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Challenging the ‘me-too’ mediocrity with the bravely new is a path strewn with danger.
But Chrysler must have thought it was on to a winner when in January 1934 it unveiled its Airflow – ‘the first real motor car since the invention of the automobile’, according to Walter Chrysler.
Streamlining was the design fad of the time, from toasters to locomotives, and keyed in with artistic trends such as Art Deco and Bauhaus.
Meanwhile, automotive engineering was emancipating itself from horseless-carriage crudity and rejecting unyielding cart springs, the heavy separate chassis, and rod or cable brakes.
An ‘aerodynamic’ car that was technically as bold as it was aesthetically in tune with the moment: how could Chrysler’s new ‘Fashion by Function’ model conceivably fail?
Yet fail the Airflow did. Abandoning the controversial waterfall front for 1935 made no difference.
In its cheaper De Soto form, just 13,940 were sold in 1934, against 22,736 more conventional De Sotos the previous year. That figure crashed to 6275 cars in 1936, the De Soto’s final year.
The more expensive Chrysler version registered 11,292 sales in 1934 and managed just 4600 units in its farewell year of 1937. In total, and after continual facelifts, a mere 55,155 of all types would find buyers.
The story had begun when, to celebrate his 10th anniversary as a car manufacturer, Walter Chrysler had wanted something special. His engineers, meanwhile, had been questioning, exploring, experimenting.
The company was ahead of its rivals in having a high-grade engineering department, led by a trio known as ‘The Three Musketeers’ – Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer.
Having already come up with the ‘Floating Power’ flexible engine-mounting system, the threesome’s next field of investigation was aerodynamics.
With input from the Wright brothers, a scale wind tunnel was built – and an astounding realisation was that the cars of the time were more aerodynamically efficient when put backwards through the tunnel.
Led by Breer, a car was designed around aerodynamic requirements, starting by lowering the build of the body by moving the rear seat forward and dropping it down in front of the axle rather than having it sit above it.
But the Airflow wasn’t just a wind-shaped styling exercise: uniquely for a mainstream American model, it was an integrated design.
The new body lent itself to semi-monocoque construction, so was given a perimeter frame that was a part of the shell. Bolted to this was a sketchy chassis to locate all of the mechanicals.
The result was a structure that was 150-200lb lighter than a conventional separate-chassis design, with 40% improved torsional stiffness.
Finally, the weight distribution and the periodicity of the springs were carefully studied, resulting in a loping ride said to be in harmony with the rhythm of the human stride.
Such was the car unveiled at the 1934 New York Auto Show, as a straight-eight or straight-six Chrysler or a cheaper and smaller-engined 3956cc six-cylinder De Soto.
The first signs were good: according to Breer, there were more orders placed at the show than any other car had ever achieved.
But the Airflow was slow into production. Advanced multiple-spot-welding machinery required more development time.
Making the stylish chrome-plated tubular-framed seats meant mastering new techniques for a car factory. And there were strikes at suppliers.
By the time production started, in April 1934, many would-be buyers had walked away, aided by whispering campaigns by rival manufacturers.
There were, of course, the inevitable teething problems, too.
The received wisdom is that, whatever its shaky start, the main problem was that people took against the Airflow’s looks.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is true, but Carl Breer was not convinced. ‘[Had] we been able to put some 25,000 Airflow cars in the hands of owners during the month of January immediately after the show, we felt certain that Airflow styling would have been accepted,’ he later wrote.
‘It would have forestalled rumours from developing about the car’s reputation.’
Whether Breer’s view is right or wrong, the Chrysler certainly left its mark. It informed car design in many European countries, while in the USA its influence filtered through piecemeal to mainstream automobile design – in matters of body/chassis construction and suspension as much as in aesthetics.
So much for historical context.
To see how the Airflow rates in the real world, what better than to pitch a rare British survivor against one of the cars it most probably inspired, Volvo’s PV36 Carioca?
Adam Moody’s six-cylinder Airflow is in fact a 1935 De Soto model, but as a British-built Airflow assembled at the company’s premises in Kew it was called a Chrysler, and it has some detailing borrowed from its sister marque – such as the triple-bar bumpers of ’34-season US Chryslers.
