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 went on to oversee Chrysler 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 him to turn the struggling company around. At Willys, the trio developed a new, 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, so 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. Moreover, even during the worst parts of the Depression, Chrysler’s 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
According to Carl Breer’s often-repeated account, the original impetus for the Airflow came in 1927, when Breer and his wife were summering in Gratiot Beach, in Port Huron, Michigan. Seeing a passing flight of Army Air Corps pursuit planes on their way back to Selfridge Field (some 35 miles/55 km away) one evening, Breer began musing on the contrast between aircraft design and the primitive state of automotive aerodynamics. Breer himself 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) W6 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), 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 their poor reliability and limited cargo space made them unpopular. Director Fritz Lang acquired a handful of Tropfen-Autos for his 1927 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, Breer persuaded Walter Chrysler to authorize construction of a larger, in-house wind tunnel in 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 significantly slipperier in reverse than they were moving forward, in some cases by up to 30%.
As Breer’s team soon recognized, that curious fact was a byproduct of what was then conventional engine and suspension layout. Since most passenger cars still had solid axles front and rear, their engines were usually mounted behind the front axle, for 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 “trunkback” or “notchback” profile was still a few years in the future. The net result 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.
One way to achieve that was to simply reverse the customary layout, putting the engine behind the passenger compartment, as Rumpler had done with the Tropfenwagen and Tropfen-Auto. Breer considered that possibility, but ultimately abandoned it, partly out of concern for the effects of a rear engine on handling and stability, partly because such a layout would have required too much new drivetrain hardware. Another possibility, 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 space unless the seating layout and packaging 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, they 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 moved forward 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 shifted 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 that 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.