Too Good to Succeed


Arts & Culture


Very often you have to be a lone nut to come up with a really original idea.… People are very insular … even [in] a great city like New York … people are like fish swimming around in aquariums and all they know is the water in the aquarium.
—Francis Ford Coppola

In the summer of 1938, when the first issue of Action Comics introduced the world to Superman, its cover featured the Man of Steel lifting a steel-framed Chrysler Airflow, “the first sincere and authentic streamlined car,”

And there was encouraging news wafting in from the Pacific Coast: a brand-new culture, designed around the gasoline engine, was emerging. Drive-ins—from drugstores, flower shops, banks, and restaurants (complete with carhops) to outdoor “picture shows” (twenty-five cents a head)—were sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain.2 While other auto executives remained reluctant to invest in the substantial retooling costs that a streamlined vehicle required, Chrysler had, as early as 1932, appropriated some $25,000 for the development, “somewhere in the Canadian woods,” of what was known in-house as the RD 124 model. “Streamlining” had suited the corporation well enough when it came to the recently completed seventy-seven-story Chrysler Building, the triumphant Art Deco stalagmite at the corner of Forty-Third and Lexington. The plan was to increase riding comfort using balanced weight in lieu of independent springs, to produce a lighter, faster car, with better gas mileage, at a price below anything Ford or GM could offer. Various delays and second thoughts followed. According to Fred Zeder, one of Chrysler’s top engineers, Bel Geddes’s Horizons—with its inherent challenge to the automobile industry—was “entirely responsible” for giving his employer the courage to proceed. The book, a 1932 bestseller, was required reading for all company top brass.

“It Works Like Magic. It Feels Like Flying!”

Before the Airflow, cars were still based on a horse-and-buggy model, their passengers sitting in “wagons” behind motors (whose strength is measured in “horsepower”), and owners were still draping blankets over the engines when their cars were garaged, as if they were stabled steeds. Their ungainly shape, wrote Howard S. Irwin in Scientific American, “represented little more than a series of unrelated compromises.” Now, the body was being designed around the engineering, with new layouts, new format, and new materials, a body worthy of the high-compression engines Chrysler had developed, a body conceived, it was said, when engineer Carl Breer spotted a chevron of geese that turned out to be a squadron of fighter planes flying low at low speed. The typical Detroit automobile of the day brings to mind a stodgy hearse. The Airflow, in contrast, bore a striking resemblance to “the People’s Car” (aka the Volkswagen, or “Baby Hitler”) that Germany was developing for the Autobahn, with the help of Ferdinand Porsche.4 The interior featured divan-like adjustable seating. The leather-trimmed cushions set into polished chrome tubular frames created a sophisticated, Moderne armchair look. The flooring was marbleized rubber, the various hard surfaces molded from Bakelite or Formica. It has so many Art Deco touches, notes vintage car collector Jay Leno, that “it looks like you’re sitting in the Chrysler Building.”5

The eight-cylinder, 130-horsepower engine (powerful for its day) with two-barrel carburetor could run ninety to one hundred mph.Chrysler_Building_Chicago_Worlds_Fair_F

“Personally, I’ve never understood why progress should crawl when it can be made to leap!” —Walter Chrysler

