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November 12, 2008

Airflow and Friends

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Even though national economies contracted during the Great Depression of the 1930s, companies fighting for survival launched a flurry of innovations in an effort to lure customers. Perhaps the most visible case is that of the automobile industry which began the decade offering cars that were boxy assemblages of hoods, fenders, headlamps, spare tires and so forth. By 1940 most of the surviving firms were selling smooth, streamlined-looking cars.

The idea of making car bodies aerodynamically efficient was nothing new; a few prototype aerodynamic cars had appeared as early as the Great War and others followed during the Twenties. But experimental cars and racing machines are not everyday transportation. The first serious attempts to produce aerodynamically refined sedans had to await the mid-Thirties.

The most famous of the first round of aerodynamic cars was the Chrysler Airflow. Production delays, quality problems and sniping by rivals blunted sales, so the car and its DeSoto Airflow sibling were market failures in spite of their introduction of engineering innovations that became standard such as placing passenger seating between the axles.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the Airflow was the styling. From the windshield to the tail, the car looked different from others, but not unacceptably so. The problem had to do with the front end. Contemporary cars -- particularly higher-priced ones that the Chrysler competed with -- had long hoods covering "straight-eight" or V-12 motors. Customers had been trained during the 20s to associate long hoods with power and prestige. Airflows had short hoods and soft, nondescript grilles that didn't suggest much of anything.

Nevertheless, other manufacturers came out with cars that looked similar to the Airflow. They probably started development after the glow of the Airflow's introduction but before the sales catastrophe became apparent.

The only commercially successful Airflow-like car was the French Peugeot 402 and the later, smaller version of it, the Peugeot 202. One possible reason why Peugeot succeeded while Chrysler failed was because the 402's grille-hood ensemble was more gracefully shaped and longer relative to the rest of the body. Placing the headlights behind the grille simplified the design, eliminating an awkward feature of the Airflow.


Chevrolet - 1934
This Chevrolet sedan displays typical 1934 styling. Surfaces are more rounded than those from 1930 and the the grille and windshield are slightly raked, reflecting that streamlining was on the minds of stylists in those days. Being a low-priced car, its hood was relatively short for that era.

Chrysler Airflow - 1934
Besides the rounded front, note the raked, V'd windshield and mildly sloping tail. Side panels and fenders were fairly conventional, though not elegantly shaped.

Volvo PV 36 "Carioca" - 1936
Volvo's version of the Airflow was introduced in 1935 and sales were slow during its production run. The body is a little more rounded than the Airflow's, the grille less so.

Toyota AA - 1936
This was Toyota's first passenger car. Only around 1,400 were built between 1936 and 1943. The windshield is flat, not V'd. The grille is tall like the Volvo's and the headlights are not integrated into the body; these details reduce aerodynamic efficiency.

Peugeot 402 - 1936
The 402 was introduced at the 1935 Paris auto show and entered mass production the following spring. Its low height and better-styled front helped make this the most successful Airflow-type car.

Bendix prototype - 1934
A near-contemporary of the Airflow, this prototype by parts supplier Bendix never entered production. Its long hood, distinct grille, low body and more conventional headlight placement make it the most attractive of the lot, in my judgment (though I like the Peugeot almost as much). Had the Airflow looked like this, it might have been successful. The Bendix can be seen at the Studebaker museum in South Bend, Indiana.



posted by Donald at November 12, 2008


Peugeot is the least attractive of the lot; the headlights are too close to each other, the curved fender/big radius hood curve give it slightly retarded appearance. Like syphilitic nose bridge, dropped jaw and astigmatic eyes stuck directly to either side of a nose.

Bendix looks the best to me. Although I like Toyota windshield more; "bespectacled" look doesn't do it for me.

But best of all are the ladies in the first photo. I woke up with Astaire's "Going out with my honey" in my head today; even got inspired to put on one of my cloche(s). So thanks, Donald, your post is very timely.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 12, 2008 12:37 PM

And along the same line, was there any sight in railroading more appealing than a post-WW II era streamliner with a matched set of Budd cars pulled by a set of GM Elecro-Motive E or F series locomotives?

Posted by: Sgt. Joe Friday on November 12, 2008 2:15 PM

Does aerodynamic streamlining much matter? I mean, cars spend most of their lives travelling quite slowly - streamlining might help, I suppose, to keep noise down, but does it really improve economy or performance much? I guess that it's largely just a question of styling. Does anyone here know?

Posted by: dearieme on November 12, 2008 4:32 PM

Re the Peugeot 402: I wonder if having the headlights set close to the center affected drivability at night. I don't know of any other cars with such a format. Or with the lamps behind the grill.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 12, 2008 8:26 PM

Don't know about automobiles, dearieme, but for streamlined trains the big fuel (and therefore cost) savings came from lightweight construction, not streamlining per se. A typical heavyweight (i.e. old style) car weighed around 85 tons, its streamlined replacement about 60 tons. So that's 300 fewer tons for a typical 12 car train of that era. Not burning the extra fuel starting and stopping is where the savings were, not so much in improved aerodynamics, since a steel wheel on steel rail = very low rolling resistance.

Posted by: Sgt. Joe Friday on November 12, 2008 8:31 PM

Thanks, Sarge.

Posted by: dearieme on November 13, 2008 1:57 PM

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