The Chrysler Airflow: Engineering Success, Sales Failure

Well ahead of its time, the Chrysler Airflow (also sold by DeSoto and Imperial with the same name), was a major engineering feat.

Chrysler Airflow

In 1934, Chrysler brochures boasted, “It is the first ride-inside motor car... the first really spacious car...the first Floating Ride car...the first car ever to be built that literally ignores the kind of road it runs on... It is the first real motor car since the invention of the automobile.”

Carl Breer, who headed Chrysler’s R&D at the time, realized that the typical automobile shape was no longer well adapted to the cars’ purpose. For one thing, as cars passed 80 mph in top speed, aerodynamics became more important. In his usual “research, then develop” fashion, using expertise from other companies as needed, Breer contacted Ohio engineer Bill Earnshaw, who brought in Wright, the aviation company.

1935 Airflow coupe

They started aerodynamic testing with a small wind tunnel for small models, and moved on to a larger wind tunnel in Highland Park, Michigan. The group discovered that some cars had less drag going backwards — so the Airflow gained a tapered rear, to avoid having a vacuum dragging it back; along with a curved front. The cabin was moved forward, to evade vibrations and keep passengers from sitting directly over the rear axle.

desoto airflow dashboard

The Airflow’s obvious aerodynamic work caught the attention of many writers, but the less obvious work on vibration frequencies and ride were often overlooked. Pushing the wheels to both ends of the car dramatically improved both cornering and ride, as they would in the 1990s “cab forward” cars.

1924 Airflow

The Airflow even eschewed the ladder frame, using a semi-unit-body form, with a frame that ran up the fender line, crossed the cowl, and went around the door openings; the body panels were fitted to it. It was stiffer than body-on-frame cars of the period.

airflow sedan

As Chrysler’s ad-men wrote in 1934:

All the important weights in the car have been redistributed. The engine is over the front axle, the rear seat is 20 inches forward of the rear axle, the passengers ride at the center of balance, suspended between the two axles... the action of the front springs is entirely independent of the rear. Chrysler engineers... studied the “periodicity” (or rate) of spring movement. They designed front springs much longer than ever before, and they discovered ways to produce a rate of spring action which is most natural and restful to human nerves. They called the result “Floating Ride.” 

Under the hyperbole, Carl Breer and his research team did go back to scientific principles, and every one of their changes was based on theory-driven experiment — including the new spring lengths and rates.

airflow features

As for the odd boast, “It is the first ride-inside motor car” — that’s explained by the words, “the body and frame are one. The frame surrounds you with a bridgework of steel,” so that you are indeed riding in the car. It depends on how one defines “the car.” An internal Chrysler report later noted:

The Airflow car, which was one of the most rigid cars that has ever been built, was equipped with a light frame to assemble the chassis units. It also had a very long body extending to the front of the car, with the hood sides reinforced to carry the load from the spring ends. ... Some of the disadvantages of the Airflow were the long expensive body; the extra length for shipping bodies; the difficulty in making yearly front end changes, the expensive service cost in front and repair; the lack of definiteness in structure i.e. some of the loads were carried locally by the frame before distribution to the body.

1934 Chrysler Ariflow

An advanced option was a Philco radio in the dashboard, for $55. It included a superheterodyne circuit designed for automotive use, and operated with the engine off or on (though, being tube-based, it would drain the battery fairly rapidly). The unit had full-sized speakers, four-point tone control, and automatic volume control.

philco radioDue to its high expense, a new innovation — the curved safety windshield — was used only on the luxury Chrysler CW, a nine-passenger sedan which also had the first power partition window.

The Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow were unveiled at the 1934 New York auto show, before production cars were available. This, with the unique styling, was its downfall, as Curtis Redgap wrote:

1934 airflow economy trialTechnically, it was the car that all cars of the future would be based upon. ... The ride was markedly improved, in fact, at the time it was considered just sensational! General Motors had nothing in the works to answer the Airflow. ... They instituted a snarling, vicious rumor campaign against the Chrysler car. Orders for the Airflow began to drop like dead flies.

Chrysler still sold traditional cars, but DeSoto, with only Airflows, saw its sale plummet by 47% (partly due to the higher price required). They quickly replaced the huge waterfall grilles with more conventional looks, but sales stayed low.

The Airflow damaged Chrysler far more than one would think; the company had lost market share, time, and credibility. Chrysler would become overcautious in its products, erasing, to a degree, its main strength; and styling became more important. The key technical lessons of the Airflow would be put aside — though some were picked up outside the company.

1937 airflow

Carl Breer wrote that Airflow’s biggest problem was the long delay between showing the car and building it; Briggs Manufacturing’s desire for more conventional designs (including narrow windshields); and not being able to get a large number of them into owners’ hands to prove their worth. Only 11,000 1934s were sold despite having 20,000 orders when they first debuted.

