Chassis number: 6078798 Engine number: SE8458 In 1934, the entire DeSoto lineup featured Chrysler Corporation’s new streamlined Airflow design. Walter P. Chrysler expected the streamlined and futuristic Airflow models to take the nation by storm and reap huge profits. A design far ahead of its time, the Airflow featured built-in headlamps and wider front seats that could accommodate three adults abreast. The hood was extended past the front axle, and the rear fenders had full fender skirts. There was also a rounded radiator grille and a modified veeshaped windshield, further styling features that set this car apart from anything ever seen on American shores. Although a truly unique car for the time, the Airflow was not widely accepted. Introduced at the height of the Great Depression, only 1,520 DeSoto coupes were built in 1934. Of them, reportedly only 15 are known to have survived. This example is one of the few to have been restored. It is finished in silver with the correct brown cloth interior and is show-ready. The stylish “waterfall” grille accents this unique — but short-lived — modern marvel.  

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1934 DeSoto Airflow coupe
Number Produced:1,584 2-door coupes
Original List Price:$995
SCM Valuation:$50,000–$60,000
Tune Up Cost:$150
Chassis Number Location:Plate on center of instrument board
Engine Number Location:Upper left side of cylinder block between
Club Info:Airflow Club of America
Alternatives:1934–36 Chrysler Airflow, 1936 Cord 810 Sedan, 1932–34 Auburn Custom/Salon Twelve Coupe
Investment Grade:C

This car, Lot 215, sold for $52,250, including buyer’s premium, at the RM Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa auction on January 20, 2012.

It has often been stated that the inspiration for the Airflow originated from Chrysler designer Carl Breer mistaking a flock of geese for a squadron of airplanes and observing the difficulties an airplane has in pushing itself through the air.

This prompted Breer to investigate the effects of air resistance on an automobile. On the advice of Orville Wright, a wind tunnel was built, and it demonstrated that a contemporary automobile was 30% more efficient when driven backwards. Looking down from his fourth floor Chrysler Building window, Breer observed, “All those cars in the parking lot have been running in the wrong direction.”

Breer and his staff determined that a teardrop design generated the least wind resistance. The first steps included reshaping the body and relocating the rear seat ahead of the rear axle. The engine was also moved so it was over rather than behind the front axle. Thus, the car’s center of gravity and the floor of the passenger compartment were lowered. The multiple-piece hood was also eliminated, replaced with a once-piece unit. In effect, it was much safer overall package than the outgoing model.

Hot new design meets a cold market

The Airflow was introduced at the New York National Auto Show in January 1934 to celebrate Chrysler’s 10th anniversary, and the car “That Literally Bores a Hole through the Air” was initially ordered by the thousands. But production glitches delayed deliveries, and when sales failed to meet expectations, Breer blamed those delays and technical problems for the car’s poor market performance.

Total production for the 1934 DeSoto Airflow was 13,940 units in the four body styles offered. This compares with 22,736 cars that DeSoto produced the prior year, before the new design was offered. The 8-cylinder Chrysler Airflow met a similar fate, however, as only 10,833 were sold in four series. If Chrysler had not retained the more conventionally styled 6-cylinder CA/CB series, total sales would have been one-third of 1933’s total.

Why did the Airflow plummet?

Yes, this was the heart of the Great Depression, but Buick sales almost doubled during that same period, as did sales for LaSalle, which clearly indicated that the automotive industry was climbing out of the doldrums. So why was this new design not an instant hit?

Simply put, the Airflow was ahead of its time, making it a very difficult car to sell. The avant-garde look was simply not considered fashionable to buyers. And the Airflow also attempted to sell safety in an era when it wasn’t of much concern to the average buyer. The new design quickly became an object of ridicule, and designers rushed to alter the waterfall grille. By 1937, the Airflow was in the history books.

Enthusiasm doesn’t equal value

There is an adage that if a car was not popular in its day, it is not collectible today. But don’t mention that to the 600 avid members of the Airflow Club of America. However, their enthusiasm exceeds the values of their cars. The Chrysler Custom Imperial Airflow CS and CX are recognized by the Classic Car Club of America as Full Classics, but with production limited to fewer than 200 units, they are infrequently offered for public sale.

There are several examples in the ACC Premium database, with sold prices ranging from the high $20k range to the $52,250 realized with this sale. This 1934 Airflow was freshly restored, and when I examined it at the RM site, I could find very little to fault.

The auction company’s presale estimate was $50k to $75k, so the consignor was, I’m sure, hoping for a higher sale price. There was no question over the quality of this car’s restoration, but when “Fashioned by Function” is not fashionable, it’s a tough sell — and this DeSoto Airflow sold for the going rate

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