By on February 15, 2010

[A significantly expanded and updated version of this article is here]

In the “streamlined decade” of the thirties, automotive aerodynamics was promoted as the great breakthrough to the modern high speed automobile. It was almost a religion, and its influence was essentially universal. By the end of the thirties, highly streamlined concepts were in every manufacturer’s styling studios. Everyone assumed the post-war era would be dominated by further developments on the air-splitting Tatra theme. But the reality turned out quite different, especially in the US.

Before we move on, it’s essential to put the initial zeal for aerodynamics and streamlining into a larger context. Automotive streamlining was just a minor part of the most influential single design movement in history. The transformation of mechanical objects and the built environment from one that involved ornamentation, classical influences, and the exposure of the mechanical functioning (think traditional steam locomotive) to one where suddenly the exterior envelope was paramount was a paradigm-changing event. The fact that it emerged during the great global Depression gave it a transformative potential; the public saw streamlining as a way to “move forward”, and everything from skyscrapers to toasters were caught up in the zeal.

The crowning glory of this movement was embodied in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, whose theme was Building the World of Tomorrow. GM’s building was the zenith, especially its Futurama exhibit, which portrayed the world of 1960, with its fourteen-lane highways and giant streamlined apartment blocks. It’s hard to see from the pictures, but the thousands of moving miniaturized cars were perfectly streamlined, with tear-drop and finned tails straight from the Tatra 87.

Needless to say, the world of tomorrow shortly after 1939 was interrupted by a less optimistic world affair. The war certainly took some of the edge off a design movement that somehow saw its social influence exceeding its grasp, but a look at GM design prototypes from round 1946 shows clearly that the now-classic streamliner model was still the predominant influence.

The models shown above attempt to predict the evolution of GM styling, starting in the rear and advancing to the glass-domed, central-steering but still dorsal-finned Cadillac of 1960. That turned out rather differently!

This more down-to-earth 1948 model year Cadillac concept clay (above) from 1945 or ’46 still shows a strong aerodynamic influence in its swept front and tapering rear. What caused the change in thinking that led to the final design?

The 1948 Caddy is mostly acclaimed for giving birth to the rear fin. But those were minor compared to the more significant deviation from GM’s advanced designs: the decision to retain the classical long front hood/short rear deck proportions, and to highlight them with a bold grille. America’s love affair with streamlining was essentially over before it was ever really fully realized. The Cadillac correctly predicted (or even more correctly, led) the coming decades of American car design, emphasizing power over aerodynamics. With ever more potent V8 engines and a steadily falling price of gas, who needed to cheat the wind  with wimpy little pointed front ends, especially when the failure of the Airflow was still fresh in Detroit’s collective memory?

That’s not to suggest that the streamlined era and aerodynamics hadn’t already transformed the industry. The ’48 Caddy may have been the turning point away from the pursuit of aerodynamic ideals in the US, but other manufacturers, particularly the independents, adopted various degrees of its influence on design, to their eventual peril.

With the first new post-war cars in 1947, Studebaker shows fairly muted but unmistakable aerodynamic influences on the styling trends of the era: the “pontoon” all-enveloping body, tarnished here by functionally unnecessary vestigial rear “fenders” and a bright accent line where the running board used to be.

The 1948 Hudson (above) was a bolder step, with its “step-down” frame and jelly-bean styling. It also shows the final break to the past by ditching any references to free-standing fenders.

Nash took aerodynamics more seriously than the rest. Its all-new 1949 Airflyte design shows a fairly comprehensive adoption of the fundamental principles. But both Nash and Hudson soon paid a price for their aerodynamic designs: as taste quickly changed, including hard-top coupes and sedans, larger glass areas, and more rectilinear designs, their bodies were not as adaptable as those of the Big Three. Their aggressive annual restyling cycles played a significant role in the demise of the independents during the fifties.

The Tucker Torpedo is still hailed by some as a direction the American industry could have taken but chose not to. It’s a viscerally exciting design, and certainly dramatically more aerodynamic, although in some ways disappointing. With its air-cooled rear engine and fastback, designer Alex Tremulis was clearly following the path that the Tatra T77 had trod fifteen years earlier, but with less conviction. That’s reflected in his choice to incorporate the tradition-evoking fenders that Tatra and even Frazier, Hudson and Nash had already tossed overboard. While the Tucker’s Cd of about .30 to .37 (depending on whose numbers are being used) was excellent for the times, it still far from the T77′s .212. Public response to the Lincoln Zephyr prototypes made it clear that Americans were wary of rear-engined full-sized cars (with good reason). An interesting historical footnote it was, but as a design the Tucker was already looking old-fashioned compared to what the Europeans were up to.

