The future arrived with a thud in 1934, when Chrysler premiered its line of Airflow coupes and sedans. The streamlined car had long been predicted in works of science fiction, but no manufacturer had been bold enough to realize that Buck Rogers-esque vision. Chrysler's engineering team of Carl Breer, Owen Skelton, and Fred Zeder tackled the aerodynamic challenge and got Walter P. Chrysler to authorize design testing in a wind tunnel, overseen by no less an authority than Orville Wright.
The result was more than just a slippery body; the car was a radical departure from virtually all that had gone before. The design of the '34 Chrysler (and De Soto) Airflows took some getting used to, and sadly, the car-buying public just didn't get the snub-nosed, deco look. The shape was underpinned by a new kind of construction that was a precursor to the unibody.
Not only was the look radical but so, too, was the feel. Seats placed between the axles made the ride smoother, and the new location allowed them to be considerably wider, making for a floating living-room-on-wheels environment. Driving was less of a chore, too, with better ventilation and steering wheel positioning that took ergonomics into consideration even before there was such a word. The engine lay over the front axle, twenty inches farther forward than in other Chryslers, creating a very spacious interior.Airflows were offered in a range of body styles and models. The smallest were the six-cylinder De Sotos, while eight-cylinder Chrysler and Chrysler Imperial models offered more power and room. At the top of the line stood the limited-production Imperial CW, the largest car built by Chrysler to that time and the first in the industry with a one-piece curved windshield.
As it became apparent that the public wasn't as enthused about the new cars as were the engineers and the media, the company scrambled to tone down the styling, losing the deco waterfall grille by the second year and modifying design elements to hark back to more traditional, consumer-acceptable shapes.
Owning an Airflow today is tantamount to having a piece of history to yourself. The significance of this design, even though it was a commercial disaster, has reverberated through the decades. Figuratively and literally ahead of the curve, the Airflow remains a true automotive icon for the ages.
WHAT TO PAY
It's still a buyers' market for good Airflows. While special-bodied CW Imperials can command six figures, expect to pay less than $20,000 for a De Soto and between $30,000 and $40,000 for a Chrysler or the standard Imperials.
Five-, six-, or eight-passenger coupe, sedan, or limousine.
29,478 Chryslers, including 112 Imperial CWs;25,737 De Sotos from 1934 to '36.
WATCH OUT FOR
Bad camshaft bearings in I-8 engines and rust in rear structural sections.
Standard Catalog of Chrysler 1914-2000
By James T. Lenzke,Krause Publications, $23.
The Hemmings Book of Pre-war Chryslers
By Richard Lentinello, MBI Publishing, $20.
SPARES AND DEALERS
Andy Bernbaum Auto Parts617-244-1118www.oldmoparts.com
Kanter Auto Products800-526-1096www.kanter.com
Airflow Club of Americawww.airflowclub.com
A 1934 Chrysler Series CU two-door coupe. The first-year car has the purity of the original design, and the two-door is its sleekest iteration.