Car of the Week: 1934 De Soto Airflow

The De Soto automobile, named for the 16th century Spanish explorer, filled a mid-price void in the Chrysler Corp. lineup when it was announced on May 6, 1928. Introduction of a line of seven 1929 models occurred three months later, on Aug. 4. However, some of the new De Sotos were titled as 1928s.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Story and photos
by David Temple

The De Soto automobile, named for the 16th century Spanish explorer, filled a mid-price void in the Chrysler Corp. lineup when it was announced on May 6, 1928. Introduction of a line of seven 1929 models occurred three months later, on Aug. 4. However, some of the new De Sotos were titled as 1928s.

At about the same time that the De Soto was announced, Chrysler Corp. was attempting to purchase Dodge Brothers with De Soto being “plan B” in case the purchase could not be arranged. For a time, the purchase was in doubt; however, an agreement was finally reached, thus Chrysler had both De Soto and Dodge, leaving the company with what has been called “excess baggage.” However, the purchase of Dodge gave Chrysler a much needed additional foundry and greatly expanded its dealer network.

For the money, buyers of the first De Sotos received a car with a 100-hp inline six-cylinder engine and standard features that were either extra-cost options or not even available on other mid-priced cars. Such De Soto features included Lockheed hydraulic brakes, ignition lock, full instrumentation, brake lamp, steering-hub controls for the headlamps, automatic windshield wiper (yes, wiper — not wipers) and an oil filter (indeed, an oil filter was often an option on some automobiles into the 1950s).

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During the first 12 months of production, the De Soto accounted for 81,065 sales; this was a figure that would stand as a De Soto record for almost 30 years. During the last model year of De Soto, production had barely begun on the 1961 models when Chrysler discontinued the marque after just 3034 were built. Between its launch and demise, a number of fascinating De Sotos were built and are now collected by enthusiasts. Among them is the aerodynamic Airflow, a model also offered in the Chrysler line with minor cosmetic differences. With the launch of the Airflow in early 1934, Walter P. Chrysler announced, “I believe it will bring about a whole new trend in personal transportation.” Ultimately, aerodynamic design was adopted, but Mr. Chrysler was about a half-century too early with the trend.

Over the decades, Chrysler Corp.’s 1934-’37 Airflow has been maligned as a sales disaster much like Ford Motor Co.’s Edsel of the latter 1950s. The general story told is the Airflow had styling that was not accepted by the public and was, therefore, a sales flop. It was ultimately a failure and a hard lesson learned for Chrysler Corp. While that is essentially true, there is more to the Airflow story than a car with a front end few liked. It’s important to note that the Airflow was a well-engineered car, and owners who had purchased an Airflow were enthusiastic about their car. While the styling was radical for the era, the initial resistance to it began to fade after the inaugural 1934 model year, although not nearly enough.

There were additional factors that didn’t help the Airflow’s introduction. Rumors swirled that the Airflow was a “lemon” as a result of the four-month delay in its release and indeed, the first cars off the assembly line had problems. Some who had ordered an Airflow cancelled their orders over these issues. The extensive retooling required to produce the Airflow took longer than expected and Walter P. Chrysler’s desire to get the Airflow into production quickly led to problems such as an overly fragile grille. Such problems were eventually resolved.

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Further hurting sales were the efforts of Chrysler Corp.’s competitors to discredit the Airflow. To counter this, an Airflow was pushed off the side of a Pennsylvania cliff that stood over 100 feet high. The car took a beating, but it survived and was driven away. This demonstration was impressive, but it still did not help get sales going in this tough period to sell cars. The United States was still amidst a severe economic depression, of course.

Regardless of how well designed the Airflow was and the fact it was promoted by such celebrities of the era as baseball legend Babe Ruth and actor Dick Powell, it had styling that was simply off-putting to too many potential buyers. As a consequence, De Soto dropped from 10th to 13th in sales. Other than price, it turned out styling was a primary consideration in the purchase of a new car. The idiom “Do not judge a book by its cover” was often ignored by car buyers. Plymouth and Dodge had intended to offer their version of the Airflow, but this plan was wisely cancelled.

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Despite a disappointing result for the debut of the Airflow, company president Walter P. Chrysler thought he had justification to continue offering it. In a December 1934 meeting with Chrysler and De Soto officials, Chrysler was asked if the Airflow would be continued. He firmly stated that it would and went on to defend his decision: “Nearly 100,000,000 miles of travel, the comments of over 24,000 owners, and tens of thousands of other people who have seen and ridden in the Airflow Chryslers and De Sotos in the last eight months offer an emphatic answer to the question: Will the Airflow design be continued in these two lines of cars in 1935? They certainly will.

