The Golden Age of Streamlining – Part Two



October 18th, 2021

In Part One we saw how Gresley’s streamlined LNER A4 4-6-2 no.2509 Silver Link broke the world speed record on a publicity run on 27th September 1935, reaching the unprecedented speed of 112½mph. Within two years the British record had been taken by rival LMSR 4-6-2 no.6220 Coronation, designed by Stanier. This locomotive attained 114mph, but in doing do almost came to grief on the complicated trackwork of Crewe station where she was still travelling at an excessive speed despite frantic braking.

The world record, meanwhile, had gone to Germany on 11th May 1936, when 05.002, one of three experimental Class 05 streamlined 4-6-4 locomotives of the Deutsche Reichsbahn attained a speed of 125mph with a lightweight test train. In appearance, the first two were not unlike Stanier’s streamliners, but the third had its cab at the front, using pulverised coal for its fuel. It was later rebuilt along more conventional lines.

Then just before the outbreak of World War Two, another class of streamliners appeared on the Deutsche Reichsbahn. These were the powerful Class 01.10, totalling 55 in number. They were imposing machines but all lost their streamlined casings after the war.

Meanwhile in 1938, back on the LNER, Gresley A4 no.4468 Mallard famously broke the world speed record, attaining 126mph, a maximum that would never be beaten with steam traction. Peacetime Germany, would go on to become a world leader in the building of lightweight streamlined diesel railcars for its domestic market and for export, continuing the legacy of the Fliegender Hamburger.

The first purpose-built steam streamliner in the United States was of the unusual (for a streamlined locomotive) wheel arrangement of 4-4-2. They were known as Class A, and were introduced in 1935 specifically for hauling the high speed Hiawatha service on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. They were reputedly capable of 120mph and would regularly reach 100.

Clifford Brooks Stevens designed the beautiful Skytop Lounge cars which from 1948 formed the distinctive tail-end of the Hiawatha. With their multiple windows like the compound eye of an insect, orange livery and chrome band carrying the Hiawatha name in a stylish italic typeface, they rank among the most attractive passenger coaches ever to run on rails.

Another Chicago-based railroad operated what was probably the most famous streamlined train in the USA. This was the Burlington Zephyr of 1934, on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The sleek new diesel trains featured lightweight, spot-welded stainless steel bodies with horizontal accents along the sides, and aerodynamic fairings over the bogie frames. At the front end, the traditional cowcatcher became an elegant, curved skirt whose profile continued up to the windscreen and roofline. Echoing aeronautical practice, its advanced monocoque shell was wind tunnel tested, and it was described as the “wingless aircraft on tracks”. On a record-breaking run from Chicago to Denver, one of the Zephyrs attained 112.5mph.

Raymond Loewy applied the existing conventions of streamlining to some of the most iconic American locomotives, and added ideas of his own. These included ‘speed whiskers’, a decorative motif which would be used on railways all over the world until the 1960s.

Among Loewy’s most astonishing locomotive designs, indeed one of the most astonishing locomotives ever built, was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s one-off ‘duplex’, classified S.1, with the remarkable wheel arrangement of 6-4-4-6. Her exterior streamlining was pure Loewy. Given the running number 6100, she spent her first couple of years in steam, mounted on rollers at that great exposition of all things futuristic and streamlined, the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The longest non-articulated locomotive ever built, she was designed to haul trains of 1200 tons at 100mph, but was too long for most turntables and curves. She was, however, a massive public relations success, not least at the World’s Fair, and led to the development of the later T-1s of shorter 4-4-4-4 arrangement. Baldwin’s received the order for two of these from the Pennsylvania RR in 1942. In appearance they were truly breathtaking, Raymond Loewy giving them a look that was totally unlike anything seen on the rails before, with a sinister profile not dissimilar to a submarine. They were designed to pull the most prestigious trains, such as The Broadway Limited, and could manage a 16-car passenger train at 100mph.

