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1934 Chrysler Airflow. (Kevin Williamson)
1934 Chrysler Airflow. (Kevin Williamson)

Classic Cars

Keeping his Chrysler Airflow all in the family Add to ...

What more appropriate classic car could you bring to a Wings & Wheels Heritage Festival than something called the Airflow?

Chrysler's early 1930s Airflow was not only North America's first aerodynamic production automobile, but according to legend was inspired by its designer watching a formation of early fighter aircraft wheeling above him; it also has a connection to aviation pioneer Orville Wright.

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A 1934 Airflow will be among hundreds of old autos of all sorts and a wide range of aircraft that can be seen at the Canadian Air & Space Museum's Fifth Annual Wings & Wheels Heritage Festival this weekend at Downsview Park in Toronto.

1934 Chrysler Airflow owned by Kevin Williamson.

Kevin Williamson, who lives near Erin, Ont., has been involved with this particular Airflow since his childhood, but the family connection to the model - credited with launching the aero-envelope-bodied era in North American automotive design - goes back even further.

His father had purchased a used Airflow in 1939 and then went off to World War Two, only to find on his return his mother had sold it for scrap. Years later, he found this 1934 CU Airflow in derelict condition, purchased it and towed it home to Orangeville, Ont.

Its straight-eight engine proved to be badly damaged, however, so he went looking for another, which lead to the purchase of a rather special 1935 Airstream (a more conventional model with aero-style-add-ons) with twin side-mount spares and just 38,000 original miles on its odometer.

Williamson says that, once fired up, it ran so well that instead of using the car as an engine donor his father drove it and then restored the 1934. It was completed in time for the first national meet of the Airflow Club of America in Detroit in 1964, which was attended by the whole family.

"So I've been involved with Airflows and this car since about the age of eight," he says. "I knew what Airflows were before I knew what a Chevrolet was."

And despite the allure of hot cars of his own generation he has remained true to the family's Airflow tradition, taking custody of the cars after his father and mother died within weeks of each other in 1994.

Since then, Williamson has added an Airflow of his own to the collection, a 1935 C2 Imperial, the last Canadian-produced example of this stretched-wheelbase type known to exist. Taking up any spare space in the shop are a number of old Ducati motorcycles and a 750 Honda Interceptor.

The Airflow's conception dates back to the late 1920s when Chrysler engineer Carl Breer was - depending on the story you like best - inspired by a flock of geese flying in V formation, the aforementioned "pursuit" aircraft as they were then termed buzzing about above or the shape of that other flying sensation of the era, the lighter-than-air dirigible.

Breer and compatriots Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, assisted by Orville Wright, began conducting wind-tunnel tests in the late 1920s of the square-rigged models of the time and discovered that some would actually be more aerodynamic if run backward.

Soon after, with everything from locomotives to toasters beginning to adopt the Art Deco style and its offshoot Streamline Moderne look, it was no surprise car designers wanted to follow suit. But breaking away from the conservative four-square look of the 1920s wasn't the success Chrysler hoped for when it finally launched the Airflow in January, 1934.

The eight-cylinder Airflow was decidedly different with flowing fender lines, a cascade grille that swept up and over the nose, a V-shaped split windscreen and fender skirts. It was available as a four-door sedan (the rear doors opened suicide fashion) with a 123-inch wheelbase ) and as a stretched Imperial Eight with a 128-inch wheelbase, as well as an XC Imperial Eight with a 137-inch wheelbase and the grand 146-inch-wheelbase, LeBaron-bodied, Imperial Custom Eight. There was also a two-door coupe that looks rather like an early Volkswagen Beetle prototype.

Chrysler's DeSoto brand sold its own four-door Airflows in 1934. An Airflow Six was produced by Chrysler Canada, basically a DeSoto with Chrysler grille, but less than 500 were made for that one model year only.

The Airflow was also different under the bodywork with its engine moved forward over the front axle and a unique airframe-type body structure (that cost a mint to gear up to produce) that allowed the wide passenger compartment to seat occupants ahead of the rear axle.

The Airflow was undoubtedly more aero-efficient and its 122-hp, 299-cubic-inch flathead eight with three-speed gearbox was a potent combination. Chrysler proved that at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1934 when an Airflow ran 95.7 mph over a measured mile and averaged 90 mph for 500 miles, setting 72 records in the process.

But Chrysler's great stride forward tripped over itself right from the start with a delay in introduction, not-so-subtle propaganda from rivals claiming it was structurally suspect, good old-fashioned conservatism on the part of the buying public and, of course, the recession.

Chrysler built the Airflow through 1937, losing money on it all the way, and then pulled back into a shell of design conservatism of its own that lasted until the flamboyant mid-1950s.

Body repair, paint and chrome aside, Williamson says his 1934 is highly original, including the interior. "It's not a show car, but it looks very nice from 20 feet or so."

Its strongest appeal for him is the role it has played in his family history. "In the dead of winter, I'll go out into my workshop with a rum in my hand and the attachment between me and my father and this car is triggered once again. And that's a good thing."

The Wings & Wheels Heritage Festival is at Downsview Park in Toronto this Saturday and Sunday May 29-30 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adult admission is $15 or $30 for families and parking is free. More information is available at: wingsandwheelsfestival.com.

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