The 1936 DeSoto Airflow: Ahead of its Time

February 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Vintage 1936 advertisement for the DeSoto Airflow III, with illustrations by Floyd Davis

The Chrysler/DeSoto Airflow in Florida: "The nation's social capital moves South."

This ad is from the March 1936 edition of National Geographic, with graphics courtesy of the well-known American painter and illustrator Floyd Davis. I suppose that with most of the country still in the grips of winter weather, these scenes would have helped associate the car with a casual, fun-in-the-sun elegance. Not that it helped much, however: the DeSoto Airflow was produced for three years, from 1934 – 1936, and was essentially a failure, at least as sales were concerned. Time Magazine’s 2007 special on the “50 Worst Cars of All Time” had this to say:

“Twenty years later, the car’s many design and engineering innovations — the aerodynamic singlet-style fuselage, steel-spaceframe construction, near 50-50 front-rear weight distribution and light weight — would have been celebrated. As it was, in 1934, the car’s dramatic streamliner styling antagonized Americans on some deep level, almost as if it were designed by Bolsheviks….Sales were abysmal. It wouldn’t be the last time American car buyers looked at the future and said, ‘no thanks.'”

Here is a contemporary shot of some of those aerodynamic curves, which to me look pretty nice.

DeSoto Airflow detail

Contemporary photo of a 1936 Airflow, showing how the air could flow (courtesy of

Floyd Davis, for his part, illustrated ads for everyone from Texaco to Nabisco to Johnnie Waker to Grape Nuts, and by the early ’40s would be called the “#1 illustrator in America” by Life Magazine. During WWII Life sent him to England to cover the war, where, as a WWI veteran, he was given permission to fly in the Raid on Hamburg in 1943, a sojourn which resulted in one of his most famous paintings. He and his famous artist wife Gladys Rockmore Davis actually became the first husband and wife correspondent team ever to cover a war together.

A 1942 article in American Artist described Davis as “the friendliest and most considerate of men,” while noting that the art editor of the Saturday Evening Post praised him for being “equally at home with hill-billys and Park Avenue.” Here are a couple more of his pieces, the first a poster for the film Citizen Kane, the second an  illustration he did for Life of the bar at the Hotel Scribe, a watering hole for journalists in Paris during WWII.

Floyd Davis poster for the film Citizen Kane

More of Floyd Davis' work: Citizen Kane promotional poster

Bar in Hotel Scribe, Floyd Davis painting from 1944

Floyd Davis "Bar in Hotel Scribe" Oil on Canvas, 1944 (Hemingway near bottom)


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