The 120-year history of the automobile contains very few moments when pure genius is pounded into steel and offered for sale. On paper, the radical Airflow was destined to be one of those giant leaps forward, but people just weren’t ready to cheat the wind in 1934 when Chrysler and its cheaper De Soto brand introduced the futuristic Airflow coupes and sedans.
Walter P. Chrysler’s industrial empire was a beacon of capitalist ideals in 1925, when his self-named automobile company set a record for first-year sales. Chosen by Time magazine to receive its second “Man of the Year” honors in 1928, Chrysler barely slowed as the stock market crashed in 1929. Even as the Great Depression grew worse, he completed construction of the 1,047-foot-tall Chrysler Building in Manhattan.
In short, Walter Chrysler could do no wrong, and the corporation’s range of well-engineered automotive products – Plymouth, Dodge, De Soto, and Chrysler – was challenging the mighty General Motors for market supremacy by the early 1930s.
Chrysler’s top engineer, Carl Breer, began studying the new science of aerodynamics, or “streamlining,” as it was commonly called then. He built a wind tunnel and soon learned that most contemporary cars moved through air better when facing backward, and that much less horsepower was required to go fast in an aerodynamic body.
In 1932, Breer’s team created a top-secret streamlined prototype automobile called the Trifon Special, the likes of which no one had ever seen. Its frameless construction made it lighter, quieter, and roomier than conventional designs. A sloped hood, one-piece windshield, flush headlamps, built-in trunk, and lack of running boards helped it cut through the wind.
The production version debuted in January of 1934 as the Airflow. Prices ranged from $995 for the De Soto version to $1,345 for the Chrysler. A gigantic Imperial was offered for $5,145.
Chrysler Corp. promoted the Airflow through a nationwide marketing campaign that bordered on sadistic. Its cars were routinely rolled, shot at, and abused for arena crowds during Chicago’s 1933-’34 Century of Progress International Exposition. Chrysler even dropped a sedan 110 feet into a rock quarry for the cameras, after which the damaged car’s doors and windows were shown to operate perfectly. It drove away under its own power. The Airflow shattered every economy and endurance record in its class, including a well-publicized drive from New York City to San Francisco that averaged 21.4 miles per gallon. Its trendy Art Deco styling won numerous awards, such as the Grand Prix at the Concours d’Elegance at Monte Carlo.
Unfortunately, a late start on the ’34 production run, overestimating the public’s acceptance of new ideas, and some early reliability problems killed enthusiasm for the Airflow. Chrysler only sold 10,839 Airflows during the first year; De Soto managed 13,940. It was a paltry sum by anyone’s reckoning. There were cosmetic changes for 1935 and ’36, but Chrysler accepted defeat and turned out fewer than 5,000 for 1937 before ending the model.
The Airflow revolution was over in only four years, but the car’s innovative aerodynamic influence would appear in many designs to come. In 1932, only one automaker used a wind tunnel to sculpt a vehicle’s body; today, every part of every car is extensively tested for wind resistance before going to the showroom.
Local old car enthusiast J.W. Hawkins, of Charlotte, will display his 1935 Chrysler Airflow sedan as part of the Breakthrough Designs display during the April 2-5 Food Lion AutoFair. The maroon four-door was restored in 1990, and Hawkins purchased it six years later.
The spring Food Lion AutoFair annually attracts more than 120,000 visitors. It features more than 50 car club displays and more than 7,000 vendor spaces that offer a huge array of automotive parts and memorabilia.
More than 2,000 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults. Tickets are $10 for adults while children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.
Parking for the event is $5.
For more information, contact the Lowe’s Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.