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The Chrysler Airflow, widely considered the first streamlined car of the 1930s, nearly put Chrysler Corporation out of business.  The story involves Walter Chrysler with eyes so firmly fixed on the future that he essentially ignored what the consumer wanted.

According to legend, one of Chrysler’s big three executives, Carl Breer, was watching a squadron of military aircraft on maneuvers and wondered why cars weren’t so streamlined. He communicated this with Walter Chrysler and with his blessing work got under way.  Breer, along with fellow Chrysler engineers Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, began a series of wind tunnel wind tunnel tests, with the cooperation of Orville Wright to study which forms were the most efficient shape created by nature that could suit an automobile. Chrysler built a wind tunnel at the Highland Park site, and tested at least 50 scale models by April 1930.

The original idea had been that the Airflow would be introduced only as an advanced DeSoto automobile. But as the car began to take shape, Walter Chrysler became increasingly excited about it and this lead to the release of four different Chrysler Airflows. This would prove to be a very poor decision.

Although initial response was very strong, it soon tapered off.  Many frankly said the cars were ugly. Plenty of design changes were executed but they didn’t help much. Chrysler Airflow production, which had totaled 10,839 for 1934, fell to 7,751 in 1935. Only one Airflow series was offered for 1937, the ill-fated vehicle’s final year of production and sales totaled just 4,600 for the season.

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.

And then it was all over. Walter Chrysler, fell very ill during this time and the Chrysler ship was a drift for a while. While the Airflow may have signaled Chrysler’s attempt to set itself apart from other manufacturers, the failure of the car in the marketplace caused the company to take a more conservative path with its future models. Until the debut of Virgil Exner’s “Forward Look” cars of the mid 1950s, Chrysler’s corporate styling was conservative and mainstream.

Source: Brown Daub Used Cars and Trucks


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