“The Airflow design in less than a year has created an entirely new public conception of what the car of the future will be. There is no longer any question as to the popularity of this design. People thought it radical at first. And so it was. But as more and more of these extraordinary automobiles have passed into owners’ hands and have been demonstrated to the public, it is not their appearance that impresses them, but the new kind of ride made possible by this design. And now, like many things that are different from what people are used to, people have also become enthusiastic about the design itself.

“We spent five years in experimentation with the Airflow before it was introduced… All the laboratory and road tests showed that Airflow gives a measure of roominess, riding ease, safety, economy, roadability, and beauty not obtainable in any other construction… a short time ago, we got in touch with every Airflow owner. We asked just two questions — ‘How do you like your Airflow? Do you have any complaints?’ The response to these questions was the most amazing thing I have encountered in all my years of manufacturing motor cars. We received thousands of letters, some of them two or three pages long, brimming with enthusiasm. The things that owners found out about these cars surpassed our own claims. Not the least amazing feature of the situation was that such a large percentage of owners replied to our inquiry… It takes unusual enthusiasm to inspire a letter of praise.

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“On appearance we gathered suggestions not only from owners, but from the tens of thousands who crowded into Chrysler and De Soto salesrooms to look at the Airflow. Here again, our engineers … have spent the months searching for refinements and, if possible, improvements in line which would still preserve the qualities that make the Airflow great.

“The result was that six months ago I put my OK on Fred Zeder’s engineering plans for 1935. I studied these plans for a good many weeks and I want to tell you that Chrysler and De Soto cars for 1935 will be the finest motor cars in the history of the corporation.”

The streamlined body of the Chrysler and De Soto Airflow allowed three people to sit in front comfortably. In addition to the streamlining, the engine was moved to a position over the front axle, thus providing a much more balanced weight distribution, a feature, like streamlining, that was well ahead of its time.

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Other major features of the Airflow included the first use of unitized body construction in the United States; the first use of aerodynamic design to increase speed based on wind tunnel testing; a wide body allowing for comfortable three-across seating; and superior weight-distribution (55/45) providing an exceptionally smooth ride.

For 1935, the De Soto Airflow received a new grille and hood which extended forward in a V-shape. As had occurred the previous model year, the De Soto Airflow won the coveted Grand Prix Award for aerodynamic styling at the Concours d’Elegance at Monte Carlo. Mechanical improvements included the adoption of the hypoid rear axle and relocating the anti-sway stabilizer bar from the rear of the car to the front. Such changes were justifications for Walter P. Chrysler’s boast that the 1935 models would be “the finest… in the history” of the company.

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Also new for 1935 was a companion model to the Airflow with more conventional styling dubbed “Airstream.” This new model was offered in both the Chrysler and De Soto lineup. It sold much better than the Airflow with a sales ratio of about 3:1, and in so doing, helped to offset the dismal sales of the Airflow.

The Chrysler Airflow was terminated with the end of production of the 1937 models; only 4,600 found buyers that year. De Soto dropped the Airflow at the end of the 1936 model year during which only a paltry 5,000 units were sold. Despite Walter P. Chrysler’s assertion that people had become “enthusiastic” about the Airflow, the sales figures showed there were far too few people who were willing to buy one. Thus, a well-engineered, smooth-riding car passed into history due to styling that was unappealing to too much of the public. Today, though, there are enthusiasts who are attracted to the Airflow because it is different and quite uncommon.

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The featured 1934 De Soto Airflow coupe is owned by Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) member Mike Ames of Arlington, Texas. Ames has an exquisite collection of automobiles with the Airflow being a relatively recent purchase. It came into Ames’ collection in October 2016 from the estate of a Perrysburg, Ohio, resident who had overseen the car’s restoration. It is painted the striking Eel Gray color, one of 11 colors offered and one of five metallic colors for the 1934 De Soto line.

While the Chrysler Airflow has Full Classic status in the CCCA, the De Soto version does not, thus Ames’ car has not been entered in club events. Even so, his car had won numerous awards in a variety of other shows before he purchased it. Ames’ De Soto Airflow is one of only five listed in the National DeSoto Club’s roster, and of those, is the only one in No. 1 condition.

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