Loewy’s most enduring design on America’s railroads predated his steam duplexes. It was also on the Pennsylvania RR, and powered not by steam, but by electricity. This was his iconic GG1, of which 139 were built from 1934, and they lasted in service for almost 50 years. The Pennsylvania wanted them to have a unique, streamlined appearance and turned to Loewy. The body was a symphony of curves, with welded panels. The prominent nose ends were adorned with an integral headlight, the PRR totem and sweeping speed whiskers, which would become part of the company's standard livery.

With their 100mph performance coupled with good reliability the GG1s were loved by crews and passengers alike. Meanwhile, most early American electric and diesel locomotives conformed to a classic streamlined outline with sloping windscreens above a rounded nose which usually incorporated a large central headlight and often a skirt beneath. This look would be exported all over the world from Egypt to Australia and Argentina, until it went out of fashion, to be replaced by the ubiquitous single-cab unit with rectangular ‘hood’.

Raymond Loewy did not have a monopoly on American streamliners. The New York Central RR’s J-3a Hudson Mercury of 1938 was designed by Henry Dreyfuss, also responsible for the classic American Bell telephone of 1933. The J3-a operated the famous Twentieth Century Limited between New York and Chicago. The locomotive was more conventional than Loewy's duplexes on the Pennsylvania, but Dreyfuss’ front end treatment was very striking, with a bullet-nosed smokebox and a curved skirt beneath. Most notably, the hemispherical front was bisected by a vertical fin with a central headlight, looking like something from contemporary sci-fi film, Flash Gordon.

The J-3a was not the only American streamliner that was redolent of comic-book sci-fi imagery. There was a definite air of menace to the appearance of the Union Pacific Railroad’s City of Salina diesel, with its futuristic headlight on the driver’s cab, which itself sits above a huge bulbous nose grille. It claimed to be the first streamliner to operate on a major US railroad and its 1934 debut was greeted by a blaze of publicity.

Streamlined locomotives were also to be seen beyond North America and Europe. Railway companies in, for example, India, Australia and even Iraq, could see the benefit of publicity to be gained from such glamorous engines pulling their most prestigious trains.

Despite the fact, for the reasons mentioned earlier, that streamlining has less of an effect on the railway than it does on the road, the more glamorous postwar trains, especially in the USA and Europe, continued to bear the hallmarks of the prewar streamliners. All modern-day high-speed trains, from the Japanese Shinkansen to the French TGV and cross-channel Eurostar, employ cutting-edge aerodynamic technology. It is ironic then, that the world speed record was held for many years by two French electric locomotives in the 1950s which were basically rectangular boxes!

Nuremberg-Museum-Werner-Soffing Displayed in the Nuremberg Transport Museum is German streamliner no.05.001. Sister engine no.05.002 held the world steam speed record for a time, before Mallard took the crown forever. (Dr. Werner Söffing)

Hiawatha-Alon-Siton Another great rail-borne streamlined icon was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad's 'Hiawatha' service. Unusually for streamliners, the locomotives were of a 4-4-2 wheel arrangement. (Alon Siton collection)

Dayton-Beach-Florida-Justin-Nelson Just as the LNER's prestigious trains were streamlined at both ends, so was the 'Hiawatha'. Clifford Brooks Stevens designed the distinctive Skytop Lounge car. This beauty is preserved in the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts & Sciences, Florida. (Justin Nelson)

Burlington-Zephyr-Don-Melsha Mail bags are exchanged at Table Rock, Nebraska as the Burlington Zephyr pauses on the Kansas City to Lincoln, Nebraska route. (Don Melsha)

GG1-Andy-Sutcliffe Loewy's greatest contribution to rail transport was his Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotive. Two preserved examples are seen here in 2014 at Boonton Transportation Heritage Festival in New Jersey. (Andy Sutcliffe)

The Golden Age of Streamlining by Colin Alexander, is now available courtesy of Amberley Publishing: https://www.amberley-books.com/the-golden-age-of-streamlining.html Golden-Age-Steamlining-Colin-Alexander

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