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No. 255:
Car Design

Today, we give shape to the automobile. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The new Chrysler Airflow was called the "Car of the Future" in 1934. In one leap, it took us from the four-square shape that Ford had set with his Model-T to a radical streamlined form. America was quite unprepared for its rounded shape. Before 1934, the flat fenders of the Model-T had given way to ones that looked like inverted tablespoons, and cars were nearer the ground. But little else had changed. Then the Chrysler Airflow! It was so far from known automobiles it could have come from Mars.

Even if it were beautiful, the public would've had trouble accepting it. And few people have ever called it pretty. The car, which looked a little like a VW Beetle, was a grand commercial failure. The streamlining itself didn't even work. Designer Dick Nesbit tells us that Orville Wright did wind-tunnel tests and found the Airflow offered more drag than previous cars had.

Yet "Car of the Future" became a catchword. One of my early childhood memories was competing to be the first one in my family car to spot one of those odd little machines on the road. If it failed commercially, it didn't fail to seize the imagination. Imitators sprang up right away. The Lincoln Zephyr and the 1938 Cadillac picked up the theme. But the streamlined form mutated. Car bodies -- once round -- now developed a kind of linearity. Strong horizontal lines tapered into tailfins.

The tailfins went out of fashion in the 1960s, but the horizontal lines stayed. By the early '60s, America found a car design it liked, and little has changed in the 30 years since. Streamlining had finally led us to a shape we haven't seen fit to leave.

Nesbit concludes by saying:

The design evolution of the American automobile continues, as vigorous and promising as ever.

But he's an automotive designer who looks closely at small changes. I'm not; I see cars with a layman's eye. The Chrysler Airflow was the greatest single change I've ever seen. It was a failure, but we couldn't take our eyes off it. It really was the "Car of The Future," but in an odd way. It started the only major change that automobile design has undergone.

So the first generation of cars imitated horse-drawn carriages and culminated in the Model-T. The second generation of auto users saw the evolution of today's form. That evolution began with the Airflow and finally settled down on bland cars like the 1960-vintage Ford Falcon.

Now we're ending the third generation of the automobile. It began with the straight lines of the 1960s cars and, to my inexpert eyes, today's cars seem pretty much the same. Of course, we're also starting the fourth generation. I wonder if that could mean that we're finally about to see another reshaping of our automobiles as radical as the old Chrysler Airflow. I wouldn't be too optimistic.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Nesbit, D., et al., American Automobile Design: 1930-1980. Collectible Automobile, Special Issue, March 1986.

I wrote this episode in 1989. Just about that time, a new modification in form was indeed taking place. It was the arrival of the wedge shape. Cars now tend to taper slightly from rear to front. Whether that marks a significant stylistic change from the cars of 1960 I shall let you, good readers and listeners, decide.


Image of a 1935 Chrysler Airflow provided by Gaétan Bouthillier, Member of The Airflow Club of America