As a youngster, my family lived in a neighborhood on Idlewild Street in Pittsburgh where row houses were more prevalent than individually built, single family units. We lived in a middle row house. So infrequent was automobile traffic that playing in the street was as safe as using the sidewalk. All of us kids played games in the street or drawing with store bought chalk and/or pieces of soft rock we found nearby.
In addition, within our block, there were few parked cars, at most maybe four or five. For the most part most of these cars seemed permanently parked. Yet for some reason, I fondly remember noticing an automobile, which even as a child, I thought was strange looking-funny looking for a car, that is.
Thinking back on those days, I decided to use the Internet to find out what kind of car it was because there seemed to be none like it. The car was Desoto Airflow built in or around 1934. It was a truly unique machine for its time-so different that people did not trust it as sales records have shown. In fact, it is often listed with the Edsel as one of the worst selling cars of all time (time.com/time/specials/2007). Click through the pictures to see different views of this automobile.
The Desoto Airflow’s Positive Features
This automobile was the first true example of streamlining. The windshield, instead of being one piece of glass set squarely against the wind, was now divided down the center. Because it was gently swept back at an angle, it allowed air not only to slide upward but sideways and over the body with reduced resistance.
In order to cool passengers, the two separate front windshields could be unlocked and cranked out from the bottom. This allowed a rush of air into the Airflow to surge over front seat passengers. With their seats not resting on the floor, this same air could pass under front seats then up and over rear passengers before exiting through rear windows.
Although the opening windshield windows seem like a great innovation at first, I’ve wonder about it for this reason. After a long trip, if you inspect the front grill and windshield of your own automobile, you see a variety of bugs and insects splattered there. I would not want to be wiping these off my face or clothing, particularly at high speed.
The Airflow also had uni-body construction, which meant that during assembly, instead of the entire passenger compartment being lowered down and bolted to a heavy frame, it became the frame, an integrally welded single network of cross members and struts.
Without the heavy steel frame of other automobiles, the Airflow was much lighter but equally as strong. “In one demonstration, an Airflow sedan was sent over a 110-foot cliff. Falling end over end over the face of the cliff, it landed on its wheels at the bottom — whereupon it was driven away under its own power” (auto.howstuffworks.com).
Since the engine had been moved forward between the front wheels, passengers gained more compartment room. In addition, the uni-body construction allowed passengers to step in and down to reach couch-like seats because the floor sat several inches closer to the ground than most cars. Passengers no longer had to sit and bounce above the rear axle because it, too, had been moved. Now it sat much farther toward the rear. Passengers could ride in genuine comfort.
Engineers dared to remove separately mounted headlamps. Actual air flow studies showed how these caused turbulent resistance forcing air to bounce off and then move around them. Instead, the Airflow’s headlights were a smooth, integral part of the blunt, rounded front end. Even the radiator grill sloped upward and back, streamlined to reduce wind resistance.
The Desoto Airflow’s Negative Features
Interestingly, the Desoto Airflow was a real disappointment to its Detroit auto makers. Records show that while initially there were many orders, the car never became popular. In fact, the public seemed to distrust it. It appeared far too different compared to the automobiles of that era. People, may have thought the car was simply “funny looking,” just as I did as a young boy.
Some may have thought the skirt panels covering the rear wheels made the car look like it wore spats. In the end, although the Desoto Airflow was a futuristic automobile with a host of futuristic innovations, in its day and age, its odd looks and false rumors about the car doomed it even though it performed very well (auto.howstuffworks.com).
Now, the reason why this funny looking car sat parked down the far side of Idlewild Street makes sense. If it was purchased in 1934 and I was born in 1939, I would probably have played on the sidewalks and street when I was at least five or six years old. Simple math tells me that this odd looking black Desoto Airflow was probably ten years old when I stared at it in 1944. In those days, car engines and bodies rarely lasted more than a few years. What I was looking at was already an antique, probably in need of much repair.