Owned by the Moody family for 50 years, the car is in unrestored original condition, barring two repaints.
It’s a magnificent beast in the richness of its detailing as much as in its imposing, hunkered-down shape.
In place of the Chrysler’s original waterfall prow, and flanked by oval headlamps, there’s the 1935 De Soto’s narrow grille – which has more than a little of the Chrysler Building about it, that Art Deco masterpiece.
There are those stacked-blade bumpers front and rear with their ‘teardrop’ vertical embellishers, a line of bonnet-side louvres that could have come off your grandmother’s stove-enamelled oven, a chromed spline to emphasise the split rear window, and a stylised emblem on each wheel spat.
Add in the streamlined doorhandles, ‘Chrysler’ lettering on the hubcaps, the leaping-gazelle mascot and those torpedo rear lights on their beefy cast-alloy brackets, and you have a mix heady enough to delight any lover of ’30s exuberance.
The interior continues in the same register with its tubular seats – pure Bauhaus, with their exposed side framing, complete with little armrests in the case of the rear seats.
There’s plenty of legroom in the back, where passengers have a full-width footrest, and the seats are trimmed in buttoned leather, presumably a detail of British-assembled Airflows.
By the same token there’s a cloth headliner, rather than the avant-garde Formica item on US cars.
Up front there are gold-faced dials on the painted dashboard, and switches with curved brass trim plates; a clever detail is that the front quarterlights are not only winder-operated, but can also be locked so they descend with the side glass.
The only false note is a utilitarian three-spoke steering wheel that looks as if it has been plundered from the Dodge Trucks parts bin.
What, though, of the Carioca?
That the style of the Volvo was informed by that of the Chrysler seems self-evident, despite the relatively short interval between the Chrysler’s launch and the March 1935 unveiling of the Carioca.
There are also traces of the 1935 model-year ‘aerodynamic’ Hupmobile about the front end – quite possibly as a result of the designer, Ivan Örnberg, having spent time working for Hupmobile.
It should not come as a surprise that Volvo – then a fledgling manufacturer that in 1935 made fewer than 800 cars – should have turned to the United States for inspiration.
In Sweden, US cars dominated the market, and Volvo’s mission was to build itself up by offering products that were pitched at those who would otherwise buy an American vehicle.
Using an 84bhp, 3670cc sidevalve straight-six, as found in Volvo’s other cars and its trucks, the Carioca was built around a separate cruciform chassis and boasted coil-sprung independent front suspension, hydraulic brakes, and a semi-elliptic rear end controlled by an anti-roll bar.
This was a relatively advanced specification for the day, befitting what was seen as an upmarket model, but at the same time it eschewed the radical rethinking behind the Chrysler’s design.
Although this cannot be confirmed, the Carioca seems to have been manufactured only in 1935 and 1936.
Offered as an upmarket alternative to the company’s conservatively perpendicular PV658/PV659 mainstay, just 500 were laid down – plus one chassis bodied as a drophead by an outside coachbuilder – and the last was sold as late as September 1938.
Again it is held that the looks proved too radical for the intended clientele, although a price in Sweden 1000 kroner higher than that of a De Soto Airflow must also have been dissuasive.
Volvo learnt from the exercise. The basic recipe was right, but simpler and less expensive mechanicals were required, along with less challenging aesthetics.
The result was the PV51, introduced in December 1936.
Powered by the same 3.7-litre engine, it had a beam front axle, a more orthodox front-end treatment, simplified interior trim and a body that, while based on the style of the Carioca, lost the more costly details.
Gone were the wheel spats, the split windscreen and the two-piece back window.
In addition, the body was now all steel, as opposed to the more labour-intensive shell with some wood framing that was used on the Carioca.
At 5800 kroner, against 8500 kroner for a Carioca, this was the model that set Volvo on the road to becoming a serious player in the Swedish private-car market.
In preparing the ground for the PV51 and its successors, the Carioca was thus a more important car for Volvo than its sales figures suggest.
