TCS Daily


Ahead of the Curve

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 24, 2003 12:00 AM

A certain compound curve -- blending a fender into the hood and front air intake, or bringing a roof line down a sail panel into the rear end of a car -- can make or break it in the eye of the car-buying public. Sleek or gawky, boldly brawny or simply fat - it's all in the curve.

The word is out that BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke) is "tweaking" some of the curves on its flagship 7 Series sedan -- the $68,500-plus model that has been perched near the top of the ultra-lux sedan field. Even some of the most rabid BMW fans balked when the new 7 was introduced back in 2002 with an odd-looking front end and a wacky, techno-bustle trunk and taillight arrangement.

The car's undeniably great performance and its long-time reputation helped it weather initial ridicule. Sales were okay. But this year, sales are off in the United States (and decidedly down in the important BMW markets of Germany and Switzerland). The Wall Street Journal reported that some American BMW dealers are even -- perish the thought -- discounting the 7 Series in an effort to move them off the lot.

The big car has an undeniably striking and impressive look, but owners have weathered a lot of flak, particularly about the rear quarter view of the car, as in "what the hell's with that trunk?" Word along the automotive rialto has it that BMW decided in the late stages of the design to offer more luggage space, resulting in the odd raised trunk lid. The curvy front end is a little harder to explain and has not been as appealing as BMW had hoped. So it's back to the old drawing board, with the results to be seen in showrooms about the middle of next year.

The legendary GM design chief Harley Earl preached "road value" -- the unique, instantly recognizable "signature" of a particular make of car when seen on the highway. (Above all other cars in the GM line back in the 1950s, Cadillacs had undeniable road value. You saw one in the distance and you recognized it immediately as the top of the GM line. Them days is gone forever.)

Now some modern designers talk "curbside presence," but it's about the same thing. Public acceptance of an automotive design is an unpredictable, subjective, elusive matter. One can be daring, but not too daring. BMW at first defended its new 7, but now, in retreating before the motoring public's rejection of its outré curves, the German maker joins a long line of other auto manufacturers who went a curve too far.

Indeed, it was Harley Earl, one of the high priests of American automotive design, who was responsible for a famous styling boner early in his career. Buick wanted something new and different for its 25th anniversary model. Earl's fledgling GM design studio was in its first year back in 1928 when it went to work on the 1929 Buick. American cars back then looked pretty much alike in general design -- boxy, angular, with distinct "cabins" sitting on a frame, with a long hood in front covering the engine compartment and four fenders bolted onto the body. Doors were flat, rectangular; just, you know, doors.

Earl's shop came up with a slight bulge in the sheet metal, running along the doors, just under the side windows and continuing forward into the cowl and hood. The idea was to subtly emphasize the length of the new Buicks with this pleasing horizontal "character" line where the door sheet metal flared out ever so slightly before dropping straight down to the running boards.

But somehow, the actual body dies resulted in a more emphatic bulge to the sheet metal than Earl had envisioned. When Buick introduced its 1929 "Silver Anniversary Model," the public quickly introduced the term "Pregnant Buick." The automotive press of the time was too reserved to snicker. But an editor at Country Life magazine summed the consensus when he wrote, "the appearance of this model... is not as fortunate as it might be." Buick sales dropped over 11 percent that year. In 1930, a beltline molding covered up the previous year's mistake and Buicks returned to a more conventional appearance. (Sales tumbled further, but by now the Depression had begun.) A furious Earl saw to it that future body dies would exactly incorporate the design lines he approved. There was seldom a miscue in GM designs for the rest of his reign.

But perhaps no instance of an auto design getting uncomfortably ahead of the curve is more poignant than that of Chrysler and its famous Airflow of 1934. Back in 1927, Carl Breer, chief of research for Chrysler Corporation, was driving one evening when he mistook a distant formation of Army airplanes for a flock of geese. In a sort of behind-the-wheel epiphany, Breer wondered why autos were not evolving toward the flowing, functional forms of nature in the way airplanes were.

