trying to swallow a whale, but it had greatly expanded 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, and Richard Spiegelman for allowing us to use their photos and Danielle Szostak-Viers of the Chrysler Historical Collection (now FCA US LLC – Historical Services) for her great assistance in obtaining historical 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).
- Counting to Twelve: The Curious Story of Packard’s Twin Six and Twelve
- King of the Highway, Part 1: The Cadillac V-16
- King of the Highway, Part 2: The Cadillac V-12
- Like the Wind: The Lincoln Zephyr and Continental
- Take Me to Your Style Leader: The 1938–1942 Cadillac Sixty Special
- Queen of the Road: The Citroën Traction Avant
- One Hundred from Zero: The 1936–1942 Buick Century
- The Ford Flathead V8 and the Fall of Henry Ford
- The People’s Packard: The Packard One-Twenty and How NOT to Build a Brand
The streamlined Airflow remains the best known (and most infamous) of all prewar Chryslers, a bold and ambitious engineering achievement that became a notorious commercial flop. This week, we look at the origins and fate of the 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow and its 1934-1936 DeSoto sibling.
WALTER P. AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS
Even before his death in 1940, Walter Percy Chrysler was becoming a larger-than-life figure. The son of a railroad engineer from Kansas, Chrysler rose from a 5-cent-an-hour job as a machinist’s apprentice to the presidency of Buick before his 43rd birthday. In the early 1920s, he helped to resuscitate one failing automaker and transformed two others into a highly successful eponymous corporation. He was Time‘s Man of the Year in 1929 and by 1931, his name adorned the world’s tallest building.
The early history of the Chrysler Corporation, however, is also the story of three other men: Fred M. Zeder, Owen R. Skelton, and Carl Breer. It was Zeder, Skelton, and Breer who designed the initial 1924 Chrysler Six for what was then the Maxwell Motor Corporation and they would oversee Chrysler’s engineering until after World War II.
The eldest of the three, Carl Breer, was originally from Los Angeles, a graduate of Throop Polytechnic Institute (now Cal Tech) and Stanford University. In 1909, he’d joined an Allis-Chalmers apprenticeship program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he met Fred Zeder, several years younger and newly graduated from the University of Michigan’s School of Engineering. The two became fast friends, and when Zeder became chief engineer of Studebaker’s Detroit automotive operations four years later, he cabled Breer to join him there. Around the same time, Zeder hired Owen Skelton, a young engineer from Ohio who had previously worked at Packard.
In 1920, after several successful years at Studebaker, Zeder, Skelton, and Breer learned that Walter Chrysler was interested in recruiting them for Willys-Overland, whose financial backers had recently hired Chrysler to turn the struggling company around. At Willys, the trio developed a new, thoroughly modern six-cylinder engine and an entirely new car, which at one time was intended to carry the Chrysler name. While Willys-Overland’s ongoing financial weakness — and conflicts between Chrysler and founder John N. Willys — eventually stymied those plans, Chrysler was very impressed with the three young engineers, suggesting in December 1921 that the trio start their own consulting firm. He even secured them their first contract with the Maxwell Motor Company, of which Chrysler had recently become a director.
In August 1922, Zeder, Skelton, and Breer re-approached Chrysler, who had departed Willys six months earlier to focus his attention on Maxwell and the moribund Chalmers Motor Company. The trio again broached the idea of building a six-cylinder car under the Chrysler name, using an engine of their design. Walter Chrysler was very receptive, and Zeder, Skelton, and Breer Engineering Co. soon secured a contract with Maxwell. In June 1923, ZSB Engineering was absorbed by the recently merged Maxwell-Chalmers Motor Corporation and the trio took over all engineering operations, including the development and launch of the first B-Series Chrysler Six, introduced to the public in January 1924.
The Chrysler Six was a great success, allowing Walter Chrysler to organize the Chrysler Motor Corporation, incorporated in Delaware on June 6, 1925. Three weeks later, the Chrysler Corporation absorbed Maxwell and Zeder, Skelton, and Breer all became senior Chrysler executives.
As vice president of engineering, Fred Zeder was nominally senior to Skelton and Breer, who became Chrysler’s executive engineer and chief of research, respectively. In practice, any divisions between them were ones of focus and specialization rather than rank. The three were lifelong friends; for more than two decades, they even sent out joint Christmas cards. Breer, who had boarded with Fred Zeder’s family when he first moved to Detroit, later married one of Zeder’s sisters and named their first son Fred. Walter Chrysler likened the trio to Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers.
Chrysler’s relationship with his “Three Musketeers” was that of a confident and enthusiastic patron. In sharp contrast with Henry Ford, who tended to micromanage his technical staff, Chrysler had abiding faith in the expertise of his engineers. While he was often curious about their latest developments, he generally limited his involvement to the occasional word of encouragement. Carl Breer later recalled that Walter Chrysler always trusted their judgment. Even during the worst parts of the Depression, research operations were largely exempted from corporate belt tightening.
It probably helped that none of the Three Musketeers was a wild-eyed dreamer. Chrysler introduced many significant engineering features during the trio’s long tenure (even the earliest 1924 cars had four-wheel hydraulic brakes, by no means the contemporary norm), but only one of their production car lines could be considered truly radical.
CONCEIVING THE AIRFLOW
The oft-repeated story, originally presented in Carl Breer’s 1960 memoir, says that the impetus for the Airflow came in 1927, when Breer and his wife were summering in Gratiot Beach in Port Huron, Michigan. One evening, Breer saw what he initially assumed was a flock of migrating birds, only to realize it was actually a flight of Army Air Corps pursuit planes on their way back to Selfridge Field, about 35 miles (55 km) away.