Breer also pointed out that reverting to the old body-on-frame design cut the price and allowed more variants (e.g. business coupes, regular coupes, big sedans and little sedans). After the failure of the cars, Chrysler showed no interest in implementing Breer’s findings in aerodynamics, which would have increased gas mileage and top speed while cutting noise, until the late 1960s.

The successor to the Airflow? Project AH

Does anyone know more about this, and what happened to it? (The report was found in the archives of the National Automotive Historic Collection without the referenced photos.)

airflow publicity shot

An August 3, 1937 internal letter sent to Carl Breer:

Pursuant to your recent request; given below, is a brief outline of the structural details on the “AH” car, which you had planned on transmitting to Mr. Chrysler.

We are also attaching hereto, report “AH-ST-59,” showing the suggested methods of assembling this car. To our knowledge this report has never been brought to Mr. Chrysler's attention.

"AH" Development

Problem:

The Engineering assignment of the "AH" car was to construct a light weight automobile. Because of the light weight, excellent performance should result with low operating and service cost to the owner. The car was to be structurally rigid in spite of its light weight. The problem of cost was not considered as the assignment was to prove an engineering principle. Cost of shipping to remote sections of the country was to be considered.

1934 Airflow

Procedure:

From our experience with the Airflow structure, it was evident that if the body could be used to directly carry the loads a more rigid and structurally efficient job would result.

1934 AirflowThe Airflow car which was one of the most rigid cars that has ever been built, was equipped with a light frame used to assemble the chassis units. It also had a very long body extending to the front of the car, with the hood sides reinforced to carry the load from the spring ends. This resulted in a long body, expensive to build and ship.

Some of the disadvantages of the Airflow were the long expensive body; the extra length for shipping bodies; the difficulty in making yearly front end changes, the expensive service cost in front and repair; the lack of definiteness in structure i.e. some of the loads were carried locally by the frame before distribution to the body.

It was thought that if the advantages of the Airflow could be obtained in a new construction and the disadvantages of the Airflow eliminated the result would be just about as an efficient automobile as could be fabricated.

It was decided to eliminate the full length frame using only a short stub frame which would serve as a mounting for the engine and front end units. The body was to be of no greater length than the present automobile body and this body was to carry the entire load amidships. Thus the car consisted of two units; a front end unit and the body unit.

The body can be fabricated similar to our present production body; the front end can be easily and cheaply repaired in the even of accident. In fact an entire new unit can be supplied for attachment to the body; shipping of the two units can be effected cheaper than that of an entire car; yearly model changes can be made without effecting body changes. But what is more important is that an efficient structure results in which a light weight is obtained with great rigidity.

The loads from the spring ends are resisted by struts connecting to the roof rail of the body. For normal loading these members are in compression. The body sill and front frame members are in tension and bending due to local loads.

Because of the strut construction the stub frame can be extremely light in weight but yet sufficiently rigid. Photo-725 shows the frame assembly which weighed but 27 pounds. Photo-676 shows the front end assembly. Photo-668 shows the body. The dash and instrument panel, shown in photo-670, has been designed to resist lateral loads due to twisting in the front of the body.

Photo-669 exhibits the interior longitudinal construction showing the roof rail connecting to the rear strut. Photo-672 shows the transverse bracing in the rear to resist twisting loads at the rear. Photo-673 shows the rear strut and the internal frame built into the body over the rear kick-up.

Chrysler Airflow

The body construction shown is the best we knew at that time. However, since the "AH" car, the "AN" car has been designed and thoroughly tested. It is possible to greatly simplify the "AH" construction in detail, maintaining the same basic principles. However, in viewing the photos one sees many structural details and economies in construction similar to our present production body design.

The "AH" car when completed had a road weight of 2348 lbs. The addition of heater, several structural revisions have brought this figure to around 2400 lbs. It should be remembered that this is an experimental car, which with its solder and hand made parts, is probably two perent over production weight.

1937 Imperial Airflow

The performance of the car; the service record over 30,000 miles; the enthusiasm with which it was received by the average engineering department employee; the eager curiousity displayed by passing motorists on the road all point to the successful conclusion of an engineering problem. It is believed that the future is bright for this type of construction but that this future will not arrive until keen competition in weight, structural efficiency, manufacturing and operating costs force it into the market.

This type of car demands new consideration in assembly and must be carefully considered from this angle by men with constructive imagination and a will to accomplish a worthwhile result. Our report AH-ST-59, shows some assembly studies made by the design department of the "AH" in comparison with Plymouth operations.

— H.A. Hicks

Also see: a personal view of the Airflow and other early DeSoto cars

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