Brian Sewell tells the story of a commercial disaster that should have transformed car body design all over the world

Chrysler, one of the younger American marques, celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Immediately successful, it withstood the Great Depression and was, within a decade of its birth, competing not only with cars from Ford and General Motors, but with the premium brands, Lincoln and Cadillac; then, in 1934, came the first hiccup, ironically with a car that should have transformed all cars, the Chrysler Airflow.

Chrysler, one of the younger American marques, celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Immediately successful, it withstood the Great Depression and was, within a decade of its birth, competing not only with cars from Ford and General Motors, but with the premium brands, Lincoln and Cadillac; then, in 1934, came the first hiccup, ironically with a car that should have transformed all cars, the Chrysler Airflow.

The idea of a streamlined car had been knocking about among Chrysler's engineers since 1927; one of them, Carl Breer, built a wind tunnel and discovered that most of the cars he tested were less wind resistant from rear to front than front to rear.

Musing on the serried ranks in Chrysler's car park that all would be more efficient if they went backwards, he decided that the car must lose its noble vertical radiator, separate headlamps and flat windscreen. He moved the engine far to the front, over the axle rather than, conventionally, behind it, with the incidental benefit that passengers in the rear were thus seated within the wheelbase, the seat almost a foot wider and the ride more comfortable.

The chassis was a network of girders, on which a steel cage to support the body panels was easily mounted. It was this body that made the car seem both exciting and outrageous: "breathtakingly different" said an enthusiastic critic, but it was "just too different" for another, and for a third it was a thing of "rhinocerine ugliness".

Other American saloons of 1934 were much the same as in 1924 -- a box for the engine and a box for passengers, planes vertical or horizontal, curves tentative; for grandeur, classic radiators fronting bonnets absurdly long and high.

The Chrysler Airflow, in spite of long straight-eight engines ranging from 4-litres to 6.3-litres, contrived to make the bonnet appear short by turning it, seamlessly, into a quadrant waterfall of chrome, with the headlamps fared into the same pressing. The front wings, tailing into running-boards,followed the same blunt line.

On the standard saloon, the raked windscreen was divided in the centre, its V-plan reducing wind resistance, and the Imperial Airflow Limousine was the first car to have a curved windscreen in one piece. The rear of the car sloped in a line from the roof and the rear wheel arches were spatted. It was not a pretty car, but in at last abandoning the conventions of the horseless carriage, it was the shape of things to come.

It was, however, a disaster in terms of sales; in 1937 Chrysler sent it to the electric chair. One might argue that the Lincoln Zephyr of 1936 owed something to the Airflow, but no other American car dared follow.

Among European designers, however, the Airflow was received with enthusiasm. Peugeot and Fiat were successful with saloons that distantly echoed it, but its two closest offspring, the big Volvo PV36 and the small Singer 11 Airstream, were virtually still-born -- of the latter only 300 of a proposed 750 were made. In Japan the first Toyota mimicked the Airflow, but only three were finished.

The Airflow's body probably helped the car's performance by as much as 10mph. The engines were low-rev sloggers: the largest of which, the 6.3-litre, developed only 125bhp, the power of the most modest Mondeo now; even so, it could eventually lug the Airflow to 95mph when most of its rivals ran out of steam in the mid-eighties. Such performance, however, could be used so rarely that customers found it no more seductive than the streamlining.

To our eyes the Airflow may look as though the front end, greatly inflated, of an Audi TT has been grafted onto the Chrysler PT Cruiser, but on its 70th birthday it seems the most advanced production body of its day. It is a design that deserves respect and a little awe.

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