Changing Winds: The 1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow

1939 Dodge Airflow tanker front 3q © 2010 Richard Spiegelman (used with permission)
Chrysler never offered Plymouth or Dodge Airflow cars, but they did apply the Airflow name to a series of large Dodge commercial trucks. The initial Model K-52 Special, introduced in December 1934, was a four-ton chassis-cab, powered by a 310 cu. in. (5,074 cc) six with 95 hp (71 kW). Despite the Airflow-style grille, its engineering was quite conventional. The later RX70 and RX71 models, introduced in December 1937, had a bored-out 331 cu. in. (5,430 cc) engine with 100 gross horsepower (75 kW). Many Dodge Airflows were used as tankers, including this restored Texaco truck, now part of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum collection. The museum estimates that only 261 Airflow-series trucks were built before production ended in early 1940, and very few survive today. (Photo: “1939 Dodge Airflow Texaco tanker truck” © 2010 Richard Spiegelman; used with permission)

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.

1936 Chrysler Murray-Ohio Airflow toy Eyes on Design © 2007 Patrick McLaughlin (used with permission)
The Murray Ohio Manufacturing Company, best known for its children’s bicycles, made this Airflow pedal car in 1936, although its grille represents the 1935 model. This particular toy, seen at the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology’s 2007 EyesOnDesign Show, is part of the Rastall Collection. (Photo © 2007 Patrick McLaughlin; used with permission)

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.

1936 Chrysler Airflow Imperial C10 sedan side dave_7 2008 CCBY-SA20Gen
The battered remains of what was once a 1936 C-10 Airflow Imperial, photographed in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada in 2008. (Photo: “1936 Imperial Airflow Sedan C10” © 2008 dave_7; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

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 George Camp, Pat McLaughlin, Ronnie Schreiber of Cars in Depth, and Richard Spiegelman for the use of their photos and Danielle Szostak-Viers of the Chrysler Historical Collection (now FCA US LLC – Historical Services) for her assistance with historical images and information.


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,, 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/ 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, and “Airflow Prototypes” in pp. 18–20 of the original issue; 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 “1924 Rumpler Tropfen-Auto RU 4A 106 in ‘Metropolis, 1926” (30 May 2006 to 10 February 2008,, accessed 18 May 2011); “1932 Bergholt Streamline at the Concours d’Elegance of America at Meadow Brook” (2010,, 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,, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1923-1931-lancia-lambda.htm, accessed 21 May 2011), and the “1935-1942 Peugeot 402” (no date,, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1935-1940-peugeot-402.htm, accessed 22 May 2011); “Benz Tropfenwagen” (no date, Grand Prix History, www.grandprixhistory. org/trop.htm, accessed 10 October 2020); “Founding Fathers of the Automotive Industry: Paul Jaray” (n.d., Unique Cars and Parts, www. uniquecarsandparts., accessed 14 May 2011); Kevin Guthrie, “The Benz Tropfenwagen and Alfa Romeo 512: Rear Engined Grand Prix Cars” (30 October 2008, – 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,, 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, com, accessed 15 September 2014; “Volvo PV36 Carioca (1935)” (no date,, www.netcarshow. com; accessed 28 May 2011); and the Wikipedia® entries for the Peugeot 402 (, accessed 22 May 2011), Edmund Rumpler (, accessed 18 May 2011), the Rumpler Tropfenwagen (, accessed 18 May 2011), and the 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).



Add a Comment
  1. A wonderful article. I still have some very vivid memories of the Pennsylvania AACA vintage car shows back in the 1970’s when a couple of Chrysler Airflows would show up. And definitely got noticed, unlike my personal ’37 Buick Special.

    Now, how about some follow-up! I’d love to see an article on the Lincoln Zephyr, and would especially love to see something on the Hupp Aerodynamic’s of 1934-35. The 1937 Ford wouldn’t be out of line, either. The mid-30’s were definitely a wonderful time for automotive design.

    1. I would love to do the Zephyr and the original Continental, if I can put together enough pictures. (The fact that I was unable to find a ’36 or ’37 Zephyr photo to include in this article, as a contrast with the Airflow, tells you how many I have right now..!)

  2. I’d like to second the earlier commenter, the mid ’30s to early ’40s period really was a fascinating early golden age in automotive styling, where for the first time styling really was given a high priority over the more utilitarian looks of the 20s-early 30s, even if the customers of the day didn’t always go for the more radical examples of streamlined Art Deco, as was the case with the Airflow and shark nose Grahams.

    Although I appreciate the need to jump around a bit for variety, please do consider more articles on the ’30s streamliners in the future, as it is such a fertile era. – the Cord 810/812 would be a great read.

    As an aside, I read an article a few years back about an architect or fashion designer (some creative professional) in Manhattan who had a really special custom CW restomod built, taking an original Airflow body and interior and retrofitting it with a modern drivetrain and undercarriage, apparently the owner loved the Art Deco style and was using it as a daily driver in the city. Wish I had saved the article, but as I recall, there weren’t many pictures with it, but definitely an interesting project.