That spring, the Airflow was showcased performing stunts at Chicago’s “Century of Progress” World’s Fair, open for its second season. Chrysler’s seven-acre pavilion included a quarter-mile-long exhibition track where automobiles were, as the Fair’s guidebook put it, “submitted to experiment.” Throughout the day, a crew of “Hell Drivers” demonstrated what the Airflow, along other Chrysler vehicles, were capable of, taking banked turns, negotiating a forty-five degree incline, making skid-free stops on a slicked down track. Other tests included a “Belgian Roll” (a “shimmy” machine that shook a car, running at full speed, “like a terrier might shake a rat”),7 an operating wind tunnel (a device traditionally used for testing airplane design8), and a sandpit where cars were deliberately rolled over. Between shows, fairgoers took demonstration rides in a model of their choosing, with a Hell Driver at the wheel. But in spite of the Airflow’s extraordinary performance on all counts, feedback indicated that its exterior “look” might benefit from some finessing in the name of public appeal. In September 1933, Bel Geddes had been personally brought onboard to improve the car’s overall streamline characteristics and reinvent its controversial “waterfall” grille. So secret was the RD 124 that Chrysler’s representative on the project was referred to, in Norman Bel Geddes & Co. meeting memoranda, as “Mr. Q.” Bel Geddes replaced the grille’s thirty-nine slender vertical bars with twenty-one thicker ones, which strengthened and broadened out the front end while softening its look. He raked the windshield, slanting it back to the sides and top, set the headlights into curved wings over the wheels, and, based on experiments with his own eighth-inch-scale wind tunnel, introduced side grooves along the front that allegedly channelled air around the moving body. True to form, Norman and his staff were soon pushing for improvements beyond their mandate. There was talk of emphasizing its design attributes with a two-tone color scheme. The steering wheel’s rakish tilt was modified, the “spare” was brought inside so as not to interrupt the back’s clean sweep, the marbleized floor mats were replaced with carpeting.

It’s estimated that Chrysler’s wind tunnel cost $5,000 to build, some $87,000 today. There’s some dispute as to whether Bel Geddes initiated its fabrication or if Chrysler had already acquired one, before he came on board, at the suggestion of Orville Wright. In any case, it included a running belt over which a scale model car could be suspended; Norman used it to test various ground conditions beneath the wheels. The model and belt could also be turned at an angle toward the “airflow” (ergo the name, intended as a synonym for streamlining) to check the effect of side winds. One of the test discoveries was that conventional, boxy cars of the era were more aerodynamic when traveling backward.

Meanwhile, Bel Geddes had taken on a second auto-related commission, what he would later describe as “the first attempt at a slow-leak double-tube tire,” for Firestone Tire & Rubber Company’s 1935 line. The “Firestone Streamline,” which never got past the drawing stage, featured tapered sidewalls and a slightly bulging hubcap; the letters of its name were molded into the treads in bold, deco-like capitals. The overall effect was that of a preternaturally handsome (yet to be invented) Frisbee.

“Our suggestibility is tremendous.” —Selling Mrs. Consumer, 1929.

The standard explanation for the Airflow’s demise is that the public took an immediate dislike to its unorthodox look. To the contemporary eye, the external differences between the 1934 Airflow (think: New Coke) and Chrysler’s conventional 1934 sedan (Classic Coke) seem relatively subtle: the former is more rounded and tapered, its windshield slanted, its headlights more discreet. Critics—none of whom admitted to having taken a test drive—compared the Airflow to a bathtub, its hood to the face of a basset hound, a rhinoceros, a burglar in a stocking mask. Harper’s Magazine editor Frederick Lewis Allen called it “so bulbous, so obscenely curved, as to defy the natural preference of the eye for horizontal lines….” (One wonders if Allen’s taste in women ran more to angular Flappers or the Lillian Russell model.) “I now want to eat crow,” Paul Merchant wrote Bel Geddes in the fall of 1934. An editor at a major New York publishing house, he considered himself a car authority. An argument months before over “the relative virtues and merits of GM and Chrysler,” during which Norman “defended the Airflow lustily,” had led Merchant to explode with a string of expletives. Now, having finally driven the object of his scorn for nine thousand miles, he admitted it was “the most magnificent piece of automobile machinery it has ever been my good fortune to handle … I wouldn’t trade [it] for any car made in this country, from the Cadillac 16 on down—and I’ve driven plenty of Cadillac 16s….” “It may interest you to know, Norman,” the newly minted convert continued, “that the antagonism we have heard expressed … is confined entirely to hyper-conservative sons of bitches who are against all change, and it may also interest you to know that the people who are crazy about the Airflow are children of two years of age and up. Very frequently when [my wife and I] drive through towns, they dance up and down, shouting ‘There goes my car!’”

The Airflow caused a sensation. According to Breer, more orders were placed for Airflows at the January Auto Show than for any new car ever exhibited there. It didn’t hurt that New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia could be seen tooling around Manhattan in one. But the inventory wasn’t there.

