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.
34 CommentsAdd a Comment
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.
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..!)
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.
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…
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.
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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks again for a nice article!
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!
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?
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.
while we are on the subject of the Tropfenwagen, Ferdinand Porsche had nothing to do with its development, as he was employed by Daimler, not Benz. The two companies formed an association in 1924, formally merged, forming Mercedes-Benz in 1926. Integrating the engineering staff of the two former rivals took a while, with the Benz faction eventually gaining ascendancy.
Thanks — I looked back through my notes and saw how that error probably cropped up, but you’re right and I’ve amended the text.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I realize this is a long shot but here goes. I inherited my fathers 1935 AirStream C6. It has spare tires in each fender, 2 windshield wipers, a luggage rack and the back of the passenger seat raises up like in a business coupe. Any help clarifying what series it is would be appreciated.
Finally! The story of the Airflow in enough detail for me to understand these beautiful machines. Thank you for this piece!
They may not have sold well, but their influence was certainly felt around the world. You mention the Volvo Carioca and the <i>Fuseau Sochaux</i> Peugeots (the last of which were made in 1949!), but there is also the first “proper” car from the land of the rising sun: the 1936 Toyota AA. None survived, so Toyota actually built one for their museum in the 1990s.
Along with Cords, Marmons, Franklins, shark-nose Grahams and the Zephyr, these Chryslers are the epitome of 30s American cars for me.
I must admit had always been a little skeptical of the Toyota link, but the 2012 edition of Toyota’s official history specifically says the Toyoda Model AA took its inspiration from the Airflow. It wasn’t just the styling either; the engineers at Toyoda (not spun off of the parent company as Toyota Motor until 1937) recognized and sought to emulate what Breer and crew had done with the Airflow’s weight distribution and ride. Very interesting.
I should add that while the Model AA was the first Toyota automobile, it was NOT the first Japanese car. The first Japanese-built four-wheeled automobile was made in 1904 and the first gasoline-powered car was in 1907. However, people really didn’t have enough money to create a sustainable domestic passenger car industry until much later. According to the numbers I’ve seen, it wasn’t until 1951 that Japanese companies built more than 2,000 passenger cars in a single calendar year.
There is a rather long promotional video of the Airflow made by Chrysler in the mid-1930s that discusses its design and features, and includes a rather dramatic test rollover with a live driver. The roof of the vehicle remains completely intact as do all windows, although one rear door came open (they lacked interlocking door latches that have been required since the late 1960s). If you have not seen this, you should get a copy. I may have a video version if you cannot find one elsewhere. This video provides dramatic evidence that manufacturers could have provided good rollover protection in more recent decades without the advanced materials now used to meet FMVSS 216, and saved thousands of lives in rollovers (particularly of SUVs).
I’ve never seen the film, but I’ve heard about some of the stunts Chrysler did to demonstrate the Airflow’s rigidity and safety, including pushing one off a cliff. It was partly done to counter rumors that the Airflow wasn’t very strong, perhaps because people heard that its inner skeleton was not all that rigid by itself. (The bridge-and-truss skeleton wasn’t intended to be self-supporting, but once welded to the body panels, the whole thing was extremely stout.)
Though only slightly connected to the article, is it known whether other more viable engines (e.g. inline, V-angle, Boxer, etc) were considered for the Chrysler Star Car in place of the five-cylinder radial-engine?
It seems like a number of otherwise production worthy designs during that period up til the end of WW2 were fatally compromised by radial or other experimental engines.
Also interested to know where one can find more information on Chrysler’s post-war small car project (including the name), which was intended to challenge the Chevrolet Cadet and the Ford Light Car project that eventually became the Vedette.
To your first question, as far as I know, there were not. The “Star Cars” were FWD (if you look up the SIA article “MoPar’s Star Cars” on the Hemmings site, you’ll see some photos of the powertrain layout), which, like some early postwar FWD cars, was predicated on fitting the engine in a relatively short space ahead of the front axle. Short of the radial engine, that configuration would probably have dictated either an I-2, a V-4 or an H-4, with the latter probably being the most practical choice. Had Chrysler succeeded in finding overseas licensing interest, they might have gone that route, since for a non-experimental project, it’s hard to see a manufacturer considering the complexity of the five-cylinder radial worthwhile for an 1,100cc engine.