To put some perspective on Breer's great thought, recall again the general design of automobiles of the time. Saw off a six-inch long piece of two-by-four and a four-inch long piece of two-by-two. Lay the two-by-four on its narrow edge and place the piece of two-by-two at one end of it. There you have the basic 1920s-early '30s car -- the passenger cabin and the enclosed engine compartment with radiator at the front. Breer got an engineer friend in Dayton, Ohio, who had worked with the Wright brothers, to build a little wind tunnel and observe the flow of air around wooden blocks.

Breer quickly saw that the block-like autos of the time were inefficiently pushing a lot of air in front of them. A larger wind tunnel was built at Chrysler's research center in Highland Park, Mich. Working through numerous clay models, Chrysler designers and engineers finally came up with a prototype car with flowing curving lines unlike anything on the road at the time. The car was so startlingly different looking that Chrysler kept it under wraps because it would be immediately noticed and talked about even by the company's own employees.

So the car was always loaded on a special enclosed van and driven out to a remote area in Michigan farming country for testing. Finally, Walter Chrysler himself rode in the car and was impressed. He gave the go ahead for development.

The eventual result was the Chrysler Airflow, introduced in 1934, a stunning departure not only from the way cars looked, but the way they were made. For one thing, the car was constructed entirely of steel. Most cars then still had a considerable amount of wood in their bodies. But the Airflow had a strong cage-like frame of tubular steel from which the body panels were hung. And what panels! Fenders, roofline, trunkline and hoodline were all flowing compound curves. The rear wheels were enclosed in teardrop shaped fenders. The sloping grille and headlights integrated into the body made a front end completely different from anything ever seen before in a production car.

When the car debuted at the January 1934 New York auto show the motoring public seemed caught somewhere between stunned and bewildered. Many were just blown away by the audaciously curvy cars. A lot of designers were thrilled with the "daring" of the cars. There were thousands of early orders for Airflows. But there was clearly an undercurrent of reaction that the Airflow had gone too far. Long hoods, a vertical grille and distinct pontoon fenders (just coming into their own) were the public's general idea of what a car should be. But the Airflow's hood was short and the grille dropped like a gentle waterfall, sloping down to the front bumper. The engine had been moved up until it was partially over the front axle and the passenger compartment was now completely between the front and rear axles, a then revolutionary design.

In fact, just about everything on the Airflow was revolutionary. And it bombed. Badly. There were some complicating factors, including production problems. Initial orders were not filled for months, and the first 3000 "'Flows" had problems with build quality. It was a whole new way of assembling a car. Chrysler wisely had hedged its bets and still offered more conventionally designed models, which far outsold the Airflow. The DeSoto line, however, was completely Airflow.

The company soldiered on over the next three years changing the initial smoothly curved design slightly to reincorporate older styling cues (like a more vertical radiator grill), but the cars sold less than 40,000 while the rest of the conventionally styled Chrysler line (Dodge and Plymouth and the "traditional" Chrysler models) sold hundreds of thousands, reasonably well for the Depression.

The look of the Airflow was certainly influential if not imitated abroad. The first Toyotas were direct cribs. In France, the Peugeot 402 and 202 of 1938, and the head-turning Panhard "Dynamique" sedan of 1936 showed a lot of Airflow cues. Perhaps the closest homage to the ill-fated Chryslers was the 1939 Volvo PV-36, which was even more ill-fated. It lasted one year, selling about 500 cars.

Today, of course, Airflows are real collector's items. Their proto-modern, Flash Gordon baroque looks are often mistaken for some kind of a weird customizing effort. Chastened by the Airflow's reception, Chrysler entered a long period of well-engineered but conservative, not to say stolidly styled cars until they broke out in the mid '50s with the riotously flashy, tail-finned "Forward Look" offerings of Virgil Exner. The Chrysler fins proved wildly popular and sold very well, but they reached their excesses too. That's another story we'll visit soon.

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