General Motors would later claim that Chrysler had rushed the Airflow through production after learning that GM was about to debut an “aero car” called the Albanita. Though no official records of the Albanita’s existence survive, Chrysler had, GM insisted, gone so far as to commission espionage photographs, taken through GM’s not-particularly-secure Proving Grounds’s fence in Milford, Michigan.10 In 1903, the inventor publicly electrocuted—“Westinghoused” he called it11—­a three-ton elephant in an effort of discredit Nikola Tesla’s alternating current campaign, which threatened his patent royalties. When Topsy, a Coney Island elephant who had killed a sadistic trainer, was put on trial and sentenced to hang, a humanitarian backlash ensued. Coincidentally, New York had just replaced the gallows with the electric chair. Edison, who had previously arranged for several dogs, cats, and the occasional horse to “ride the lightning” in the course of his campaign, recognized an unprecedented opportunity and offered his services. (As a precaution against failure—there were 1,500 spectators and the press was on hand with motion picture cameras—Topsy was fed cyanide-laced carrots at the last minute.)12 Edison, himself, had been “smeared” by the gas companies when he first introduced his DC electrical system.

In the end, the animal sacrifices were all for naught. AC proved its superiority and DC fell out of favor. Edison prospered, nonetheless; Tesla, arguably the more deserving, did not. 

The Saturday Evening Post was the country’s most widely circulated magazine, reaching some three million readers a week. Bel Geddes had touted the Airflow there; the competition would do him one better. In a barrage of double-page spreads, GM presented itself as a company that didn’t make a move without “the priceless verification of the public itself,” a company predicated on protecting the unwary “against ill-timed or dubious experiments.” The reference to Airflows wasn’t lost on John Q. Public.


“An eye to the future, an ear to the ground.” —GM’s anti-Airflow slogan

In the late twenties, GM president Alfred Sloan had initiated the industry’s yearly style change (referred to, in-house, as the “organized creation of dissatisfaction”) in an attempt to get an edge over the ubiquitous Model T, which Henry Ford refused to “update.” (Ford’s “any color as long as it’s black” approach was more practical than Puritan. One color reduced inventory and supplies. And it cut production time. Prior to nitrocellulose lacquers, black paint dried faster.) But the annual “newest,” and “latest,” perforce, was meant to single out their particular offerings. GM had streamlined (read: smooth running, efficient) vehicles, but theirs had “a mature refinement,” and “beauty as well as speed.” Theirs “did not leap full-born into being,” the hasty products of “abrupt inspiration,” but were the result “of deliberate growth.” Going on about how ugly the Airflow was (leave that to the journalists) would have been unseemly; competing against its obvious advancements was dangerous ground. Just as Edison had presented AC current as a danger to be eliminated, the word went out that “the safest motorcar the world has seen” was patently unsafe, at a time when traffic fatalities were already averaging more than 34,000 a year.13 At the bottom of each double-paged magazine spread was General Motors’s Silver Anniversary medallion, one side of which depicted a speeding, futuristic automobile backed by an immense vertical wing, the other an artistic rendition of an engine’s combustion chamber. The irony (presumably unintentional) was that Bel Geddes had designed it.14

Chrysler rallied with a spectacular publicity stunt. An Airflow was pushed off a 110-foot cliff—an eight-story plunge—into a Pennsylvania rock quarry. The car flipped over, landed on its wheels, then was driven away under its own power, battered but intact, all the doors and windows in working order. Then professional racer Harry Hartz was hired to run an Imperial Airflow coupe at Utah’s Bonneville Flats, where it set a series of new records, after which Hartz drove the same car from Los Angeles to New York, averaging 18.1 miles per gallon (another record). A sister model, the six-cylinder DeSoto Airflow, would average 21.4 mpg on the same cross-country run. Filmstrips documenting these feats were distributed free of charge to movie theaters, and miniature Airflows showed up as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes.15 The Airflow would go on to win the Grand Prix and Premier Prix at the Concours d’Elegance in Monaco. “Pioneers are apt to be people who are sure of themselves … go their own way … make decisions with independence,” ran a new Chrysler ad. The Airflow’s initial purchasers “were that kind of people. Modern-minded, they investigated. Quick to appreciate, they bought.” The First Three Thousand, a booklet free for the asking at dealerships, listed these “distinguished” first owners and their praises.

