Chrysler’s ugly duckling inspired a lot of copycats
by Michael Lamm. Published by permission.
The Chrysler Airflow never did sell well, mostly because people didn’t like its styling. To Depression-era car buyers, the 1934 Airflow seemed totally out of sync with the traditional designs of that day. Its hood was too short, its face looked droopy and sad, and it had too many awkwardly rounded corners. Even a series of later facelifts failed to make Airflows more popular.
And yet major automakers throughout the world—especially in France, Japan, Sweden and Germany—took inspiration from the Airflow. Automotive engineers recognized immediately that the Airflow was clearly ahead of its time—and ahead of them. They hadn’t yet realized that the Airflow would stumble in the marketplace, but they were aware that beneath those radically different lines stood a set of engineering advances that made the Airflow state-of-the-art. Here’s what the industry could see in terms of innovation:
- The use of bridge-truss, all-steel body construction.
- Moving the engine forward and tipping the rear down to lower the driveline, the driveshaft tunnel, the floor hump and, in fact, the entire car.
- Seating the passengers between the axles for a less bouncy ride.
- Lengthening the leaf springs, again for a more comfortable ride.
So throughout the world, auto manufacturers quickly set about copying the Airflow, both stylistically and mechanically.
In France, Peugeot developed and introduced its Model 402 for 1935. The 402 looked unmistakably like an Airflow, but its distinguishing feature was its headlights, which stood semi-hidden inside the grille. However, except for its body design, the 402 was strictly conventional. It used a four-cylinder, two-liter engine; three-speed transmission; rear-wheel drive; and mechanical, cable-operated brakes. The 402 eventually offered a number of body styles, among them a retractable hardtop convertible. The series continued in production until 1942.
In 1936, Toyota (then called Toyoda) brought out its first passenger car, the Model AA. Legend has it that the Toyoda company purchased an early DeSoto Airflow, took it totally apart, reassembled it and basically copied its body design. Even so, the Toyoda AA’s engine was more like Chevrolet’s, and much of its chassis took inspiration from Ford components.
Another car company heavily influenced by the Airflow was Volvo. In 1935, Volvo brought out the PV36 Carioca, a Swedish luxury sedan that looked much like an Airflow except for the grille, which stood more upright. The Carioca used Volvo’s L-head, 3.7-liter Six at 86 horses, a three-speed transmission and rear-wheel drive. Because this was a relatively expensive car, it sold only about 500 copies before it was discontinued in 1938. Volvo employed a number of senior engineers who’d worked in Detroit in the 1930s and ‘40s, so several of its cars tended to look American, among them the Carioca and more especially the postwar PV444 and PV544, which reflected the body design of 1941-48 Fords.
The 1937-40 German Adler Typ 10 again looked remarkably Airflow-like. The Typ 10, also known as the Adler Autobahn, was a little smaller than the DeSoto Airflow. It used a flathead 2.5-liter engine and four-speed transmission with the gearshift protruding from the center of the dashboard. Adler offered the Typ 10 in several body styles, including a cabriolet and a two-seat sportster.
Here in the U.S., two years after the Airflow came out, Ford introduced the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. The Zephyr’s body structure was developed by the same company, Briggs Manufacturing, that built Airflow bodies, so the similarity wasn’t a total coincidence. Thanks to the work of designer/engineer John Tjaarda, Briggs had developed and shown a concept car at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair that heavily influenced the Zephyr. The Zephyr’s bridge-truss body was engineered much like the Airflow’s, but its styling captured just the right combination of tradition and modernity. American car buyers not only accepted the Zephyr but made it an instant success. Without the Zephyr, Ford’s Lincoln division probably wouldn’t have survived the Depression.
It’s been argued that another car that owed its shape to the Airflow—at least to some extent—was the VW Beetle. There’s no proof of this, but in 1933 and again in 1935, German engineer Ferdinand Porsche visited Detroit and was given tours of Briggs’s assembly plants. It’s possible but never confirmed that Porsche borrowed the Beetle’s shape from the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow coupes.
And no discussion of Airflow-like cars would be complete without a mention of the Czechoslovakian Tatra T77. Tatra introduced the T77 in March 1934, a few months after the Airflow came out. The two cars, though, were developed independently, and the fact that they looked alike was coincidental. The Tatra T77’s engineering was considerably more unconventional than the Airflow’s. It used an aircooled, 3.4-liter hemi V8 mounted in the rear, had a central tube frame and four-wheel independent suspension with swing axles in the rear—the general layout used by Porsche for the VW Beetle. The Tatra T77’s styling did not inspire a lot of imitators.
But the Airflow’s did, and I’m citing only a few manufacturers who noticeably copied the Airflow. And they did so, admittedly, with mixed success. On the engineering side, most automakers, both here and abroad, did adopt some of the Airflow’s mechanical advances. By 1935-36, most car companies positioned front and rear passengers between the axles, whereas previously, the back seat had stood directly over the rear axle, making for a higher roof and a jouncier ride. Carmakers also lowered their body silhouettes by using Chrysler’s trick of moving the engine forward and tipping it downward, and even General Motors went to all-steel bodies in 1937.
So while many people have called the Airflow a failure—and it certainly was commercially—its styling inspired a host of imitators, and its engineering influenced the auto industry worldwide. By that standard, the Airflow turned out to be not an Airflop at all but rather a resounding success.