By Ryan Lee Price

Though the term “aerodynamics” is less than 100 years old, people have been experimenting with the concept for thousands of years. Appearing in Norse legends, a Finnish blacksmith named Ilmienen is said to have produced metal wings with which to fly; Shun, the emperor of China in 2000 BC was taught to fly by two princesses of his court, and 500 years later, Chinese writing depicts a flying cart with wheels that resemble propellers. Kites are believed to have been invented in China around 400 BC by Mo To Tzu, while in 67 AD, as described in Octave Chanute’s 1880 book La Navigation Aerienne, Simon the Magician made one of the earliest recorded attempts at flight with a primitive glider.
Hundreds of years later, DaVinci designed parachutes and helicopters after observing the “vital force” of birds, but most notably sketched what he called an ornithopter, whose pilot flapped the wings via pulleys. A French locksmith named Besneir created a simple glider in 1678. Francois Blanchard expanded DaVinci’s ornithopter by adding a balloon in 1781, and American Dr. John Jeffries, four years later, was the first to cross the English Channel in such a device, later proclaimed the greatest feat of the century. The Wright Brothers came along, and although they didn’t invent the airplane, they ushered in the age of modern flight, aeronautical engineering, and paved the way for cars to cut through the very same atmospheric barrier that airplanes needed for flight.
At the same time the airplane was taking off as a serious form of machinery, on the ground, the automobile was gaining popularity. There are countless examples of racecars with streamlined designs borrowed from boats: the 1916 Indy 500 winner, a Peugeot with a boat-tail tapering aft of the rear wheels. As early as 1907, a streamlined racing car called the Rocket reached 132 miles per hour before it became airborne.
To a racecar designer, having their car slip easily through the air was of vital importance. However, early production car designs focused their attention on how well the engine and transmission could punch a hole through the same air.
It wasn’t until 1921 when Edmund Rumpler produced the first truly aerodynamic car for the masses called the Rumpler-Tropfenauto, which loosely translates into “tear-drop car” (when viewed from above).  The car caused a sensation, but Benz’s attempt to commercialize it failed, thanks to its futuristic design. The aerodynamics of his cars were better than that of most cars built around 70 years later, as it was reported that bored engineers at Lockheed’s wind tunnel in Georgia strapped one of the few surviving examples to the wind tunnel. To their surprise, it produced a coefficient of drag (Cd) value of 0.27. Compared to modern cars with the benefit of computer-aided designs, this is a significant increase (Cd averages around 0.32 today). Around 100 examples of the Tropfenauto were built, and several of these unique vehicles can be seen set ablaze in the final scenes of Fritz Lang’s movie “Metropolis.”
If Rumpler started the trend toward the efficiencies of aerodynamics, then Paul Jaray, a former Zeppelin designer, gave it a big push into the mainstream. Stay tuned for Part 2 of “A History of the Invisible Wall: Aerodynamics Goes Mainstream.”

Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the ChiltonPRO and ChiltonDIY products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.