 Timing, it’s often said, is everything. The Airflow was the car that subsequent cars would be based on, but the “window of opportunity” had been lost. Had the streets been busy with them for the public to see, ride in and talk about, things might well have been different. But production delays, combined with GM’s pedantic spin (“the common sense of the common people!”; “he travels farthest in the right direction who is willing to listen as well as to lead”) and smug observances in the press, won out over Chrysler’s gamble on “a refreshing new kind of beauty” that had evolved from the inside out.

“The Gleam is Fresh and the Gadgets Are New”

Fourteen years after the Airflow’s ill-timed debut, another “streamlined car of the future” would emerge—the Tucker Torpedo. Like Bel Geddes, Preston Thomas Tucker was a product of the Midwest. An indifferent student, he studied engineering via mail-order courses, then went on to develop race cars, gun turrets, and a one-hundred mph bullet-proof, air-conditioned military tank that was turned down by the government as being “too fast.”

With a Bel Geddes-worthy, Devil-take-the hindmost boldness, Tucker set himself up as the first new automobile manufacturer since Walter Chrysler, hoping to take advantage of the booming, postwar economy. His eponymous Torpedo, designed in collaboration with former GM and Chrysler stylists, embodied a number of Airflow advances, including individual wheel suspension, a rear motor that could accelerate to 130 mph, an emphasis on safety, and a handsome, “futuristic” exterior. Advertised as “a modern miracle of mechanics,” it also featured individual torque converters, interchangeable front and back seats with seat belts, a padded dashboard, an under-seat heater, a pop-out safety windshield, and a directional third headlight, dubbed the “Cyclops Eye,” that lit up whenever the car turned more than ten degrees. It got twenty-plus miles to the gallon and had hundreds less parts than traditional automobiles. In 1948, the Tucker Torpedo went into production. In very short order, a campaign of misinformation—the general consensus is that Detroit’s Big Three were behind it—was followed by an SEC indictment for fraud and “violations.” Fifty-one Tuckers were built before the factory was forced to shut down. By the time Preston Tucker was acquitted, two years later, the damage had been done. The car’s revolutionary safety ideas would, like the Airflow’s, inform future standards. Preston Tucker would die at the age of fifty-three, less than a decade after the first Tucker Torpedo rolled off the assembly line. The official cause was pneumonia exacerbated by lung cancer; the unofficial cause was a broken heart.16

In 1958, Ford released its experimental Edsel, named after the company founder’s son, an arts patron with a penchant for sports cars who had died ten years before.17 Despite self-adjusting brakes, contoured seats and seat belts, childproof rear door locks, boomerang-shaped taillights (on the station wagon model) and the oh-so-cool Teletouch Drive transmission (pushbuttons “smack dab” in the center of the steering wheel for “syrup smooth shifting”), it would quickly crash and burn. Madison Avenue honed in on its narrow vertical grille (versus the Airflow’s wide vertical one), comparing it to everything from a horse collar and a mouth sucking a lemon to a vagina. (It was the sex-phobic Fifties.) Its high price, odd name, and introduction during a recession didn’t help. “It’s an Edsel” quickly entered the vernacular as a synonym for … a lemon.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” —Steve Jobs
“Design is 25% inspiration and 75% transportation.” —Raymond Loewy

Success predicated on traditional good looks would not be limited exclusively to the automobile industry, though its impact was most strongly felt there. In the 1990s, Bill Stumpf’s Aeron Chair would be dubbed a monstrosity. Vastly superior to other office chairs in both comfort and utility, the product of passionate and determined research, it had the audacity of defy pre-existing aesthetics with its hard mesh seat and speculum-like shape.17 The push buttons of the Edsel’s transmission, which proved too forward-thinking for some drivers (wasn’t that the horn?) would, some four decades later, be called on to lend familiarity to Apple’s first generation iPods. According to technology blogger Jim O’Neill, the first iPod’s buttons were a conscious design concession. Today, in the age of the iPhone, with its sleek look and full-touch screen, they “look quaint, almost archaic.” But back in 2001, O’Neill posits, the iPhone “would likely have been too far outside the bounds … to make any sense to consumers.”

