(first posted 5/8/2012) This was the wave of the future in 1949. While US automakers were still selling every facelifted prewar car they could make – and at a healthy profit – it couldn’t last. While no cars had been built during WWII, stylists were coming up with all sorts of wild creations on paper, of new, futuristic, streamlined cars of the near and not-so-near future. The all-new 1949 Nashes took streamlining perhaps as far as it could be taken, for its time.
While Studebaker had beaten every other car maker to the punch with its revolutionary ‘coming or going’ 1947 models, the Nash ‘Airflyte’ models that were unveiled in late 1948 were like nothing seen before. They were drastically, unapologetically aerodynamic, with smooth envelope bodies and nary a hint of separate fenders.
It was quite a change from the 1947-48 Nashes, which like many other 1946-48 cars, were lightly facelifted prewar cars. Models like the 1947 600 utilized bodies that had been in production since 1941.
The futuristic touches continued inside, with a ‘Uniscope’ instrument cluster. This bullet-shaped pod was attached to the top of the steering column, with all gauges build into a single glassed-in section.
These new Nashes had unit-body construction, a one-piece curved windshield, and continued a unique Nash feature: seats that converted to a bed for campers and cheapskates who didn’t want to pay for a hotel room. The front seat folded completely flat, forming a continuous section all the way to the rear of the car. You could even order accessory screens for the windows for fresh-air snoozing without the hassle of mosquitoes.
Obviously, the sheetmetal was the big deal; it looked like nothing else on the road. Both front and rear fenders were skirted, which made the cars even more modern looking, but the resulting narrow turning radius probably made these cars a pain to park, not to mention when having to change a flat tire.
The smooth body design not only looked aerodynamic, it was aerodynamic, with very low drag. Wind tunnel testing of the new Nash produced just 113 pounds of drag at 60 miles per hour, a very good figure for the time. A 1949 ‘pregnant’ Packard was also tested, but had a much higher drag of 171 pounds, despite having a very similar fastback design.
1949 Nashes came in 600 and more luxurious Ambassador models. 600s were powered by a 172.6 CID six cylinder, good for 82 hp at 3800 pound feet of torque. Ambassadors received a larger 234.8 CID six with 112 horsepower and a nine inch longer wheelbase. All that extra length did not translate to greater passenger room, however, as it was all forward of the windshield. The cheapest ’49 was the $1786 600 Super 2 door sedan, while the most expensive was the Ambassador Custom 4 door sedan, which retailed for $2363.
Starting with the Super, the line moved up through mid-line Super Special and top trim Custom levels, in 2-door Brougham, 2-door sedan and 4-door sedan varieties. Broughams were virtually identical to the two-door sedan, but featured more luxurious, individual rear seats with built-in armrests, as this photo from the Nash section of Old Car and Truck Pictures shows (there are lots of other cool Nash and Rambler pics there, definitely worth checking out). Very clubby – I like it!
87,145 600s and 42,826 Ambassadors were sold for the 1949 model year. The rarest variant was the flossy Ambassodor Custom 2 door Brougham – only 17 were built!
1950 Airflytes were much the same, which was to be expected for a model that was brand new a year earlier. There were some changes though. The 600 series was renamed the Statesman, and its L-head six received a quarter inch bump in stroke, which resulted in an additional three horsepower and increased displacement to 184 CID. The backlight’s size was increased for better rear visibility as well.
Perhaps the biggest news was in the Ambassador line, which was now available with GM’s Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. Ambassadors also got a slightly longer hood in addition to the larger rear window shared with the Statesman. The Ambassador engine received a new cylinder head as well, which increased power to 115 hp. All Airflytes received slightly larger bumper guards, and were optionally available with seat belts – their first use in an American production car.
Nash used a variety of advertising to tout the Airflyte. Apparently they contracted with longtime Field & Stream columnist and illustrator Ed Zern for a series of fishing and hunting-themed ads. I thought this ad with the fish was kind of cute, and Nash poking a bit of fun at itself with its fish-shaped cars is endearing to me – not seen much these days, when the point of modern ads is typically “I am the greatest.” Lots more of these Ed Zern ads can be found here on oldcarbrochures.com.
Because Nash had an exclusive on its convertible seats, it was marketed to sportsmen as a hunting rig, as this 1950 advertisement shows. How many fishermen and hunters actually bought an Airflyte for that reason is lost to time, however.
Of course, Nash also talked up the Airflytes modern styling and unit-body contstruction, which Nash likened to aircraft design. It certainly looked like nothing else on the road. Well, almost nothing else on the road.
Also in 1950, the Nash Rambler debuted, looking much like a 3/4 scale Airflyte. This compact car, the brainchild of Nash president George Mason, was revolutionary in being a compact luxury car of sorts, with a host of standard equipment, chrome trim and nice upholstery. It would soon overtake the standard Nash line in total sales, but that’s a story for another time.
Which brings us to our featured CC, a 1950 Statesman Super 2 door sedan. If you watch the History Channel, this car may look familiar. American Pickers, a show dedicated to finding cool old stuff, is in nearby LeClaire, and this Nash is sort of their mascot. I have seen it a few times, but a couple of weeks ago, returning from lunch in Clinton (The Candlelight Inn, worth a stop if you’re ever there), I decided to get some photos of this car.
The above ad is appropriate in our featured Nash’s case, as I haven’t seen anything like this – in person, anyway. I go to a lot of car shows and car cruises, and while I’ve seen Metropolitans, Americans and even a Marlin, I can tell you I have never seen an Airflyte.
The Airflyte’s turtleback design makes it look smaller in the photos than it really is. My first impression was of a giant Volkswagen Beetle with a chrome grille.
That Uniscope instrument cluster really caught my eye, too. It may have been form over function, but I think it’s pretty cool. Apparently Nash buyers disagreed, because when the Airflyte was facelifted in 1951, it received a conventional instrument panel.
According to the nice lady at the store, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz found this ’50 Statesman Super at an old gas station near Belle Plaine, Iowa. It is essentially a static display, as most of the powertrain and interior are absent. It’s still a very cool car though. This particular Airflyte model sold for $1,713 when new, and it was the most popular two door Nash that year, with 34,196 made. The Statesman Super Brougham, with its cool rear theater seating, retailed for an extra $22 but was much rarer, with only 1489 takers. How many are left today? Well, this one at least!
Being a Statesman, it has a much shorter nose than its Ambassador siblings. I can’t help but think what this car would look like in bright red with wide whitewalls, a tan interior and maybe a mid-’60s AMC 327 V8. Would such an engine fit?
As for the Airflyte, its time was just about up. As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, fastbacks were becoming passe, as was gently rounded styling. The 1951 Airflytes got a toothier grille, more chrome and more squared off rear quarter panels with little finlets instead of 1949-50’s radiused sheetmetal. The Uniscope was also toast, replaced with a conventional gauge cluster set into the instrument panel.
In 1952, redesigned ‘Golden Airflytes’ would have new notchback rooflines, but were still clearly Nashes, with the carryover skirted front fenders. The fastback era was over, at least until the Pony Car Revolution of the 1960s.
Yes, the fastback version of the Airflyte did not last long, but its modern styling and unique features make it a worthy special interest car today, and certainly a great CC find. Thanks for saving one, Pickers!