But how does it stack up against the Chrysler?
As Andrew Anderson’s example, the only one in the UK, positions itself alongside Adam Moody’s De Soto, the physical kinship is flagrant, despite the more sober frontal treatment.
The shallow turret top, the two-part glazing front and rear, the fall-away back end, the integrated headlamps and the rear spats with their Deco emblems: we’re on familiar territory, notwithstanding the Volvo’s four- rather than six-light configuration.
Missing, though, are many of the De Soto’s spirited details. There are two-piece vee-shaped bumpers, slightly oval headlamp surrounds, a rather splendid bonnet mascot, and that’s about where it stops.
The same goes for the spacious interior, which is plain and workmanlike, the only glitter provided by the chromed rail topping the front seat.
Bonus point: the Volvo has external access for its decently sized boot.
It also has a heater, an interesting counterpoint to the De Soto, which does without – but which, with its disappearing front quarterlights and its windscreen with two opening panes, is doubtless suitably in tune with rather different US needs.
It’s easy to forget that how the two cars look is only part of the story. How do they drive?
Easy, lazy power is a given, notably for the Airflow, which not only offers 100bhp but also, at 31cwt (1575kg), is 188lb (85kg) lighter than the Volvo.
Unsurprisingly, then, the De Soto offers broad-shouldered and torque-rich performance – without ever descending into the rumbly roughness of an early V8 Ford.
The long and loose gearlever slots in sweetly and, once you’re rolling, you can let the freewheel do its stuff and achieve snatch-free and smooth changes up and down – although the three-speed gearbox does have synchromesh.
The automatic overdrive cuts in almost undetectably, knocking back the revs for relaxed cruising.
This is the core of the De Soto’s character, flouncing along the road on its gently soft suspension, that 4-litre ‘six’ turning over unhurriedly, the steering – heavy at low speeds and with a poor lock – holding the car on a steady line with no undue effort required.
Dial in the effective hydraulic brakes and you have a beguiling package for traversing the Far West…but maybe not the West End.
“The overdrive makes it long-legged and it’ll roll along all day at 50-55mph – although there’s a surprising amount of wind noise, given that it’s supposed to be streamlined,” says Moody.
“The long springs deal well with bumpy roads even if the car does roll a bit. I think the springs have settled, though, and this has upset the steering’s geometry and made it heavier.
“For a 1930s car it drives extremely well, but with those seats it’s quite weird – a bit like riding about on a sofa.”
The Volvo plays a different tune – one that’s more sober and Swedish.
The Carioca feels taut, riding more firmly and with a touch more zing to its responses. There’s the same generous low-down torque, and again the big sidevalve is pleasantly smooth.
The steering is loose and slightly vague, the brakes short in travel and efficient, the gearchange sticky in action.
There’s none of the automaticity of the De Soto’s freewheel-plus-overdrive transmission, so you have to take your pause-in-neutral time as you work through the three-speed gearbox with its leisurely synchromesh, if you want to avoid clashing the gears.
But once you’re under way it’s a relaxing old beast – and will surely be better with a bit of attention to the steering.
For a company that had only been making cars for eight years, and whose production of passenger vehicles up until 1934 was less than 5000 in total, the Carioca is a laudably resolved machine.
“It’s well built and advanced for its time, but quite heavy,” says Anderson, who found the car in the United States and has been gradually getting it into good running order.
“It’s not as good as the later pre-war Volvos to drive, or my post-war PV60, but it picks up speed quite well and the engine is very smooth.”
It’s clear that the De Soto benefits from Chrysler’s rethinking of American design norms.
Differently, the Volvo has a less showy approach to modernity that seems well judged for a young company needing to poach buyers away from more conventional machinery.
In their native habitats, either car would surely have given satisfaction to its 1930s owner.
But they would have to have had the bravery of an early adopter to have parked the De Soto or the Volvo on their driveways, and suffer the puzzlement and mockery proffered by their unappreciative neighbours.
Such are the perils of being a pioneer.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to Sywell Aerodrome