Only 11,292 Chrysler Airflows and 13,940 DeSoto Airflows sold in 1934, the numbers ratcheting down each year to 1937, after which they were discontinued. (Action Comics fared significantly better, selling over 200,000 copies of its premiere issue, despite the publisher’s doubts that anyone would believe that a guy in a cape and tights could lift a car over his head.)19

“Why did the Airflow Chrysler, a Norman Bel Geddes design embodying the latest wrinkles in aerodynamics, find few takers?” Raymond Loewy would ask, more than a decade after the fact. “Automobiles were ugly to the point of being repellant,” he would write. “How long would the public put up with it?” Loewy’s MAYA principle (“Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”), combined with his allegedly superior European aesthetic, was a bulwark against just such hugely expensive faux pas, though it’s unclear when, exactly—before the Airflow’s demise or after—he coined the acronym. Norman’s perennial arch rival, Loewy had created the Hupmobile Aerodynamic series in 1934 and ’35 (flared headlights, rounded corners, and a three-piece windshield borrowed from Paul Jaray’s Tatra), and financed it, in part, out of his own pocket.20 But with fewer than five thousand paying customers a year, the Hupmobile had faired more poorly than its repellant foil.22 and Cadillac 60 Special to Chevrolets, but at a carefully incremental pace, on the alert for “eye resistances rather than wind resistances.” Half a century later, Airflows, Tucker Torpedos, and Edsels would all become highly sought after by collectors. “The influence of the Airflow on other automobiles was unmistakable,” wrote Arthur Pulos in American Design Ethic. “The V front and the slant back became standard in the industry, and, by 1939, the formal differences between one automobile and another were so slight that graphic identification had to be used to distinguish them.”23 The Airflow’s lowered silhouette, all-steel frame, and unified exterior shell were standard features on most 1940s production automobiles. In the 1960s the Airflow’s progeny, the VW “Bug,” would revolutionize an automobile industry rife with enormous, gas-guzzling “land yachts,” outselling Ford’s record of fifteen million Model T’s.

In David Mamet’s 1977 play, The Water Engine, a struggling young Depression-era engineer, Charles Lang, creates an engine that runs on the energy released when the hydrogen and oxygen molecules of H2O are separated. Cheap. Efficient. “Green.” Revolutionary.24 It’s his ticket, Lang thinks, to a better life. At first, the powers-that-be take him for a madman, a crazy dreamer. But when his engine proves itself, they quickly try to buy him off and bury it. When Lang refuses to relinquish the rights (the bad guys include a patent lawyer), both he and his sister meet a gruesome end. It’s difficult to ignore the shadows of the Airflow and the Tucker Torpedo in this cautionary tale. Set against the background of Chicago’s “World of Progress” Fair, where the Airflow had been showcased, it’s a haunting indictment of the American Dream, an evisceration of the Horatio Alger and “level playing field” myths that so many in the twentieth century were raised to believe in. Thirty-five years after Mamet’s play debuted, an MIT professor invented his own “water engine,” an artificial leaf that, when dropped into a jar of water in the sunlight, bubbles away, releasing hydrogen that can be used in fuel cells to make electricity.

1. The quote, attributed to Bel Geddes, appeared in “I Salute Walter P. Chrysler,” Saturday Evening Post, December 16, 1933, p. 31.

2. Like California’s thriving eucalyptus trees, which hailed from Australia, the first drive-in movie hailed from Camden, New Jersey. Its creator, Richard Hollingshead, went so far as to use lawn sprinklers to simulate rain as a “special effect.” The first drive-through wedding chapel (hometown: Las Vegas) would have to wait until 1951.

3. Paul Schilperoord’s The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz (2013) credits a Jewish engineer with originating what became the “People’s Car”—Ganz’s Maikaefer, or May Bug, the earliest sketches of which were made in 1923.

4. All-white tires had appeared on the earliest automobiles—it’s rubber’s natural color—but carbon black was soon added to increase traction, endurance, and ease of cleaning.