While it’s quite likely that I’ve done the US immediate post-war aerodynamic era some injustice, it will be inevitable in regard to Europe. Due to very different circumstances in regard to fuel cost, economics, and a more progressive mind-set, the aerodynamic era of the thirties was only a preview of coming attractions. Much more than post-war Americans, Europeans saw genuine possibilities in the marriage of aerodynamics and small cars to create breakthroughs in performance, efficiency and affordability to first-time motorists clamoring for new cars. The mid-engined three-seat Wimille Coupe of 1948 (above) wasn’t exactly intended at the low end of the market, but it does give a clear picture of how the Europeans were pushing forward with aerodynamic design.

The Saab 92 prototype of 1947 (above) is actually more of a thirties/Tatra throwback, but its clarity of line and remarkable functionality thanks to a FWD arrangement make it’s delicious tail worth savoring one more time. It’s Cd of .35 was terrific for a near-production car.

A more radical concept was the 1948 Panhard Dynavia. An extremely slippery (Cd .28) design based on the Panhard Dyna, which itself was a highly advanced small car utilizing a front boxer two-cylinder and FWD. But the practical limitations of such pointy tails (yes, that is the rear), not to mention passenger comfort (no AC), made this another unfulfilled slippery dream.

Even the smallest cars showed aerodynamic influence. This Isetta is a miniaturized rear-engined egg-shaped streamliner with a greenhouse remarkably similar to those advanced Cadillac concepts above.

In 1953, Alfa Romeo commissioned Touring to build open and closed sports racers with maximized aerodynamics. The resultant Disco Volante (flying saucer) coupe had a Cd of .26.

Alfa then had Bertone to build a series of coupes to push the aerodynamic envelope even further.  The result was the BAT cars, of which the BAT 7 attained a remarkable Cd of .19. The early fifties was to see a renewed interest in aerodynamics in Europe, but the leadership now changed hands. Whereas the Germans had been the early champions, and most of their early fifties cars showed strong aero influence, like the Porsche 356 and the DKWs and Auto Unions, influential Mercedes was taking a decidedly more upright and conservative stance with their passenger cars after their flirt with streamliners in the thirties. Of course, their racing and sports cars still benefited from their extensive aerodynamic research and experience, like this 300 SLR with a wind brake.

And there were compelling reasons for Mercedes’ conservative and pragmatic approach with its passenger cars. The maximization of interior volume, trunk space and a traditional RWD layout did not favor extreme aerodynamic measures. And the prestige of the Mercedes radiator shell still carried a lot of weight.

Now the Italians and especially the French were taking the lead. The English? They were still mostly stuck in the twenties, except of course their remarkable land speed record breakers.

With a Cd of .36, the Citroen DS was of course remarkably aerodynamic for a practical sedan in 1955. And that it bristled with other advanced technological design features is beyond this quick look at the “Goddess”. But it reaffirmed that aerodynamics could be successfully integrated in a new package, with FWD and little compromise in passenger space.

Given the front-end styling similarities of the 1953 Studebaker to the Citroen, this makes a good point of departure back to the USA. Both of these wind-cheating efforts show that the thirties have now been fully left behind, and that it was possible to integrate sound aerodynamic principles without having being stuck in the cab-forward long-tail streamliner mold. The Starlight Coupe’s Cd may have only been around .40, but it was the only serious effort of its kind in the US at the times and it was quickly adopted as a favorite for stock-bodied Bonnevile speed records.

Of course, it wasn’t just 200 mph Studebakers that were in demand on the salt flats. Early hot rodders knew that aerodynamics is the key to puncturing the brick wall to higher speeds. After WW II, surplus auxiliary external aircraft fuel tanks (bellytanks) were available cheaply. This created on of the more brilliant adaptations, the Lakester.

Looking remarkably like the steam LSR vehicles built by Stanley and others at the turn of the century, a flathead-powered Lakester tearing across the flats is truly a time-warping and wind-splitting experience on several levels.

Undoubtedly, many other cars deserving of mention in this time period were left out. In Part 3 we’ll take on the recent era, up to the present day.

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