Orville Wright helped design the Chrysler Airflow

Did you know that the average car in the 1930s was 30% more aerodynamic going backward?

In the 1930s, with the start of the Great Depression, product engineers and manufacturers looked to design as a means to drive consumer products sales. Of the 1930 trends in design, streamlining was associated with prosperity and an exciting future, and became a widespread design style for airships, railroad engines and cars, buses, and other modes of transportation. Orville Wright worked with the Chrysler Corporation to streamline their cars.

Orville helped design the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow.

Automobiles in the 1930s had too many front facing vertical surfaces to be aerodynamically efficient. Flat, vertical windshields, grills, headlights, and radiators blocked the air the cars were trying to drive through. And the common two-box design and construction—wooden frame and body panels on top of the car’s steel frame—made cars too tall.

Chrysler Engineers Carl Breer, Fred Zeder, and Owen Skelton began a series of wind tunnel tests to study automobile shapes and aerodynamic function. They enlisted the father of American wind tunnel testing in scientific research, Orville Wright, to develop their wind tunnel and methodologies.

Chrysler built the wind tunnel in Highland Park, Michigan, and by April 1930, the engineers and Orville tested at least 50 scale models. The research first showed that the typical two-box automobile design was aerodynamically inefficient.

The average car of the day was actually 30% more aerodynamically efficient going backward. (More on that later.)

The result of the tests were the 1934 Chrysler and Desoto Airflow models. These cars were so technologically advanced, many of the engineering, design, and construction principles are still in use today. With the first unibody construction, the Airflow took advantage of advancements in engine placement, weight distribution, spring rates, and handling dynamics. The results were lower, faster cars with superior driving and handling performance.

Jay Leno owns an Airflow limousine.

Chrysler had a few publicity tricks up their sleeves. Before the Airflow was officially introduced to the public, they took an early model, reversed the axles and steering gear, and drove the Airflow around the city of Detroit backwards. Chrysler also pushed an Airflow over a 110 foot cliff. When the car came to a rest at the base of the cliff, Chrysler engineers got in the car and drove away. The DeSoto set 32 stock car speed records, including the flying mile at 86.2 miles per hour. The cars were sleek and fast and smooth.

Walter Chrysler made the cover of Time.

The Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow models were technological and engineering marvels. They were, however, not a commercial success. Car buyers in the Great Depression were extremely wary of the risks inherent in such radical new designs, and traditional Chrysler models far outsold the Airflow.

To this day, when it comes to presenting specifications for your next new car, you’ll find drag coefficient specs are as common as engine displacement and miles per gallon. To increase gas-milage and improve performance, automotive manufacturers now sweat the details in testing a car’s aerodynamics in the design stage. And Orville Wright lead the way in those first auto aerodynamic tests in the development of the Airflow.

Photo credits:
1937 Chrysler Airflow four-door sedan on display in the showroom of the Chrysler Building, New York City, N.Y.
Fay Sturdevant Lincoln, photographer

Published in: Eyes of the nation : a visual history of the United States / Vincent Virga and curators of the Library of Congress ; historical commentary by Alan Brinkley. New York : Knopf, 1997.
From the Library of Congress

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