In 1929, rising young sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks arrived at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to head up the sculpture department. He needed a more reliable car than his 1928 Willys-Knight, which wouldn't start on cold winter mornings, but in the Depression, he didn't have money to get one.
Fairbanks reasoned he could design a radiator cap ornament in trade for a new automobile. Chrysler Corporation, in nearby Highland Park, was an up-and-coming auto maker, with innovative engineering and designs; but its radiator caps, with their little Viking wings, needed improvement. Avard Fairbanks was just the artist to replace them with sculptural masterpieces.
At Chrysler headquarters, he was told they were about to introduce an all-new Plymouth, the PA series, featuring Floating Power (which meant shock-absorbing engine mounts). "The Smoothness of an Eight with the Economy of a Four" was the advertising pitch. Could he symbolize that in a radiator cap ornament?
Fairbanks designed a little mermaid (of Norse mythology) coming up out of a swirling wave...then gave her the wings of an eagle. The mermaid was a hit: Floating Power, indeed!
In return for his work on the little mermaid, Fairbanks was paid with a handsome, red 1932 Chrysler Royal Eight.
Over the years these radiator caps have come to be known as "the Flying Lady." Only the Fairbanks family knows who she really is. Take a close look, the next time you see one; take a closer look at the point where her hips emerge from the swirling waves and where her tail disappears topside. Notice the little ridges that represent her fishy scales. She's a mermaid, all right!
The 1931 Plymouth was a runaway success. It pushed Buick out of third place and thrust Chrysler Corporation into the Big Three of auto makers. Walter P. Chrysler may have thought its success had to do with his engineering features such as hydraulic brakes, free wheeling and Floating Power, but Avard Fairbanks, never averse to taking due credit, always said, "Everyone just loved my little mermaid."
There is a feature of the Little Mermaid on which almost everyone seems compelled to comment. It's not about the feathery pattern on her wings, nor her flowing wavy hair, nor her graceful emergence out of the waves. It's about her healthy torso! Fairbanks reply spoke strongly in her defense: "She's a mermaid, and that's just how mermaids are!" Dispute that if you can.
The "Little Mermaid on the waves," as a symbol of floating power and Plymouth, soon got lost on the marketing people at Plymouth. A line drawing of the design appeared on each page of the sales brochures of the PA models, but the Fairbanks design was used only on the 1931 PA and 1932 PB Plymouths. The 1933 design, which was taller and slimmer, was the work of someone else. By 1934, Plymouth ornaments had become sailing ships; winged ladies of various designs were reserved for DeSoto, until 1949.