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The Airflow – An Excellent Automobile that Failed in the Marketplace

The American car buying public has a history of being fickle when it comes to purchasing a new car that is very advanced when compared with the other conventional cars offered at the time. In this case, the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows were designed in much the same way as other streamliners available to the public in the 1934 to 1937 period, but the unique aerodynamic front end styling as seen on the 1936 DeSoto in the lead photo never caught on with car buyers of the time.

Circa 1934 Airflow and Chrysler Sedan

  • Conventional styling of a 1934 Chrysler in comparison with the 1934 Airflow on the far-left.

We have covered the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow story here on The Old Motor in the past and instead of rehashing the story once again, an excellent and informative video is presented below: Chrysler Airflow – how the modern car was born.

Links to our earlier coverage can be found here – Did the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation Design the 1934 Airflows? The Karl Arnstein Mystery, and “Fashioned by Function” – The Revolutionary Chrysler Airflow.

The photos are courtesy of contributor Benjamin Ames.

17 responses to “The Airflow – An Excellent Automobile that Failed in the Marketplace

  1. Great film. Thanks.

    I agree with the commentator above. Easily the most advanced and influential American automobile of all time. Almost all cars from the mid-30’s till the late 40’s are descendants of this car.

    My understanding of the Airflow has been that it wasn’t that people didn’t like the styling. My understanding is that the cars were quality disasters. The car was so different, and the people who assembled them were not properly trained that there were issues like the engines falling out of the cars. Literally.

    Also, as brilliant as Zeder, Skelton and Breer were, why didn’t someone say; “Let’s make the trunk accessible from outside the car?”

  2. Up at the top of Maclay Street in San Fernando California where it meets Harding st. in my youth (1965 13yrs old) lived a man who was an eccentric. He had collected almost a dozen Airflow’s and was waiting for the next car shortage like the one after WWII to clean up on them. He was a goat farmer and the goats would walk on the roofs of the cars. They weren’t in very good shape by 1965. But he had a 1935 Desoto Airflow he would sell. $400 bucks. In my resulting interest I wrote Chrysler Corp. a letter asking for information and they sent me a very nicely done pamphlet of the Airflow story which I still have. Long story short, my parents wouldn’t consider it and I eventually became a Model A Ford guy, and still am. I wonder what ever happened to all those Airflow’s though.

  3. Long ago, reading a publication I can not identify today. I saw pictures of artistic plans of an auto design from 1933. The article claimed that the plans were carried to Germany by Edsel Ford and given to them.

    The shape of the car was rounded in the front and rear. The fenders were rounded over the tires, much like the Airflow.

    Interesting features included a rear engine and rear drive, using swing axle drive.

    The picture showed the car to be conventional sized. However, when imagined as a smaller car, it took on the look of the Volkswagen!

  4. Of all the AIrflow art deco grille designs I think the one for the 36 deSoto was the best., so much so that when I got a lead on one 100+ miles from my home on long island , I drove to Pa. to purchase it. The die cast grille was not broken and was still mounted in the front part of the hood that had been cut off just above the grille with a torch when the car was junked decades before. I got it home, trimmed the torched area a bit neater and then cleaned and painted the steel. For the grille I got off as much loose plating as possible and then wet sanded the die cast to bring up a good luster. that grille sits in my study next to where I research and write my stories for CCCA and Hemmings Classic Car magazines. I look at it every day.

  5. If you’ve ever examined one of these Airflows, you’ll understand that their build and structural quality was unequaled by any other maker, including Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Lincoln; quite a feat. Had they managed to present this design though with a more conventionally impressive grille, they would not have been box office poison, in fact, would’ve been a hit. Ford may’ve brought affordable motoring to the masses, but Walter P. Chrysler brought major league engineering to them: hydraulic brakes, full pressure engine oiling, better bearings, overdrive.

    • I own several Pierce-Arrows and have ridden in an Airflow and they are not equals. Chrysler could not afford to put the finest of materials and attempt to engineer the very best, and sell it as a mid-price car. Chrysler had its success
      by offering more car for the money. Full pressure oiling showed up in the 1901 Marmon. Hydraulic brakes originated
      on the 1921 Duesenbueg and Studebaker and Pierce-Arrow offered overdrive (Auburn and others offered the Columbia rear end). Chrysler had a few firsts during the depression, but made its money by having its engineers
      refine current technology ahead of its competitors. The Airflow is not the first aerodynamic. On Jan.1,1934, the
      Hupmobile Aerodynamic was offered for sale on the same day as the Airflow. It too was designed in a wind tunnel. It
      too had the engine placed forward of the front axel and the passengers rode ahead of the rear axel. Not like the
      Airflow, Raymond Lowey and Amos Northup designed a pleasing looking car. Hupp had the same confidence that
      Chrysler did and offered a conventional car line to hedge their bets. What killed the Airflow, was the intense competition in its price range. The Studebaker President, LaSalle, Packard 120, Lincoln Zephyr, Auburn, Buick,
      Franklin Olympic, REO, Nash Ambassador and others, put a dent in its sales. After all, a buyer who spent hard earned
      depression dollars, wanted to be proud of the impression that his car made on the neighbors.

    • Well, the Louwman Museum searched for an AA for over thirty years. The search had many false starts due to the reported AAs really being a Chrysler Airflow. Then a real AA Toyota turned up near Vladivostok. The only known AA survivor. Internet search for “Double-A Discovery: How Toyota found first production model”. This car is currently at the Louwman Museum.

  6. Mercedes-Benz made in the mid 1930’s, either for production, or simply a prototype , a car whose profile closely matches the Airflow. It’s depicted in a history of M-B autos from beginning to about 2010, which I can’t find at the moment.

  7. For the Mercedes – Benz interest person —who wrote in : In Saugus, California , many years ago as a Guest at Mike Fennel’s Restoration Facility , I had the opportunity to OBSERVE a Thirties-something Mercedes -Benz that was there for being restored: As FOMOCO’s ( UP TO 1940) had obvious” ties to the school of ” streamlining “, — the first of which appeared in 1937 Fords. Another European Company that had “ties to streamlining – was the: Czechoslovakian “TATRA ” which was affiliated with Porsche designs . Dr.Ferdinand Porsche in the 30’s was also prototyping the Model 356, an excellent example of streamlining that was NOT ugly! especially when compared to the Airflows which flow air well but didn’t inspire sales . The ’37 Ford Business Coupe was FAMOUS in High Speed stock car racing as was the later streamlined Hudson !!! Edwin W.

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