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EXCLUSIVE: Did the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation Design the 1934 Airflows? The Karl Arnstein Mystery

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.

Chrysler Airflow design3

  •  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 and Airflow Models

  • 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 Zeppelin and Airflow model

  •  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?

Dr. Karl Arnstein Airflow Model 4

  • 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.

Engineers with models and wind tunnel

  • 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 with aerodynamic sedan

  •  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?

chrysler airflow 3

  •  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.

13 responses to “EXCLUSIVE: Did the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation Design the 1934 Airflows? The Karl Arnstein Mystery

  1. Once again, Man’s insatiable interest in flight has caused yet another fascinating story into the Old Motor’s magazine archives !

  2. Excellent article.
    The “subversive advertising” angle seems to be the most credible explanation to this mystery. The 1930s was an era of innovation. And innovative advertisers were playing around with new ways to influence people. As did the aspiring leaders of a certain European country at the time using innovative propaganda on their citizens with huge and unfortunate success.

  3. Thank you for an important story on the development of the Chrysler Airflow. . Interesting photo of wind testing models. You can see some the styling evolving that would be used on the production Airflows.

  4. I have pictures of a, genuine, (produced by the Design Studio at Chysler), 1:9th scale solid wood model of a 1934 CV Imperial Airflow that is cut longitudinally through the middle, and has a very accurate and detailed suspension (including functioning leaf springs) underneath. The longitudinal cut is like that of the 3rd model on the right side in your article’s accompanying picture: “Grouping of Airflow wind tunnel study models…”. We believe it was originally a wind tunnel model, but is definitely documented to be the “Chrysler Airflow Forensic Model” that was used as an exhibit in the 1935 patent infringement lawsuit by plaintiff Jaray Streamline Corporation of America (Chrysler lost). If you wish, you can see it in whole and taken apart to see the inside in an interview Jay Leno had with me.

  5. As an owner of two Hupmobile Aerodynamic autos, I need to shine some light on Chrysler Airflow claims. First, both the Airflow and the Aerodynamics were introduced on the same day , Jan. 1, 1934. It is interesting that questions arise involving the design of the Airflow. I have a lot of questions about how the Hupp design could be so similar to the Airflow to the extent that they were offered on the same day. First, they were both designed in wind tunnels(separate locations). Both cars had the seating between the axels. Both had the engine over the front axel. Raymond Loewy with assistance from Amos Northup made the Hupp design appealing. They had the widest front seat in the industry, seating 6 adults. The windshield was called panoramic, was in three parts, and gave more vision than any other car. Both the front seat and the steering column are adjustable. Power brakes were stock on the straight eight. Rear stabilizer bars were stock as Hupp was first in the industry in 1932. The 8 cyl. had 5.8 to 1 compression and 120 horsepower from 303 cubic inches. Hupp recessed the spare tire as opposed to Chrysler’s hanging theirs out in the wind. Hupp 8’s had a 127 inch wheelbase. Hupps have a dirigible for a hood ornament( they bring $500). Anyway, I smell industrial espionage though I can’t prove anything. Hupp certainly didn’t have the development bucks Chrysler had and they sold 1 top of the line eight cyl. to every 10 Airflows. Airflow owners should not state that their make was the first production aerodynamic car as that statement is not factual. The company that sold the most straight eights in the world in 1925, must share that claim.

  6. The use of ‘subversive’ and ‘dubious’ seems to me to be prejudicial, indicating the authors personal bias and opinion. Is not ALL advertising designed to goad one into action one might not normally take? Is that subversive? Time has proven over and over again that purely factual ads dont work too well. Not defending hyperbole, just stating the [to me] obvious.
    As popular as Airships were at the time – and WHY must everyone always cite the Hindenburg, why not the Graf of the Los Angeles for example – it would seem VERY advantageous to Chrysler to have trumpeted Dr Arnsteins involvement had he been instrumental. But what do I know…

    • Guy,

      Thanks for your thoughtful post.

      As far s the Chrysler “advertising” campaign is concerned, I think we need to be clear about what we are discussing here. I think there is a big difference between a company trying to “goad” someone to buy their product, and a company clandestinely promoting their product so that the public thinks they are learning a fact, or facts, when they are actually being fed information that may or may not be true. The latter equates to propaganda/brainwashing, whereas with the former, at least the customers have the ability to consider the source and reject the claims as marketing nonsense if they want to.

      Please note, however, that when discussing the campaign, I use the term “potentially dubious” rather than just “dubious.” The reason for this is that I am not sure if what Chrysler did was actually considered dubious at the time because people were probably unaware of what propaganda was. Edward Bernays published his book, “Propaganda” in 1928, and as far as I understand, his book was the first to publicly acknowledge the tactic. Also, I believe the term “propaganda” only gained a negative connotation starting in the mid-1930s–around the time of this campaign or a little after–thanks to Adolf Hitler and his friends.

      And as far as using the Hindenburg versus the Graf Zeppelin or USS Los Angeles, et. al. that is easy to answer. The reality is that if anyone knows the slightest thing about Zeppelins at all, they are familiar with the Hindenburg thanks to the tragedy. Unfortunately, this cannot be said to be true of these other airships so many decades removed.

  7. Articles of some new design or technology routinely showed up in mechanical and tech magazines (Mecanix Illustrated, for example) that read like press releases, but never stating the manufacturer’s name. Usually just “a major electrical machine company has just developed a…..” A few months later you see an “official” release of the product by GE or Westinghouse. I believe this was rather common untill aftet WW2.

  8. For more info about cars and wind tunnels see The Automobile magazine July 2015. The focus is on a Tatra 87 automobile and the results of testing a full size car in a suitable wind tunnel. The link to Zeppelin design and the aerodynamcist Paul Jaray is explored. All very interesting reading about the battle for the lowest Cd. In the early days there was considerable discrepancy between the Cd predicted from model tests and the actual production car performance.

  9. Dear Mr Wayt,
    My name is Gary Romberg. I worked for Chrysler from 1961 to 2002 as an aerodynamic engineer. I became friends with Bill Breer, Carl Breer’s son. He let me read some of his fathers journals. Carl was going home from work one day in the late ’20’s and saw geese flying in a V for formation. This fueled his interest in Aerodynamics. He sent one of his people to Dayton, Ohio to talk to Orville Wright, who told him to build a wind tunnel which he did. Your picture correctly states the Chrysler wind tunnel. Studies were made of 1/10 scale models in the tunnel starting about 1929 or 30.. The tunnel was dismantled about 1947. These studies were the initial design work for the Airflow. I could find no mention of any outside help in the journals.

  10. Mr. Wayt,
    I am working with artist Ken Marschall to create a new Airship painting of the U.S.S. Macon, crossing the California Coast at Bixby Creek Bridge near Point Sur. In the foreground we intend to have a father and son, watching the airship and 2 Sparrowhawks with a Chrysler Airflow (coupe) parked on the side of the road. Thanks for the inspiration from this article. Any information or archive photos of the coupe version of the Airflow, or personal contact information would be greatly appreciated.

  11. It is not yet mentioned that Karl Arnstein was the brother-in-law of Paul Jaray! Both were married to daughters of the Jehle family of Friedrichshafen (home of Zeppelin airships).

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