Retrotechtacular: Discovering Aerodynamics With The Chrysler Airflow

When you think about it, for most of human history we’ve been a pretty slow bunch. At any time before about 150 years ago, if you were moving faster than a horse can run, you were probably falling to your death. And so the need to take aerodynamics into consideration is a pretty new thing.

The relative novelty of aerodynamic design struck us pretty hard when we stumbled across this mid-1930s film about getting better performance from cars. It was produced for the Chrysler Sales Corporation and featured the innovative design of the 1934 Chrysler Airflow. The film’s narration makes it clear why the carmaker would go through the trouble of completely rethinking how cars are made; despite doubling average engine horsepower over the preceding decade, cars had added only about 15% to their top speed. And while to our 21st-century eyes, the Chrysler Airflow might look like a bulked-up Volkswagen Beetle, compared to the standard automotive designs of the day, it was a huge aerodynamic leap forward. This makes sense with what else was going on in the technology world at the time — air travel — the innovations of which, such as wind tunnel testing of models, were spilling over into other areas of design. There’s also the influence of [Orville Wright], who was called in to consult on the Airflow design.

While the Airflow wasn’t exactly a huge hit with the motoring public — not that many were built, and very few remain today; [Jay Leno] is one of the few owners, because of course he is — it set standards that would influence automotive designs for the next 80 years. It’s fascinating too that something seemingly as simple as moving the engine forward and streamlining the body a bit took so long to hit upon, and yet yielded so much bang for the buck.

31 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Discovering Aerodynamics With The Chrysler Airflow

    1. a lot of todays products look like products of today. There ist always a lot of imitation in a certain era. Original ideas or designs are quite rare. Can also be seen in architecture. Justified or not, this is often called style.

      1. Expecting “style” from a corporation…. LOL… ROFL… if anything looks decent its an accident that escaped the corporate failures running the clownshow.
        Corporations exist for one reason alone… profit… style doesn’t give the ceo a bonus… its excess to requirement.

        1. Eh, you aren’t right in the context of the era. You dislike of “corporations” seems to be a bit too much of a blanket statement. Your comment is probably correct when it comes to toasters, toyotas, or computers – but the automotive industry can be a bit different.

          “Style” was quite an important trademark in the automotive world for many decades. This is why you had so many design firms and coachbuilders like Pininfarina, Zagato, Bertone, Ghia, etc. In fact, many have gone out of business due to manufacturers moving design in-house to save money and have tighter control on the process.

          It would have been much easier / cheaper for companies like Lamborghini, Ferrari, Duesenberg, Bentley, etc to design their car bodies in house (like they do now….) – but because their products were expected to have “style” they outsourced the design. Granted, one could make the argument that the “style” was just another way to ensure profit – but it also would have been cheaper to just poach the designers. Some manufacturers to great pride in the customer knowing their car was “styled” by a famous coachbuilder/design house – even if it cut into the profits.

          There have been many corporations (especially in the automotive world) that existed with profit as a secondary goal. This is why most failed. So many interesting upstarts existed in the automotive industry driven by passion, dream, or some goal (like racing.) Companies like Vector , Mosler , Cizeta , Fisker, etc. Even “great” brands like Ferrari have been in financial trouble multiple times due to the ignoring of profit and the focus on racing success. Bugatti in it’s current guise basically operates at a loss on the cars it builds – it’s existence is just to provide “a feather in the cap” of parent company VW.

          1. “Style” and changing it every year became a thing because corporations wanted a means to ditch support for older cars by an excuse to stop manufacturing parts for them. By law you have to support a car to the end of the warranty of the last unit sold, so by changing the model slightly every couple years they could argue it’s a different car and no longer requires spares. Likewise, when they change stuff often enough, third parties can’t keep up with the generic stuff.

            Otherwise they’d run into the VW beetle problem, where people kept driving the same cars for multiple decades because they were too similar and the parts fit, which eats into the sale of new cars. Nowadays your OEM support ends around 8-10 years of the manufacturing date.

          2. ??? I can still get just about every part for my 14 year old Saab.

            You can most certainly expect “style” from a company that values profits, because style sells cars, pure and simple. These companies all employ top stylists like Bertone, Pininfarina, Fiskar, etc. DeLorean built his entire career on style.

