he year was 1936, and the winds of war had blown the shackles of the Great Depression away. In Germany, Hitler was preparing for battle, and, at the same time, launching the Volkswagen Beetle. Both his idea of a people’s car and the car itself were more than slightly revolutionary.
In Mussolini’s Italy, Fiat was introducing the Topolino, the little Fiat that looked like a shrunken American coupe of the era. With its almost- 600cc motor and streamlined body shape, this car was also destined for success.
France had its own selection of groundbreaking automotive designs as well. Peugeot and Citroën were both producing cars designed to slip through the air more efficiently than the previous ‘sit up and beg’ body styles the automotive world had been producing almost everywhere.
Across the Atlantic, in the US, everything was different. American automotive engineers were still overcoming wind resistance with power. The idea of making a small, cheap car was less important than the idea of making a larger, more comfortable one. The US was the land of low-price gasoline, where more people drove more cars. Production figures dwarfed those from Europe, motors were three to five times bigger than the engines powering their European cousins, and the bodywork looked ‘American’ and was often more than twice the size of that in Europe.
At this stage, the Volkswagen was still more than 12 years away from its American market debut, though surprisingly, the little Topolino made its way to the US and — even more surprisingly — to New Zealand assembly lines almost immediately.
The first wave of American car development had passed, and the American motor industry was reshaping itself — from many small companies there
aerodynamics was that the straight up-and-down radiator grilles and windscreens of the then-current American models caused these cars to be up to 30 per cent more aerodynamically efficient in reverse.
Chrysler, as always, was motivated to make cars that performed better in all areas, and two years earlier had already announced the launch of the almost revolutionary ‘Airflow’ models.
The Airflow models were the first mass-produced cars to move away from the standard chassis-style construction. These new cars used a hybrid girder and unitary construction method that gave them strength and relative lightness. This was a forerunner of today’s monocoque construction style. The new Chryslers were also radically styled and looked as different as the other competing brands looked the same. Chrysler manufactured and sold this new model under the Desoto and Plymouth brands as well.
Unfortunately, the look of these cars was perhaps too different for the average buyer, so, in spite of their advanced engineering — and regardless of the marketing ploys used — sales of the Airflow tanked. The thenmodern and rounded designer bodies that had been carefully crafted in a wind tunnel using the latest aero technology available impressed very few, and buyers ignored them in their tens of thousands. production and the result was the ‘Airstream’ line of models, which remained in manufacture during 1935 and 1936.
Hoping to develop the slow-selling Airflow models further, Chrysler kept production going and, at the same time, introduced the newly developed Airstream vehicles to the market. Underneath, these cars retained much of the Airflow technology, but the exterior resembled — or was at least similar to — the styles of competing companies’ vehicles.
Efforts were made to retain some of the streamlining lessons learned in the previous model’s development. This can be seen in the teardrop headlights on the Airstream, but market tastes demanded that Chrysler drop the idea of integrating the headlights into the front guards — an idea it had incorporated into the Airflow design but which wouldn’t become standard auto design for another couple of years.
Again, these cars were introduced as Chrysler, Plymouth, and Desoto models. The new Airstream body shape immediately changed the company’s
clutch released, but the rear wheels turned in reverse. With reverse selected, they would turn forward. This wasn’t because earlier models had shown they were more aerodynamic in reverse — the diff head had been installed upside down, so a dismantling and correct re-assembly of the diff sorted that problem.
The car has travelled just over 160,930km (100,000 miles) in its life, although only 300 of those have been since restoration, as Kerry suffered a stroke in 2010, not long after its completion, and passed away in 2014. The car, and the large collection of which it is a part, are now in the care of Kerry’s son, Kevan, and daughter, Tracey, who continue to carry on the family car-collecting tradition. These days, Gavin, Rick, and Gavin’s son, Scott, work a few days a week to ensure the cars are all in perfect condition and can be driven at any time.
Another part of the collection is a four- door sedan of the same model — which was Mr Todd’s personal car. These vehicles chronicle New Zealand’s very impressive motoring history, and preserving these older citizens of the motoring world is a worthwhile exercise. There are very few of them left, so, thankfully, the Dudson family understands and appreciates what they are, what they represent, and the place they have in our overall history.
When these were new cars, who could have imagined that the massive Chrysler Corporation would one day be owned by the Italian group that was then making the diminutive Topolino? Or that the New Zealand company that was assembling and selling Chryslers was also assembling — maybe only at a pre-market investigation level, the records don’t explain the detail — the same Topolino?
Kerry Dudson preserved the 1936 Chrysler coupe because he had a passion for early American cars. This was the last vehicle that Kerry Dudson was heavily involved with, and it is a fitting legacy to his passion and drive to create an important collection.