by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 1442.
Today, an odd glimpse of the texture of fame. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
From 1928 to '31, New York's Chrysler
Building was the world's tallest. Then the new Empire
State Building surpassed it. Both were built in Art
Deco style. But the plain-vanilla, never-used
dirigible mooring-mast on the Empire State Building
still pales beside the glorious spire on the Chrysler
That spire was built at the insistence of someone
you probably haven't heard of, even though you know
his name. He was Walter Chrysler, and Stephen Fox
tells his story. By 1907 the 32-year-old Chrysler
was a talented mechanic working for the Union
That year he visited the National Automobile Show
in Chicago and fell in love - with an
automobile. It was a five-thousand-dollar
luxury car called the Locomobile. He went
into hock to buy it. Chrysler couldn't drive, but
no matter. He put the car in his garage and set
about taking it apart and putting it back together.
By 1911 he'd left the railway and gone to work for
the embryonic Buick company. Fox tells how Chrysler
bounced from one success to another until, as CEO
of the Chrysler Corporation, he was selling more
cars than Ford. The early automobile makers had
once been in the carriage business. They were
workers in wood. He had better instincts for
mass-producing with metal.
But now we come back to that wild art deco
tower on the Chrysler Building. Chrysler had flashy
tastes. His wife tried to interest him in opera.
But he loved glitzy musicals and he ran with Flo
Ziegfeld. So it was that, in 1934, he gambled on
the very glitzy Chrysler Airflow.
Most cars looked like somber boxes back then. The
Airflow was streamlined - shaped a little like the
later Volkswagen Beetle. Back then, I didn't know the
term Airflow. We all called it by its advertising
nickname, The Car of the Future. The Airflow
broke ground in many ways. It was a well-engineered
machine with a fine new suspension system. But I
didn't find it especially pretty when I was a child,
and I still think it was a visually unbalanced
design. The rest of the American public felt the same
way. They wouldn't buy the Airflow.
We used to play the game of counting Airflows when we
took trips. We never saw many. But the cars that
followed it copied and softened that design.
Chrysler's Airflow did away with the old boxy shape,
and it redefined car design just as surely as the
spire on the Chrysler Building continues to define
the New York skyline.
Chrysler never lost contact with metal. When he saw
a stalled car on the road, he'd often stop, get out
his tool box and give aid. Then he'd hand the
surprised people his card and suggest, next time,
maybe they should buy a Chrysler.
Today, I still know Henry Ford's hard face, but I
have no lingering sense of this garrulous
people-loving person. When I hear the word Chrysler
I see, not a face, nor a particular automobile
design. I see the glitzy building that still says
Big Apple to me. And I catch a lingering glint of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Fox, S., "I Like to Build Things." American
Heritage of Invention & Technology, Vol. 15,
No. 4, Summer 1999, pp. 20-30.
For more pictures of the Chrysler Airflow, see the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.