          3. Styles change because tastes change. Old models “look” old and people like “new and shiny” Complaining about basic human nature is like complaining about the weather.

          4. Automobile parts is a high-profit business, much more so than the cars themselves. In the end the car companies make more profit from the parts you buy over the years than they made when they sold you the car. Why oh why would anyone look for an excuse to exit the parts business?

    2. For exactly the same reasons as well. Development of European cars was driven by two points: the fuel octane was higher and better controlled due to the need for high quality fuel for aviation (war planes), so the engines had more power per liter and better fuel economy, but fuel was also limited in availability so they had to consider the aerodynamics right from the start.

      American cars started out as farm tractors, basically, designed to run on low octane fuel at low power density, A Ford Model T was just as much a piece of farm equipment as it was a car – with all sorts of accessories that attach to the driven axle. Gasoline was cheap, cruddy, and it came right out of the ground so there was little consideration over efficiency. Cars were boxy and styled like wagons.

      The next time car design changed fundamentally was in the 70’s with the first CAD/CAM systems and simulations for aerodynamics, and first industrial robots to assemble them. With the limited capabilities of computers at that time, most cars became “prismatic”. This trend was then reversed in the 90’s with improved 3D modeling, so all cars and products became “bubbly” and toy-like with exaggerated round plastic shapes.

      After 00’s all cars became to be dominated with extremely strict fuel economy limitations, so they all turned out more or less the same shape as dictated by aerodynamics.

      1. “Gasoline was cheap, cruddy, and it came right out of the ground so there was little consideration over efficiency.” Gasoline was a waste product of the production of kerosene for lighting and heat, especially after kerosene was standardized by Standard Oil so people’s lamps and stoves quit blowing up.

        1. Yes. Gasoline is what’s left over when they removed the heavier oil fractions such as kerosene. Modern gasoline is further refined, but then it was just left as-is out of the distillation column. It was just whatever had come out of the ground that day.

          When the US shipped gasoline to UK to fuel airplanes in WW1 and WW2, this became a problem because aviation engines need high compression to fly at altitude, and they didn’t know what the fuel was or how it would behave. They needed a way to monitor the fuel quality, hence the octane rating, blending gasoline to get different grades, and improving the quality by further refining.

          In Europe the practice was to refine the gasoline, or it came imported that way already. In the US the problem was how to get cheaper gasoline run better, so they invented TEL.

    3. Before many others it was Aurel Persu’s teardrop automobile…totally ignored in the early aerodinamic cars conversation. One still exist, forgotten in a museum in Europe..Check1923 patent US1648505A.

  1. Interesting. This reminded me of the development of the NACA cowling for radial aircraft engines and I looked it up. It was being widely adopted for aircraft at the same time this car was being designed. The cowl cut drag by 60% on radial engines. I’m sure the Chrysler engineers and scientists were reading the HaD of the time and following these developments. Orville Wright was on the NACA!

      1. Need photos. Was he an inventor type? Or did he make wind tunnels and test theories? The claims of his flights are extraordinary in length and altitude. In fact, achieving the claimed altitudes in the short distances with the engine power he had is frankly beyond credibility. It implies climb rates of over 1000 ft/minute I suspect.

  2. Aero cars of the 1930’s were somewhat influenced by Loewy’s aerodynamic steam engine designs, where reducing air resistance mattered quite a lot as they at least could go much faster than cars regularly go in the US even now.
    The Dymaxion car and the Tatra 77 both had coefficients of drag that were lower than anything produced in the next 70 years, only now being regularly exceeded.

    1. Googling the Tatra 77 leads to articles about its high speed and poor handling making it a death trap for Nazi officers that want to drive fast in their pilfered cars. History is amazing.

  3. “details of military ski exercises in the Danish-Norwegian army from 1767 are retained: Military races and exercises included downhill in rough terrain, target practice while skiing downhill… ”

    I would bet that’s faster than a horse even back then. So that pushes Vman>Vhorse back to 250 years (maybe further if we think prehistoric men used skis downhill)

  4. I wonder how come Tatra 77 hasn’t been mentioned in the article. It was a state-of-the-art piece of automobile engineering at that time and the first aerodynamic car introduced to serial production.

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