Monday, December 8, 2014

Nash Airflyte: 1940 Car of the Future Made Real in 1949

Around 1940, Americans would often find images of Cars of the Future in advertisements and on covers of magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science.  Some included radical features such as transparent tops and rear-mounted motors.  But most had something in common: a streamlined, teardrop-inspired shape punctuated by a windshield and a front hood (or trunk, if the engine was at the rear).

Automobile makers were thinking along similar lines, but with attention being paid to what could actually be mass-produced using current technology.  Then along came World War 2 with the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Car production was halted by government order and most stylists either entered the military or were diverted to wartime projects.  Some styling activities continued during the war and the notion of aerodynamic, teardrop-inspired cars slowly faded away as other design ideas came to the fore.

But not at Nash.  Corporate president George Mason and engineering head Nils Erik Wahlberg were strongly in favor of aerodynamic design.  During the war, a design proposal by ex-Hudson and future-Studebaker stylists Bob Koto and Ted Pietsch was handed over to Nash, and it might have been the inspiration for the 1949 Airflyte design.

The Nash Airflyte featured large-radius rounded surfaces, covered wheels, a one-piece curved windshield (a postwar American first, if one excludes kinked one-piece windshields on some Studebakers and the 1934 Chrysler Airflow Imperial's windshield).  The covered wheels required a narrow track for the front wheels so that they could steer the car, which resulted in a large turning radius because the steering angle was constrained by the car body.

Nash Airflytes were not attractive.  They appeared bulky, heavy and awkward.  However, sales for the 1949 and 1950 model years were very good.  Sales might have been even better if stylists had been able to make the cars look not so ponderous.  Less rounding of the top, hood and upper part of the fenders might have helped.  So would have exposing the front wheels, though that would have contradicted Mason's aerodynamic agenda; Nashes retained covered or semi-covered front wheels through 1956, the next-to-last model year for the marque.

Here is a history of Nash Motors, and an account of the development history of the Nash Airflyte is here.

The images below should be for the 1949 Nash, but the 1950 models were almost identical (the tip-off is a larger rear window), so it's possible that a '50 image or two might have slipped in.


1949 Nash advertising
During the late 1940s and early 1950s many American car makers used distorted views in advertising illustrations.  This image has the Airflyte depicted noticeably narrower, lower, longer and more streamlined than it actually was.

1949 Nash Ambassador partly camouflaged by model
The sides of Nash Airflytes were large areas of unadorned sheet metal.  By posing a tall model against the car, it was hoped that this styling defect could be deflected.  More than one Nash publicity photo used this tactic.  Attractive cars from other companies would have models posing behind the vehicle so as not to distract.

1949 Nash two-door version
The lack of a rear door post made the two-door Airflytes even more bland than the four-door versions.  But the wider door seen here gave the car a slightly more streamlined appearance.

Looking down at a 1949 Nash
In its day, many non-owners of Airflytes joked that the car looked like an "upside-down bath tub."  The reasoning behind that observation is made pretty clear in this image.

Rear view of 1949 Nash following a Nevada Atomic Bomb test
There are plenty of photos showing rear views of Nash Airflytes on the Internet, but I prefer to use public domain or publicity images where possible.  Hence this government photo following a test where cars were scattered around Ground Zero for blast effect assessment.

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