Chrysler’s Airflow – One of the First Green Cars

In the 1930s, Chrysler Corporation developed and sold the first streamlined automobile. It was technically advanced and was the “slipperiest” automotive design made at the time. Unfortunately, it almost put Chrysler out of business. Here’s the story behind the ill-fated Chrysler Airflow.

According to legend, one of Chrysler’s big three executives, Carl Breer, saw some military aircraft on local maneuvers and wondered why Chrysler’s cars weren’t so streamlined. A streamlined car would slip through the air easier than the standard boxy designs of the day, he assumed, and thus would be more efficient to operate. He soon communicated these thoughts with Walter Chrysler and with Chrysler’s blessing, a design team was formed to research the concept.

Breer, along with fellow Chrysler engineers Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, began a series of wind tunnel tests to study which shapes were the most efficient forms created by nature. Orville Wright, of the famous Wright brothers, was hired as a design consultant. After much work, the finished automotive design was christened the Chrysler Airflow.

The original idea had been that the new Airflow would be introduced under Chrysler’s advanced DeSoto brand only. But as the car began to take shape, Walter Chrysler became increasingly excited about the advanced Airflow design and this lead to the release of Airflows under three other Chrysler brands in addition to the DeSoto line. Basically, Chrysler “bet the farm” on this one and it would prove to be a very poor decision.

Although initial response with the media and the public was very strong for this efficient, slippery car design, it rapidly tapered off. Many said the cars were, frankly, unattractive. The result was that Chrysler Airflow production, which had totaled 10,839 for 1934, fell to 7,751 in 1935. By 1937, the ill-fated vehicle’s final year of production and sales totaled just some 4,602 for the model year.

As a historical side note, it is rumored that Ferdinand Porsche imported an early Airflow coupe into Germany, and using this model for “inspiration”, designed the first Volkswagen Beetle. The similarities between early Volkswagens and the Airflow coupes could be a testimony to this hypothesis.

Source: Elder Chrysler


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