Motoring Trailblazers - Chrysler Airflow

Sun 24th Jun 2018

The world of motoring is hurtling headlong into a bright new future of all-electric, automated, connected technology - and Marty McFly is not behind the wheel! But what were the cars that were ‘back to the future’ of years gone by?

There have been many different trailblazing motors which were seen by the critics to be ahead of their time, and in this series, we will investigate and showcase many of the best in class.

Chrysler Airflow
Sometimes an invention comes along which is so far ahead of its time that the general public can’t get their head around the concept, and despite what might seem like obvious benefits and advantages, that invention simply does not take off.

Enter the Chrysler Airflow - the first ever aerodynamic car, designed in 1934, amid the Great Depression, and its radical design was absolutely stunning, and hard to comprehend for the car buying public of the United States.

Streamlining of vehicles possibly seemed like science-fiction in the 1930s, but as cars began producing speeds, wind-resistance became an obvious hindrance in making vehicles even faster. Airplanes had already battled the conundrum and when Chrysler engineers Carl Breer, Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton conceived a series of wind-tunnel tests to find the most effecient shape of vehicle, it made sense that they consulted flight pioneer Orville Wright.

Chrysler built their first wind tunnel in April 1930 and in testing 50 scale models found that the existing two-box design was possibly the most aerodynamically inefficient design possible - they would actually perform better if turned around backwards!

This ‘backwards’ thinking actual formed part of Chrysler’s PR when the company drove a conventional model through Detroit backwards having reversed the axles and steering gear. The plan was to draw attention to the awful aerodynamics of cars, but the stunt caused panic.

Whilst the Airflow was groundbreaking, it suffered poor sales for a number of reasons, including the first 3,000 Airflows leaving the factory had major defects, including engines breaking loose at 80mph! General Motors took advantage of this and in their own marketing indicated that the Airflow was unsafe.

But there can be no doubt as to the influence on the industry which Chrysler’s streamlined beauty had made. Wind-tunnels soon became the norm and many tried to imitate the design, the most obvious copycat being the Volkswagen Beetle which shares many similarities. Volvo and Peugeot were other European designers to produce very similar cars, in countries where fuel efficiency and economy were more practical considerations.

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