The postwar concept you’re probably thinking of is Project A-106. I don’t have much detailed info on it; it was designed around an H-4 engine, but I don’t know the engine’s specifications beyond that.
Indeed, the radial and other experimental engines considered by rivals were blind alleys.
Agree about the production versions of the Star Car being powered by H-4 engines, though why didn’t Chrysler consider such an idea themselves instead of seeking out overseas licensing interests?
Regarding Chrysler’s efforts in seeking overseas interest in the UK, know the likes of Stafford Gripps and others in the post-war Attlee wanted to establish a British people’s car project, supporting the stillborn efforts of Roy Fedden and Denis Kendall in setting up such their own car projects.
Could an H-4 powered Star Car have remained in production after WW2 let alone achieve similar success to another similarly styled model whose engine layout / etc was at the rear?
As far as I know, the Star Cars that were built were primarily experimental rather than development prototypes. With experimental designs, it’s not uncommon for a mule or set of mules to examine several different technologies at once, even if there isn’t any serious intent to build a production model that way. While an H-4 engine would probably have been a more promising design, it was no less radical for Chrysler in terms of actual production (having no relationship at all to any existing engine design), but less novel strictly from an engineering standpoint, offering less to be learned from experimentation. At that point, there wouldn’t have been a market for such a car in the U.S., at least in that form, and Chrysler didn’t have the export organization or local dealerships to offer it outside North America in meaningful quantities, especially given the complex tariffs and import duties involved in pre-EEC multinational productions.
When the project began, Walter Chrysler was very enthusiastic about the Airflow and basically showing off what Chrysler engineering was capable of. Given the timing, my assumption is that the Star Cars amounted to dabbling in what they might do if they took some of the concepts involved in the Airflow a step or two further: FWD and a compact, easily removable powertrain. I can’t see Chrysler putting it into production in that form, but if the drivetrain and radial engine had shown promise AND if the Airflow had been a big hit, some of those concepts might have shown up in an Airflow successor. However, the Airflow was not a big hit, Chrysler management started getting nervous about these pie-in-the-sky engineering fancies and lost any interest in building such a thing. I think the effort to find a British licensee was at least partly a flailing attempt to recoup some of the substantial investment Chrysler had already made in the project rather than a coherent marketing strategy, which, combined with the timing, may have been why it didn’t pan out.
I don’t know that comparative engineering strengths are a reliable predictor of commercial success. Some advanced designs fail despite their strengths, lacking other important characteristics like after-sale service or just being too costly to build. Some rudimentary or old-fashioned designs succeed because they’re reliable, familiar, or just well-marketed. So, it’s hard to judge potential success simply based on specifications without a sense of who a product would be marketed to, how well, and for what price.
In the case of the Airflow, were there other more attractive styling proposals that Chrysler considered which could have worked in retrospect?
Guess the following is admittingly a fantasy, it would have been interesting if a production worthy Star Car formed the basis for Chrysler’s UK division instead of them later acquiring Rootes.
Well, as the article explains, the Airflow — and presumably the Star Cars — were primarily engineering designs, not styling ones. The role of Chrysler Art & Colour was to decorate the pre-approved shape (which they did pretty well, in my view), not to decide what it would look like; what today we’d probably call “detail styling.” Judging by the photos I’ve seen of the Airflow prototypes, the alternatives the engineers developed were arguably worse, although there’s a coupe design with a low-slung roof that would have pleased postwar customizers. Could actual stylists have come up with ways to apply the Airflow’s aerodynamic concepts in a more visually appealing way, and potentially on a smaller scale? Sure; the Peugeot was not an unattractive car for its day. Did Chrysler do that? Not so far as I know.
Another significant consideration is that I remain convinced that part of the reason for the Airflow’s mediocre sales performance was that the Airflow cars were quite expensive. That’s an issue that would likely have affected the viability of something like the Star Car, especially vis-à-vis contemporary Ford of England offerings.
What a first class article! Too bad the looks of the Airflow were so artless and indeed clumsy, and I say that as an engineer. Certainly the cars were expensive to produce, but a little exterior grace would perhaps have saved the sales day. You cover that aspect well in a reply comment above.
