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.

9 Comments
  1. Bill Porter

    Thank you Mike. Ugly though the Airflow certainly is, most of its stylistic offspring, and I would include the Fiat Topolino in this list, were considerably better looking. The Peugeot and the Fiat are actually very handsome, the latter having been called the most beautiful small car in the world. One answer may be that the offspring, with few exceptions, did not solve the nose, the headlamp/grille in the same unfortunate way the Airflow did. (In my opinion the added narrow nose in later Airflows and the Toyota was not a good idea.) Also the Airflow used ogee fenders, an element from the 20s. Bad idea. The newer derivatives used teardrop fenders. Thanks again, Bill

  2. This is an amazingly thought-provoking review of the Chrysler Airflow design, and accurate in my estimation. Good insight in this investigation of the design and its effect upon other marques.

    Phil Payne

  3. Although I’m a big fan of Mike’s, I’m unfortunately going to go against him on the basic premise of this particular piece.

    There was, no doubt, some copying of the Airflow that happened, but it’s influence in my estimation is highly overrated and almost entirely inestimable. Numerous cars prior to the Airflow’s debut in advertisements in Dec. of 1933 had the same basic theoretical shape (or something extremely close to it) as it did (Yes, it is true the Trifon prototype existed in 1932, but no one outside of Chrysler knew about either it or the Airflow prior to Dec. of 1933).

    Here are a few of the more closely aligned examples of cars that preceded the Airflow in awareness and even its development:

    1931 Tjaarda Sterkenberg (not built but HEAVILY promoted in publications world-wide)
    1931 Mercedes 120H
    1932 Zundapp Type 12 by Porsche
    1933 Standard Superior by Ganz
    1933 Tatra V570 by Ledwinka
    1933 NSU Type 32 by Porsche
    1933 Tjaarda Briggs Body Dream Car (based upon the 1931 Sterkenberg)

    My favorite quote relating to this very subject comes from The Automobile Engineer (UK) in Feb. 1934, reporting on the NY Auto Show that year and the debut of the Airflow:

    “For some time conjecture has been rife concerning the 1934 models of American cars, and from the advance particulars it appeared that streamlined designs would be very numerous. The New York Show, however, which was held last moth, showed that […] in fact, nothing in this direction has yet been developed in America which as not already made an appearance in this country.”

    Simply put… the Airflow was nothing English automakers had not seen before, and the same sentiment was certainly shared by central Europe’s automakers based on the list I have provided above.

    The reason all of these cars look alike is no coincidence, though. The essence of all of these design, including the Airflow, can be found in Paul Jaray’s well-known German patent from 1922 (1927 in America). Jaray even formed a company in the USA in Dec. of 1930 and began heavily promoting his design to the American auto industry at that time.

    And as Mike has previously reported, Chrysler settled out of court with Jaray at the recommendation of Walter Fishleigh, who determined that the Airflow did, indeed, infringe upon Jaray’s patent.

  4. Michael Lamm

    Hampton – thanks for your comment. I should point out, though, that I didn’t mean to imply that the Airflow was the first car to put forth either its appearance or its engineering advances. It wasn’t. But it did mark a huge leap above most production cars of that day, and the advances came from a respected American manufacturer. Thus the Airflow was in a position to influence and encourage more automakers around the world than, say, a Zundapp or even a Tatra.

    The other thing about the Airflow’s influence that I admire was its modern driving feel. The Airflow was at least 10 years ahead of most contemporaries in the way it felt and rode (I say this from personal experience). The body was very tight and quiet, and I believe that the car’s overall road feel had to be another quality that influenced engineers worldwide. The Airflow was, despite its look, a genuinely great car. -Mike

  5. John Sanderson

    I think that the 20-20 design hindsight loses the context of the times. At the time the design was compared to some of the respected design objects of the time, like trains. There was little design development at that time, since no one really had a styling department except GM. This was an engineering driven exercise to advance the state of the art. Unfortunately, there was a lot of launch problems that delayed deliveries and I suspect the pricing, even in the modest Desotos, put a damper on Depression era sales. The fact was it was over-engineered in the body structure, (Briggs?) caused manufacturing problems, that were not well worked out before launching. With the benefit of subsequent inspired designs, eventually the most pleasing proportions and look would be acheived. Ford and GM had little to compete with for at least 3 years, except adding “streamlined” touches to the same architecture. The Airflow affected the vehicle packaging on all cars for the next 35 years plus. Funny thing, is we are going to the bulldog face on so many SUVs and even cars now…

  6. Stan Mott

    Stalin’s Secret Weapon

    In 1943 Hitler’s Wermacht was hammering Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Stalin desperately needed a secret weapon to save it. Sokerov provided an answer: The bizarre Chrysler Aeroflot carplane. Based on the 1935 Airflow and the MiG-1 fighter, its purpose was to fly commandos behind German lines to drive around and shoot people. Never flew. But became the world’s fastest armored snowplow.

  7. Michael Lamm

    Stan – I do remember Stalin’s semi-secret Kreisler Aeroflot (I think he used the German spelling to infuriate Hitler), but he also underwrote the development of three other Airflow derivatives.

    One had a chin spoiler that scooped up dissidents in Red Square, flipped them over the roof of the car and deposited them in a trailer attached to the rear bumper.

    Another served as Stalin’s personal drink mixer. His minions filled the interior of a DeSoto Airflow with vodka and other liquors, then drove the car over a steep cliff and, as it tumbled end over end, the drinks got nicely mixed. I’m sure you’ve seen the film clip.

    Uncle Joe’s final Airflow was a miniaturized version of the real thing, about the size of a Cyclops. Stalin ordered 1000 of these MiniFlows built, then assembled a battalion of Soviet troops, dressed them in clown suits, crammed 10 into each of the tiny cars and shipped them off to the front lines. As the clown troops emerged from the MiniFlows, the Germans began laughing so hard that they couldn’t aim their weapons, and the Soviets easily took them captive.

  8. Stan Mott

    Michael – You are absolutely spot on re Stalin’s sinister variations of the 1934 Chrysler Airflow.

    I can add still another evil use of that unfortunate machine. One of the worst tortures Stalin devised was tying up dissidents, installing props to keep their eyelids open, and forcing them to stare continuously at the front end of a real 1934 Chrysler Airflow. It was only a matter of time before they all mentally collapsed. They’d confess to anything, or do anything that Stalin demanded…after that mind altering experience.

    Fortunately, Piero Martini discovered these poor devils in 1945. He brought many to Italy and bestowed upon them the therapeutic hospitality of good food, wine, song and intense exposure to the esthetically perfect lines of the Cyclops II. All quickly recovered to lead happy, productive and worthwhile lives.

  9. Stan Mott

    Michael – I should add that I have indeed seen the film clip of Stalin’s DeSoto Airflow drink mixer going over the cliff. One of the dissidents Martini saved in ‘45 smuggled a copy out of Russia and into Italy. As a result, we here in the Automobili Cyclops SpA Propaganda Department put it on a loop and play it for New Year’s Eve parties. Instead of the ball coming down in New York City on TV, we slip in the clip so everyone sees the airborne DeSoto tumbling end over end to ring in the New Year. Everybody just loves cars here, and mixed drinks, so I am sure you can appreciate how much the clip livens up our New Year’s Eve parties.

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