By Hampton C. Wayt: Did Dr. Karl Arnstein, chief aerodynamicist of the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation of Akron, Ohio – sister company to the German-based Luftschiffbau Zeppelin that built the ill-fated Hindenburg – design the 1934 Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows?
The official story of the Airflows’ development, as told in Chrysler marketing of the time and in Carl Breer’s later autobiography, states that Chrysler engineers created the cars’ shape with the help of a wind tunnel constructed with the advice of Orville Wright. No talk of outside help is ever mentioned in regards to the designing of the car itself, and the impression is that Chrysler pioneered the aerodynamic automobile completely on its own.
- Walter Chrysler with an Airflow model—the same model being compared to an airplane in an unacknowledged press photo two months earlier.
Yet, other accounts challenge the idea that Chrysler worked alone. Dr. Alexander Klemin, aerodynamics professor at New York University, has since been credited as the man who created the Airflows’ body’s structure. And Beverly Rae Kimes goes into some detail in The Classic Era about the many rumors surrounding who designed the cars at the time of their debut. So, were Chrysler’s revolutionary automobiles designed solely in-house, or did they have some help?
- Dr. Karl Arnstein in his office at Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation in late 1933 with three different Airflow models—two months before the Airflow cars’ debuted in New York.
Three photographs that I recently discovered seem to add another layer of mystery to the Airflow saga. The images, which were published in newspapers over almost two months before the cars’ New York Auto Show debut, feature Dr. Karl Arnstein in his office at Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation with three different Airflow wind tunnel study models—all three essentially identical in design and construction to those found in a well-known Chrysler publicity photograph of the same time. Yet, curiously, the corresponding press releases attached to the reverse of the photos never mentions the Chrysler Corporation.
- Dr. Karl Arnstein comparing one of the Airflow models with the U.S.S. Macon atop his desk.
At first glance, these releases seem to indicate that Arnstein, who designed both the USS Macon and USS Akron airships, was the models’ creator. Statements describe the doctor inspecting the miniature Airflow studies “which have adopted many of the aerodynamic principles developed by him in aeronautical engineering,” and noting “the similarity between the car’s lines and that of the model of the U.S.S Macon resting atop his desk.” Based on these descriptions, it would seem that the renowned zeppelin designer was a leading player in Chrysler’s famed project.
Upon second reading, though, Arnstein’s authorship of the cars is not guaranteed. The language utilized by the releases appears to be carefully composed to suggest a heavy link between Arnstein’s aerodynamic work and the models without actually explicitly stating as much. And furthermore, one of Dr. Arnstein’s comments dismisses rear-engine placement—a subject a Zeppelin designer is unlikely to have any professional opinion on, and a remark that mimics those made by Carl Breer on the subject around the time of the Airflows’ debut. So, what is going on?
- A close up of Dr. Karl Arnstein and one of the models. Note the positioning of the Goodyear-Zeppelin penholder.
The real story of the Arnstein images may actually be one of promotion as opposed to progeny. Apparently Chrysler, in order to prepare and excite people for the advent of their unusual Airflows, contracted famed designer Norman Bel Geddes to execute a campaign on the cars’ behalf for the months leading up to their debut. Design historian Jeffrey Meikle, who reported this promotion, mentions that Bel Geddes hired celebrities of all kinds to be photographed with Airflow automobiles and to espouse their “fine” qualities. Arnstein, who was nationally renowned at the time for his Goodyear-Zeppelin airship work, was certainly an excellent candidate for promoting Chrysler’s new streamline car.
The problem with this assertion, however, is that there is actually no identifiable Airflow campaign in the months prior to the cars’ release. None of the celebrity images I have been able to find along the lines that Meikle describes, for example, appeared more than a couple of weeks before the cars’ debut in January 1934. And, in fact, no Airflow images of any kind were found prior to Dec. 27, 1933—a month after the release of the Arnstein images.
- Grouping of Airflow wind tunnel study models and personnel next to Chrysler Corp.’s wind tunnel.
Further investigation, though, does appear to uncover an Airflow promotional campaign in the last few months of 1933—albeit one of potentially dubious ethics. Several different press photos, all of which feature Airflow wind tunnel models, were discovered published in assorted local newspapers across the country. In all cases, the images and the language of the attached press releases place the models in contexts clearly designed to legitimize and promote the features of the as-of-yet unannounced Airflow cars. And as with the Arnstein photos, neither Chrysler nor the existence of the Airflows is ever mentioned. The result is one where the public was fed pure pro-Airflow propaganda without their realizing they were viewing paid advertisements!
- Alexander Leydenfrost, one of Norman Bel Geddes’ top designers with a “completely aerodynamic sedan” that promoted Chrysler Airflow-like features in the months leading up to the cars’ debut in New York.
But were these images part of the Bel Geddes campaign, or were they something else? Another discovery does suggest that Bel Geddes could have been responsible for these slight-of-hand promotional images. In this instance, Alexander Leydenfrost (spelled here as, “Leyden-Frost”), one of Bel Geddes’ top designers at the time (who would also soon work on the redesign of the 1934 Airflow grill), is shown in a press release with a teardrop car design credited to him. Just as before, the accompanying article espouses and predicts Airflow-like features for the future of the automobile industry without any mention of Chrysler (or, Bel Geddes, for that matter). But the real clincher is the fact that the Leydenfrost article is used as a lead-in to an article on the well-known Harry Hartz backward-driven automobile stunt—another Chrysler-funded Airflow promotion where the corporation’s name was not mentioned at the time it took place.
Bel Geddes or not, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the Arnstein photos are actually part of subversive Chrysler Airflow promotional campaign. Yet, one problem does stand in the way of this conclusion. Dr. Klemin, who is credited with the Airflow’s understructure, also personally endorsed the Airflow at the time of its debut. What that means is, if Klemin really did contribute to the Airflow as he is credited, he promoted the merits of his own design without acknowledging it as such. And if this scenario is true of Klemin, could it not also be possible for Arnstein?
- Images from a periodical comparing an Airflow model to “the new winter, 1933 streamlined hat.”
So, are the Arnstein Airflow images the record of a man attempting to gain recognition for his contribution to a project? Or, are they part of a dubious propaganda campaign to push potential buyers into Chrysler showrooms? Perhaps one of The Old Motor’s readers can conclusively lay this mystery to rest.
But more important than finding a solid answer to our questions may be the opportunity these uncertainties give us to challenge our perceptions of the Chrysler Airflows’ accepted history. Thinking about the situation further, it would be surprising if a major corporation such as Chrysler did not seek out aerodynamic and other external experts when designing their “completely new” automobile, would it not? And along the same lines, perhaps we should ask what Chrysler Corporation and Carl Breer would have had to gain by promoting the idea that they had developed the automobile completely on their own?
Let us know what you think.
Editors note: Hampton C. Wayt is an automotive and industrial design historian and historiographer who was inspired to pursue his career in 1998, shortly after his parents were killed in a car accident. He has dedicated many years to traveling the country to meet with retired automobile designers and is an expert in factory design artwork and models. Among his other interests are streamlining, the automobile design process, the interrelationship of technology and art, coachbuilding versus mass-production, and the legacies of designers. He received his master’s degree in design history from the Bard Graduate Center, New York, NY, in 2011.