5. Leno is the proud owner of a 1934 Imperial CX Airflow limousine, complete with a Dictaphone in the rear for communicating with one’s chauffeur.

6. Only a century before, in 1829, New York governor Martin Van Buren wrote to Thomas Jefferson about railroad carriages moving at fifteen mph. “The Almighty,” he insisted, “certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.” In 1903, Popular Mechanics magazine predicted transcontinental automobile trips as “a summer outing,” but added that “a person will not be over-anxious for more than one trip in a lifetime.”

7. Named after the jolting stone blocks of Belgium’s roads that had proven brutal to earlier automobiles.

8. As early as 1921, Hungarian engineer Paul Jaray had been testing automobile designs in the ZeppelinCompany’s wind tunnel in Friedrichshafen, Germany, where he worked. But after Germany’s instigation of WWI, followed by its subsequent defeat, few in the West were interested in what the Huns were up to.

9. “The Little-Known Albanita,” GM’s Automotive News, 75th Anniversary Issue, September 16, 1983. According to the article, a GM mechanic employed in 1933—Ivan Tector—claimed that repeated industrial espionage on Chrysler’s part had GM’s project director carrying a rifle to threaten culprits off. “Today, GM has no official recollection that the Albanita ever existed. Records were either lost, destroyed or so well classified that no one can touch them.” According to, GM planned for the Albanita, with its “rather dull design cues,” to be seen and copied by the competition, knowing that the public would reject it.

10. Like Bel Geddes, Edison was a man of limited formal education involved with entertainment technology (the phonograph, motion pictures).

11. Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. had purchased Tesla’s AC current patent.

12. A film clip of the pachyderm’s demise can be seen on YouTube.

13. The figure might have been considerably higher but for the invention of the rear-view mirror, the three-color traffic light, and Englishman Percy Shaw’s “Catseyes” for navigating poorly lit roads.

14. In a brochure published by the Metallic Art Co. (1933), which cast the medallion, Bel Geddes is quoting as saying that “the [future] form of the motor car is so difficult to forecast … { but} we do know that ultimate efficiency in speed cannot be attained without conforming to nature’s own laws for bodies moving through liquids and gases.” The medallion, as well as pieces from Vienna’s Wiener Werkstatte, was “gifted” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1934.

15. Radio Steel & Manufacturing Co. maker of the hugely popular red Radio Flyers and Streak-o-Lites wagons, followed up with the Zep, inspired by the Airflow’s lines.

16. Francis Ford Coppola, director of a film based on Tucker’s story, owns two Tucker Torpedos, as well as a Bel Geddes-designed Simmons bed.

17. Not taking into consideration the changing value of the U.S. dollar between 1934 and 1994, the Airflow originally sold for $1,245., the Aeron for $1,150.

18. By its seventh issue, Action Comics was selling more than half a million copies a month, at ten cents a pop. Superman—originally a cynical wise guy who enjoyed humiliating his adversaries—was the new American icon, and the Golden Age of comic books had begun.

19. Bel Geddes would continue to work for Chrysler, supply models for GM’s 1939 Buick Series 40, and contribute to the “streamlined” 1941 Nash.

20. According to one source, to the tune of $18,000.

21. “Loewy’s automobile designs of the 30s were invariably awkward and timid, no match for the brio of Bel Geddes’s streamlining,” an Art in America critic would observe in the 1970s. Only with the advent of WWII would Loewy “master the automobile by mating it with the war plane—fusing cockpit and bullet.”

22. The Museum of Modern Art, notoriously slow on the uptake, would dub Ford’s Zephyr “the first successfully designed streamlined car in America.”

23. On November 14, 2009, a 1934 Airflow sold for $44,850 (Bertoia Auction Co.). In January, 2012, a Tucker Torpedo went for $2,915,000 (Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Auctioneers), more than doubling the previous record Tucker sale price of $1,127,500.

24. Allegedly based on two Texans who, in 1935, were awarded a patent for an electrolytic carburetor.

Two-time NEA Writing Fellow B. Alexandra Szerlip is in the process of writing a history of twentieth century design seen through the unique lens of Bel Geddes’s life. She’ll be speaking about him in August, in Chicago, at the Industrial Design Society of America conference.