Detroit — In the 1930s, sleek aerodynamically styled machines, such as the Chrysler Airflow, Lincoln Zephyr, and one-of-a kind cars -- the Phantom Corsair and Airomobile, for example -- proved to be dynamite at auto shows, but duds in the marketplace.
Departing radically from the phone-booths-on-wheels that dominated automotive design a half century ago, "aero" cars were great for one's neighbors but not in one's own driveway.
Too, they were expensive, which hardly made them attainable for a nation in the midst of a deep depression.
Even so, these early experiments in new shapes continued to have a major influence on succeeding generations of cars to come out of Detroit as well as European automotive capitals, as auto designers attempted to mimic their counterparts in the aircraft industry by developing new ways to reduce wind drag and thus improve efficiency.
Racing-car designers, of course, have battled wind resistance from the very beginning. And designers of exotic Italian models, such as Maserati, Lamborghini, and Ferrari, have produced aerodynamically "slippery" cars for years.
Paradoxically, when the first energy crisis erupted in 1973, the rush to downsize cars and reduce their weight spawned hordes of boxy models whose shapes intrinsically run counter to aerodynamic efficiency. Moreover, this rapid shift to "utilitarian" designs produced a wave of "look alikes" that thwarted efforts to produce distinctive vehicles.
The burgeoning array of aero cars now entering the market, such as Ford's 1984-model Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar, provide designers an opportunity to move away from the look-alike trend and offer buyers a broader choice from which to choose.
"The era off utilitarian cars is ending," says Richard A. Teague, vice-president of styling for American Motors Corporation. "The day of the square car is over, and the rounded car with flush glass, flush wheels, and belly pans (to reduce underbody wind turbulence) is coming."
Indeed, it already has arrived with a flourish at Ford, which is betting billions of dollars that its aerodynamically advanced production cars will catch on in a market looking for styling excitement.
Ford's aero thrust first surfaced last fall in Europe, when it introduced a totally new series of cars with the Sierra nameplate.
Earlier this year, Ford's aero look arrived in US showrooms in the form of the totally revamped Thunderbird and Cougar sporting a Cd of 0.35 -- excellent for cars of this type.
Voluptuously rounded and featuring doors that overlap the roof "aircraft style," the new coupes stand out in a crowd.
In May, Ford Motor Company takes the aero trend a step further by extending the theme to its Ford Temp and Mercury Topaz compacts, the heart of its bread-and-butter market. Coupe versions boast a Cd of 0.36; 4-door seadans, 0. 37 -- both far ahead of competitors in this market segment.
Donald F. Kopka, Ford's vice-president of design, explains the thinking at Ford: "We're developing a truly new generation of cars that break away from the slab-sided, boxy look to a more formally round shape with a low hood."
GM, which has been building aerodynamic "idea cars" for decades, is also moving in that direction, but not with Ford's gusto. The 1981 Cadillac de Ville , for example, will feature doors wrapping over and flush with the roof. The ' 84-model Corvette, now reaching showrooms across the country, also demonstrates GM's aero direction.
But Irwin W. Rybicki, GM vice-president of design, remains cautious.
"Aero design is something you can't ignore," he says, "but it's just one element in the equation at GM. It also has to look good, and it has to meet cost and packaging goals -- and government (safety) standards."
Chrysler Corporation, which began it all with the Airflow in 1934, is moving quickly to join the aero trend as it gains in popularity.
"As an artist, I really believe in it," says Donald R. DeLaRossa, Chrysler's vice-preident of design, adding that he's approaching the change carefully, because "you can go overboard, and then the vehicle lacks personality."
Still, look for plenty of aerodynamic cues when Chrysler's new H-body luxury subcompacts arrive late next year.
The contribution of rounder shapes to the mileage equation had been almost entirely overlooked.
That contribution can be significant, especially to automakers such as General Motors and Ford, which still have sizable number of larger cars in the showroom that are figured into their overall corporative average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements set by the federal government.
The government began mandating such mileage standards in 1975, starting at 18 miles per gallon, lumping together all cars sold by a carmaker on a sales-weighted basis.
This year each automaker must achieve 26 miles per gallon, next year 27, and 27 1/2 m.p.g. in 1985.Neither Ford nor GM currently meets the 26 m.p.g. target for 1983.
Engineers measure wind resistance by using a term called drag coefficient, or Cd. The lower a car's Cd, the better it slips through the wind. As a result, its engine doesn't have to work quite so hard and fuel is thus saved.
Few automakers measured Cd until recently in any meaningful way, because it simply wasn't considered a major factor. Cars tested in wind tunnels at any Cd under 0.40 these days are considered to be relatively aerodynamically efficient.
A recently developed Ford concept car, the Probe IV, has an amazingly low 0. 15 Cd. Not to be outdone, GM recently built up a fiberglass mock-up called the Aero 2002 that has an astounding 0.14 Cd. Ford's Probe IV, however, is a full car that can be driven; GM's is strictly a show model.
There are numerous advantages to developing aero cars, not the least of which is cost savings.
Experts calculate that auto manufacturers must spend at least $100 million to get one-tenth of a mile per gallon improvement in fuel economy by mechanical means, such as more efficient engines and transmissions or by weight reduction.