    1. I’m not categorically opposed to restomods, but doing it with a car as rare as a CW Imperial seems…wrong. I don’t know if they’re on the list of capital-C Classics (if not, they ought to be), but they’re extremely rare, with a lot of unique components (dashboard, brakes, springs, driveshaft, wheels, windshield). The CW is so huge and so heavy that even with a modern drivetrain, it would be a handful in city traffic — it’s bigger and heavier than an Escalade ESV. Admittedly, if it was in sad shape to start with, restoring it would be a serious pain in the ass, but still…

  3. Very interesting as always Aaron, I had a passing knowledge of the Airflows but it is great to read about the detail – I can’t imagine more than a few current cars would warrant the same attention!

    I saw a 1934 Airflow last year (with flat camera batteries!) and I remember previously one of the later model ones with what was quite evidently a tacked-on traditional grille. Looking at the photos perhaps what made the car look so jarring is the horizontal line of the hood which gives the optical illusion that the nose of the car is higher than the cowl, and I find the 6cyl cars better looking because the shorter nose lessens that impact. On the point that aero design per se was not sales-proof perhaps a slight taper for a less bulbous appearance, and wider-set headlights, would have made a difference?

    Rob it would be interesting to hear more about that car too.

    1. John,

      I hadn’t thought about the nose seeming higher than the cowl, but looking at the photos again, I see what you mean. It’s exacerbated by the position of the hood ornament, which gives the tip of the nose a bit of a ‘ski jump’ flair, even on the ’34s, where the original hood line actually slopes downward quite a bit. I imagine that is one of the factors that contributes to what I think of as a ‘stubby’ look to the whole car (especially sedans). The 1934 CU is quite a big car, but its rounded contours make it look smaller than it actually is, an effect that only the really long wheelbases of the CX and CW Imperials offset to any great degree.

      Deciding to mount the headlights in the leading edges of the body sides, rather than the fenders, was really limiting, both in spacing and light size. I don’t know why they didn’t mount the lights in the front fenders, as John Tjaarda did with the Zephyr. (The production Zephyr’s front end was mostly redone by Bob Gregorie, but the fender-mounted lights were on the original Briggs prototype.) I think the headlights of the ’36-’38 Zephyrs still look a bit awkward, but their spacing makes the Lincoln look lower and wider than the Airflow, even though it really isn’t.

      I imagine these are all reflections of the fact that the Airflow was [i]engineered[/i] more than actually [i]designed[/i]. The role of the stylists appears to have been to decorate the shape given them by the engineers, in which they had little if any say.

  4. Very nice article, Mr. Severson! I’m the president of the Airflow Club of America and I happened to find this site while searching for some other material. It’s nice to see a recent article about the Airflow. We are a small (425+) member club. We just had our National Meet in Durango, Colorado and I drove my 1935 C2 (Imperial) from Seattle WA. There are not many 76 year old cars which cruise smoothly down the road at 75 mph in overdrive. I did the return trip (1,300 miles) in two days. I own a 35 Packard, a 37 Cord and numerous other cars of the era and none can match the “modern” ride and drive of an Airflow.

    You are right, Engineering called the shots when the Airflow was designed. It was truly radical. Besides being quiet and smooth at 75 mph, it has gobs of art deco everywhere.

    The 6 cylinder cars (all DeSotos) are true to the Airflow spirit, but after riding in a prototype, Chrysler wanted an Airflow with his name on it. The Imperial Coupes are very well proportioned with six extra inches behind the B pillar.

    I am not opposed to rods, but if a CW was rodded it would break my heart so don’t verify it, please!

    In 1934, Chrysler did offer a retrofit grill which replaced the pure “waterfall” look with a more traditional grill – as was found on the ’35 models. With each passing year, as sales never materialized, Chrysler tried to make the front end look more conventional.

    Visit the website at 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.

    Thanks again for a nice article!

    1. Frank,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I’ve seen the story that the Airflow was originally intended [i]only[/i] as a six-cylinder DeSoto in a number of secondary sources. Do you have an original source for that account? As it stands, I’m afraid I’m rather skeptical of it.

      It’s true that the 1932 Trifon Special prototype was a DeSoto-size, six-cylinder car, and Carl Breer does say that he and Oliver Clark started with a six-cylinder model in laying out the packaging for the Airflow; they wanted to determine the minimum dimensions necessary to achieve both the aerodynamic profile and minimum passenger space they were looking for. However, Breer makes no mention of intending to [i]only[/i] offer the Airflow as a six, and his account indicated that the decision about which brands would offer it was made later. All he says on that subject is that they decided it would be sold by Chrysler and DeSoto; he says nothing about any plan to market it as a DeSoto-only product.

