When Car Design Is Ahead of its Time: Jay Leno - Article
August 5, 2010 12:00 AM
Jay Leno argue that the bold, design of the 1934 Chrysler Imperial CX Airflow—a car that was considered unattractive in its day—was just ahead of its time.
Yet it was a sales disaster.
It's hard to sell something before its time, and car buyers simply weren't ready for the Airflow's slick shape.
The Airflow owes its existence to Carl Breer, one of Chrysler's most celebrated engineers (the others were Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton). Breer spent six years researching and developing the revolutionary car. In consultation with aviation pioneer Orville Wright, he conducted wind-tunnel tests that showed the average car in the 1930s was 30 percent more aerodynamic going backward.
Besides its streamlined shape, the new Airflow tried to sell safety, but auto safety just didn't sell cars back then. Most auto ads in that era were not instructional. They were poetic, like the 1923 ad for the Jordan Playboy that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. The illustrated ad, titled "Somewhere West of Laramie," mentions little about the Jordan's mechanical attributes, but describes how a stylish cowgirl—who's taming a bucking horse—would find kinship with the Playboy. Or the famous "He Drives a Duesenberg" ad, where they never even showed the car and instead featured an obviously wealthy man seated in a private library. It was all about lifestyle.
In contrast, Chrysler produced a widely viewed promotional film that showed an Airflow being pushed over the side of a cliff. When it landed, the reinforced roof hadn't collapsed, all the doors still opened, and a guy got in it and drove it away. It had survived a crash that would probably have demolished other cars of the era, which still used wood in their bodies. The Airflow had many other safety features. Its steering column goes right into the dashboard—not between the clutch and brake pedals—so the shaft doesn't interfere with the driver's feet. The body had 40 times the rigidity of previous Chryslers; a strong tubular frame meant you were essentially driving in a steel cage.
The passenger compartment has so many art deco touches, it looks like you're sitting in the Chrysler Building in New York. It had such wide, upright seats that Chrysler had to produce them on a special assembly line. The front-engine layout locates all occupants optimally between the front and rear axles. The chassis was designed with long, soft leaf springs that provide an incredibly comfortable ride. Chrysler, which did anything it could to get prospective buyers to go for a convincing test drive, called it the Floating Ride.
My Imperial Airflow is wonderful to drive—more like a car from the 1940s or early 1950s than the '30s, due to its smooth ride. It came with a 323.5-cid, 130-bhp straight Eight and automatic overdrive. You lift off the gas at 38 mph and step on the clutch, and fourth gear automatically engages. Like the Duesenberg, it's one of the few cars from the '30s that you can drive 70 mph on the freeway and not feel rushed or pushed. And you know it's aerodynamic, because there's virtually no wind noise.
For years, nobody wanted Airflows. Prices were quite reasonable, and still are to this day. There's an Airflow club that's very active. But not many cars survive. Chrysler sold only 11,292 Airflows in 1934, and just 67 were CX Custom Imperial eight-passenger limos like mine. They designed a new hood and a conventional grille for the 1935 models to make them look more like the other cars on the road, but it was all for naught, and production ended in 1937 after only four years.
Which just goes to show that it's hard to sell something before its time. The Airflow was a complete change from its predecessor, and the styling was so extreme that people were really shocked. To them this round thing looked like something from another planet. It still does. The 1933 Chrysler Imperial resembled a Duesenberg or a Packard. In 1934, the new Airflow looked like a giant jellybean.
And that's why I like it.
By Jay Leno
Via: Published in the June 2010 issue of Popular Mechanics.