Seeing the aircraft in flight led Breer to contemplate the contrast between aircraft design and the primitive state of automotive aerodynamics. Breer was no stranger to aviation engineering; during World War I, while still a Studebaker employee, he had worked with O.E. Hunt and James Heaslip on the production engineering of the 12-cylinder Liberty engine used in many Allied aircraft.
Aerodynamic streamlining was not a new idea in automotive design even in 1927. In the early twenties, a number of aviation engineers had turned their attention to automobiles, particularly in Germany, where the Armistice had placed sharp restrictions on the postwar aircraft industry. At the 1921 Berlin Auto Show, for example, Austrian engineer Edmund Rumpler had displayed a prototype of his remarkable Tropfenwagen, a teardrop-shaped, mid-engined car with a single headlight and a 157 cu. in. (2,580 cc) W-6 engine. Later wind tunnel tests revealed that the Tropfenwagen had a drag coefficient of only 0.27, highly respectable even today.
Rumpler didn’t find an automaker willing to put the car into mass production, but Benz et cie adapted his design and chassis for the Benz Tropfenwagen racer (developed by Willy Waub and Ferdinand Porsche), which competed in Grand Prix events in 1923 and 1924. Rumpler persevered, eventually developing the short-lived Tropfen-Auto RU 4A106, launched in 1924. Powered by a 160 cu. in. (2,614 cc) four with 50 horsepower (37 kW), about 100 of the futuristic-looking cars were built before production ceased in 1925. Some ended up as taxicabs in Berlin, although they suffered poor reliability and very limited cargo space. Director Fritz Lang acquired a handful of Tropfen-Autos for his 1926 science fiction epic Metropolis; all were destroyed in the film.
We don’t know exactly how much Breer knew about these and other contemporary experiments, but in any event, Chrysler Engineering’s practical knowledge of aerodynamics in 1927 was almost nil. That fall, Breer hired Bill Earnshaw, a Dayton, Ohio-based consulting engineer and personal friend of the Wright Brothers, to conduct preliminary aerodynamic research. In November, Orville Wright helped Earnshaw set up a small wind tunnel for testing purposes.
Intrigued by Earnshaw’s results, Carl Breer persuaded Walter Chrysler to authorize construction of a larger, in-house wind tunnel, which was finished by September 1928. Aerodynamic work continued even after the stock market crash in the fall of 1929, and by 1931, Chrysler engineers had tested at least 50 scale models.
REPACKAGING THE PASSENGER CAR
It was hardly shocking when Chrysler’s early wind tunnel tests revealed that most late-twenties cars produced tremendous drag; considering the blunt radiator shells and flat, upright windshields of the day, it was inevitable. More surprising was the observation that many closed bodies were substantially slipperier in reverse than they were moving forward.
As Breer’s team soon realized, that curious fact was a byproduct of what was then conventional engine and suspension layout. Since most passenger cars still used solid axles front and rear, their engines were usually mounted behind the front axle, in what today we would call a front/mid-engine layout. The position of the engine pushed the passenger compartment well back in the chassis, particularly with bulky straight-eight engines. In most closed bodies, the cabin ended just forward of the rear bumper; the modern ‘trunkback’ or ‘notchback’ profile was still a few years in the future. The net result of these factors was a long, narrow nose and a wide, bulbous tail, exactly the opposite of the aerodynamically ideal teardrop shape.
Breer concluded that significantly reducing drag would require a very different profile with a broad, smooth nose and a narrow, tapering tail. Breer considered simply reversing the customary layout and putting the engine behind the passenger compartment, as Edmond Rumpler had done with the Tropfenwagen and Tropfen-Auto, but ultimately abandoned that idea out of concern for the likely effects on handling stability and the cost of developing mostly new drivetrain hardware.
Breer found that tacking an extended tail cone onto a mostly conventional body was aerodynamically effective, but neither very practical nor particularly attractive. However, without such addenda, a sharply sloping tail would take a big chunk out of rear passenger and cargo space unless the seating layout were significantly revised.
With that in mind, Breer and chief body engineer Oliver Clark set about rethinking the packaging of the typical passenger car. They started with six-cylinder sedans and coupes — what in production would become the DeSoto Airflow and the Canadian Chrysler CY — and laid out a seating arrangement that would allow the desired shape while keeping the wheelbase and overall length as short as possible.
First, Clark and Breer widened the front seat to make it somewhat wider than the rear bench, the reverse of the usual practice. (Initial plans actually called for five-passenger seating with three in front, two in back, but the Chrysler sales organization said no.) The rear seat, meanwhile, was positioned ahead of the rear axle, with the front seats, dashboard, and windshield shifted forward accordingly — not unlike Chrysler’s much later “cab-forward” LH cars. Those changes required the engine to be moved about 20 inches (51 cm) forward, positioning it above the front axle rather than behind it. In production Airflows, the engine’s center of mass was slightly behind the axle and the engine was tilted downward about 5 degrees at the clutch side to minimize the height of the driveshaft tunnel.
Even with essentially stock engines and drivetrains, making these changes was complicated and expensive, and their actual value was debatable. Most American highways had speed limits of 45 mph (72 km/h) or less in those days and streamlining provided little benefit at lower speeds. In Europe, where taxable horsepower rules favored smaller displacements, obtaining a respectable maximum speed with a tiny engine had some allure, but that was not a major concern in the U.S. market.
If better aerodynamics had been the only advantage of Breer and Clark’s repackaging job, we suspect the Airflow might never have made it to production. However, Breer and his team found that the new layout paid unexpected dividends in a far more marketable area: ride quality.