On the little radial engine FWD project, I was unaware of it until now. So the radial multibank Sherman tank engine that Chrysler produced in WWII makes sense with its five 6 cylinder blocks. Not the same crank arrangement, but they knew it was a doable project and likely to succeed without protracted development time. Too bad for them that Ford produced a monster rival DOHC GAA V8 that eclipsed it. Surely the Ford had the most advanced cylinder head design for decades afterwards, a tour-de-force. Jags, Alfas, Mercedes and F1 engines did not have a narrow valve angle, direct-acting bucket tappets from the cam, and a central spark plug in a DOHC four-valve pentroof head, until Duckworth reinvented it for the FVA/DFV. Most engines have similar layouts today bar bucket tappets. The RR Merlin looks positively antediluvian by comparison.
I’m surprised that the cars stayed so expensive for so long; once Chrysler realized that the development costs were going to be lost, one would have hoped that they could sell the cars at a little above cost, keep the volume up, and make the most of a bad situation. I’ve heard that a typical modern car wholesales for about double its manufacturing cost in the first year of production, so, assuming that the ratio was in the same neighborhood, there should have been room to bring the price at least inline with the Airstream models, which might have generated more volume. I’m not sure exactly why the production costs of such a unitized car were higher than for a body-on-frame design; maybe welding technology had a ways to go before they’d be on par. Certainly, unitized cars were competitive with body-on-frame designs by the mid 1950s, but I’m sure the manufacturing process was more streamlined by that time.
One thing, other than styling, that seemed possibly premature on these models was the placement of the engine directly over the drive wheels; with no power steering I’d expect that would make these cars a hand-full to drive. Also, with skinny 1930s bias-ply tires, I wonder how the engine placement affected under-steer. The gradual puling-in of the front wheels that ultimately had them protruding into the passenger space by the late 1970s was made practical by the standardization of power steering, better suspensions and radial tires.
The issue, vis-à-vis cost, is not simply the cost of materials and labor, but the cost of tooling and production facilities. If something can’t be build on existing assembly lines with existing tools and equipment, the cost of its special facilities has to be amortized over the run of the model or models that do use those facilities. (There are different ways to do that, but it has to be done somehow and factored into the overall P&L for a model line.)
Part of the reason unitized cars were more expensive is that the nature of unit construction means more new tooling and/or tooling changes for each new model or model change. A lot of the focus of postwar development on unit bodies has been on finding ways to spread those costs around by creating ranges of different products that share certain big, costly subassemblies (such as the cowl/scuttle structure or the floorpan), but doing that requires time, planning, and a commitment to continue to build products in those ways.
Shifting weight forward does unarguably promote understeer, although there were very, very few cars of that era that had much in the way of cornering ability, and “ease of handling” meant something rather different than “handling ability.” The Airflow cars had high steering ratios that made for lots of wheel-winding, not unlike postwar American cars without power steering. If you’ve ever driven an American car of the sixties without power steering, the steering typically isn’t that heavy (less so, often, than a European or Japanese subcompact of the seventies or eighties without power steering), but it does require a lot of cranking to change directions, which imparts a feeling of vagueness to the action. By thirties standards, that wasn’t necessarily considered a terrible thing, and slow steering that was not very reversible could be a relief on rough roads.
Thanks for the quick moderation and reply! It brought back memories of learning to drive on my father’s 1975 Malibu, which despite being only “mid size” weighed 3,700 pounds without an automatic, power steering or power brakes. The lack of power steering, with 7 turns lock-to-lock, was the worst omission of the three. The car, shipped that way by accident (long story), was an interesting experience, but I’m glad they don’t make cars that size without power steering these days.
PS: I didn’t say it the first time around in my haste to make my points as concisely as possible, but this was a great article. I’ve learned a lot from this site.
The lack of power steering is certainly a headache by modern standards, and it’s not difficult to understand why automakers generally compromised with non-power steering ratios requiring a bazillion turns lock-to-lock. Even something like an early Honda Civic, which weighed well under a ton dripping wet and had steering ratios giving something in the realm of four turns lock-to-lock, can be a real bicep-builder when trying to parallel park! Avoiding that was a significantly bigger concern for U.S. automakers than were quickness or precision of response, which in any case were not exactly strong points of the large majority of prewar cars. With a prewar sports car (or something like a Morgan that is functionally a prewar design regardless of actual date of manufacture), the combination of low ride height, relatively quick-ratio steering, minimal curb weight, and stiff springs made for more responsive handling, but you paid a heavy price in ride quality and steering weight, and for all the masochism involved, actual developed cornering power was still pretty modest. It’s no great surprise that the average American buyer’s response to that sort of thing was, “Ugh, no thanks.”