      Breer does say that Walter P. Chrysler was very excited about introducing the Airflow to celebrate Chrysler’s 10th anniversary. Based on Breer’s description of WPC’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s hard to conceive Chrysler [i]not[/i] wanting an Airflow with his name on it — if somebody suggested otherwise, I’m not sure who or why. From a business standpoint, certainly, offering the Airflow only as a DeSoto six wouldn’t have made much sense. The development costs were undoubtedly high, and DeSoto’s annual volume was not; it hadn’t topped 40,000 units since before the Crash. Also, even if there were some original plan to only offer it as a six, why didn’t the U.S. Chrysler line get the CY?

      Now, given the antipathy some of the corporation’s management apparently had toward the Airflow project, it’s entirely possible that getting the individual presidents to accept it was quite a battle. I suppose it’s possible that DeSoto president Byron Foy was less opposed than his colleagues; I really don’t know. However, my suspicion is that if there was a debate over who would offer the Airflow, it was more a matter of internal resistance than any overarching plan of what the Airflow should be.

      It would certainly be fair to call the six the baseline Airflow, since the larger eight-cylinder cars were created by splicing additional sections into the body panels and frame, but I don’t know that that means the bigger cars were somehow an afterthought. From Breer’s account, I think it was just easier to start with the smaller version, to establish the minimum package dimensions. That makes sense — if you know you have acceptable passenger room on the shorter wheelbase, it’s easy to make it bigger, whereas if you base your engineering on the larger version, it’s harder to scale it down without compromising utility space.

      If someone can point me toward a primary source for the DeSoto-only story — first-person accounts of the meeting where it was decided, etc. — I’ll happily accept that, but otherwise, I’m inclined to think that story may just be a misinterpretation of Carl Breer’s account, one that has, as they say, grown in the telling.

      I wholly agree on the CW. I’m not keen on the idea of heavily customizing the Airflow to begin with — it’s relatively rare, of obvious historical interest, and already pretty wild looking without any help — and the idea of cutting up a CW is the sort of thing that gives historians night terrors!

  5. Aaron,
    In the text on page one, it states that the Rumpler Tropfenwagen was powered by a 2.5 W6. Is this a misprint of V6? Or was this a prelude to to todays W8 Volkswagen?

    1. Nope, that’s not a typo. The early Tropfenwagen had a 2,580 cc Siemens & Halske engine with three banks of two cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of it, but I imagine it was rather bulky.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

  6. another expertly written and beautifully illustrated article on these avant garde art deco cars that were way ahead of their time in terms of both styling and engineering-please do an article on the history of De Soto

  7. I own a 1935 Chrysler Airstream c-6 Coupe.
    I’ve been able to determine thru internet research that there were 1975 like models made. What I can’t find is how many of them were standards and how many were deluxe. Does anyone know or know how I can find this info.


    1. Dennis,

      The information I have indicates that the six-cylinder Airstream C-6 models weren’t grouped into standard and deluxe versions, only the CZ Airstream Eight. Your number is what I show for business coupe production, as well.

      1. Thank you for the reply that’s interesting to hear, but I’m still confused. I’ve seen, what I believe are photo’s of some C-6’s with parking lights on top of the front fenders & horns mounted thru the stainless grill work on the fenders below the headlites on ea. side of the 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.

        1. The Deluxe models were introduced after the start of the 1935 model year. At least on CZs, the dual horns were initially standard and then were deleted on non-Deluxe Eights when the Deluxe was introduced; the horn layout you describe sound like the early and late non-Deluxe CZ arrangements. Chrysler’s factory production figures don’t distinguish between Deluxe and non-Deluxe CZs, probably because of the midyear change. Now, I don’t know anything about a Deluxe version of the six-cylinder cars — all of that applies to the Eights.

          Is it possible that some of the confusing pictures you’ve seen were actually mislabeled CZs? A quick image search just now revealed at least once set of photos labeled as C-6s that are pretty clearly late CZ Deluxes (they even have the winged "8" badges on the catwalks) and there was definitely that variation with the eight-cylinder cars. I could see the parking lamps being a dealer or owner add-on, but the horns do seem like a production variation.

          1. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  9. 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).

    1. 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.)

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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?

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

          2. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. Thanks!

          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.”

  13. “Jaray applied for a patent in August 1922 on automobiles with streamlined bodies. It covered essentially any car whose aerodynamic form comprised one partial teardrop shape (the greenhouse) atop another (the body itself).”

    How in hell could a patent office issue any type of license based upon such a vague, non-detailed, and overly generalized application. Chrysler should had taken Jaray’s patent infringement claim to court, as the Airflow did not resemble ‘two stacked partial teardrops‘ by any means.

    Guess no one thought to apply to the same patent office for a vehicle design patent license based upon ‘two stacked rectangular blocks’. With nearly every vehicle at the time having that similar design, every manufacture would had been sued for patent infringement.

    But then again, most engineers and designers at the time would not have had the same audacity as Jaray to submit a patent application with such a claim.

    1. With nearly every vehicle at the time having that similar design, every manufacture would had been sued for patent infringement.

      Look up the saga of the 1895 Selden patent and you’ll see this was pretty much par for the course (as it remains in various other fields today).

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