It Was the Best of Cars, It Was the Worst of Cars

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July 2009

It Was the Best of Cars, It Was the Worst of Cars

Seventy-five years ago this September, NSPE was founded. Here's a look at some other engineering news from 1934.

NSPE 75th Anniversary LogoIt Carappears on both Time magazine's Most Important Cars list and its Worst Cars list. In 1934, the Chrysler Airflow debuted as the first mass-produced streamlined automobile. According to stories, Chrysler Engineering's Carl Breer was inspired either by geese in a "V" flight pattern, military planes practicing maneuvers, or lighter-than-air airships when he suggested a streamlined design.

At a wind tunnel built at Chrysler's Highland Park Site, Breer and fellow Chrysler engineers Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton ran tests to study which automobile shapes would be the most efficient. By April 1930, with the help of Orville Wright, they had tested 50 scale models. Now common practice, using a wind tunnel to test automobile design was innovative in their time.

The result was a streamlined body that reduced the wind resistance caused by radiator grills, headlights, and windshields. The car was wood-free and used a steel cage, unlike others in the 1930s. In addition, part of the engine was ahead of the front axle, enabling more-even weight distribution and improved handling.

At the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Airflow Imperial coupe ran 90 mph for 500 miles and set 72 new speed records. And, in a publicity stunt, an Airflow was pushed over a 110-foot cliff in Pennsylvania, landing wheels down, and was still able to be driven away.

Unfortunately the car suffered setbacks such as faulty manufacturing in early models, which caused engines to come loose from their mountings at 80 mph. In addition, competitor General Motors developed an advertising campaign to discredit the Airflow and brand it unsafe.

The biggest problem, however, may have been simply that the car was too far ahead of its time, and consumers were slow to embrace it. Sales were sluggish, with traditional models outselling the Airflows 2.5-to-1. After the Airflow was discontinued in 1938, Chrysler abandoned ground-breaking design and stuck with more traditional looks until the 1950s.

According to Time, which placed Walter Chrysler on its cover in 1934 for the third time, "Chrysler's early experiment in building an aerodynamic car that would more efficiently slip through the air was a commercial flop. But the company's use of wind tunnel testing was visionary…."