Streamline Design of the 1930s

Art Moderne as a Consumer Product

This is the story of two Budds, unrelated to one another but joined together historically in the design and development of a new train, sleek, light and fast, shaped like a speeding bullet. Until the early 1930s, trains had been heavy and because of their upright shapes were slowed down by drag as well. Pushing through the air efficiently and effectively meant that the basic shape of this fast moving object–the train–needs to be aerodynamically streamlined, a slanted back shape that pushes the air away, allowing it to slip quickly around the surfaces. The first Budd was Edward G. Budd (1870-1946) who was a visionary when it came to designing planes, trains, and automobiles in steel. Although by the 1920s, trains had been cutting across Europe and American for almost one hundred years and the carriages were still substantially made of wood. It was Budd who understood that this fire hazard could be avoided by substituting wood with a material that would not burn. Starting with using steel instead of wood for railway seats, Budd then expanded the use of steel to the entire car, which was suddenly lighter, faster and safer. The second Budd was also in the railroad business, not as an engineer but as the owner of an entire railroad. Ralph Budd (1879-1962) began as the head of the Great Northern Railway (GN) and then took over the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, called “Burlington” in 1932. The Depression had cut deeply into the passager traffic, not to mention the goods that could not be manufactured and transported. The company was in a crisis and needed a way to make transportation by rail faster and less costly. But most of all, Ralph Budd needed to convince the nation that trains could be objects of desire, that a journey by train could be a glamorous and, in fact, a new and modern experience. Meanwhile, Edward Budd, who may have been a distant relative, had been experimenting with stainless steel for plane and automobile bodies. During the early years of the Depression, the two Budds came together to create the legendary and beautifully designed Zephyr train that changed rail transportation from the mundane to the extraordinary.

In fact, as early as 1914, Budd had patented the first all-steel all-welded auto body, the solid shape that we use today that is simply placed upon the chassis in one piece. According to The History of Stainless Steel by Harold M. Cobb, the art of shaping an auto body involved stretching the steel and knowing when to stop before the breaking point–a skill that Budd’s company had mastered. Undaunted by the dark years, in 1931 Budd continued to innovate, converting an all wood design to the first all stainless-steel airplane, an amphibious model that flew successfully. Somewhat less successful with the French company, Michelin, to build the first railroad car with rubber tires. The idea of rubber tires came to Andre Michelin,  tired of the rough and noisy ride of metal wheels on metal tracks, naturally wondered if trains could use tires, like cars. The short answer was no, the tires were too fragile for the metal rails, but the two tycoons of transportation, Michelin and Budd came together for their experiment, building a rubber tired rail car called the “Green Goose.” But one experimental failure did not discourage Budd. Along the way, Budd had borrowed a very successful recipe for stainless steel that added chromium and nickel that made stainless steel less corrosive and low maintenance and, as a bonus, much stronger. The mix of 18% chromium and 8% nickel was discovered in Germany by the Krupp corporation. In 1932, the first Budd, Edward, had the material, the best and most advanced stainless steel, all the experimenting with solid body designs, and the other Budd, Ralph, came together to create a new kind of train. Budd, a former engineer himself, had been the youngest president of a railroad company and now headed a large Chicago based firm that was being threatened by customers using cars instead of trains. In addition the Depression had taken its toll and across the board, where ever one looked, the traffic in passengers on trains had dropped significantly.  For Budd, however, the Depression, as he remarked, “gave you time to think.” The promising new steel-alloy train caught his attention: such a train weighed less than a traditional train but was capable of carrying the same load, thus saving money. The stainless-steel diesel powered Zephyr passenger train debuted in April of 1934, making its first appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair, bringing together Budd the manufacturers of stainless steel bodies and Budd the president of a faltering railroad. 

The Zephyr looked unlike any train that had ever taken to the rail. The term used in the 1930s was “streamlined” was later changed to “aerodynamically” designed. “Streamlined” referred to the silver snake of an apparatus, uncoiling from Denver’s Union Station on its way to Chicago. The trip was just over a thousand miles and was completed in thirteen hours and five minutes, far quicker than was imagined. The press and the public were enthralled, just as Ralph Budd hoped they would be. Therefore, the stainless-steel diesel-powered Zephyr passenger train debuted in April of 1934, making its first appearance at the Chicago World’s Fair, bringing together Budd the manufacturers of stainless steel bodies and Budd the president of a faltering railroad. The train roared into the Chicago station, looking like a “wingless airplane” gliding effortless down the track. The arrival of this train announced the arrival of the age of aerodynamical design to the public who could not fail to take notice of such a beautiful train.  The appearance of the Zephyr overshadowed the appearance of Union Pacific’s entry into the streamline stakes, the M-10000, painted a bright yellow to counter the dark green color used on traditional trains. Apparently unaware of the importance of the Zephyr which appeared just three weeks later, the company announced that “M” stood for “motorcar.” “Zephyr,” in contrast, meant the god of the west wind, and the actual train did not look like a train: it was a silver revolution in travel and at 112 miles per hour, just shy of a land record in America,  it literally blew past Union Pacific’s offering, leaving it looking stalled on the tracks. The tight design came from Albert Dean who was given the task of streamlining a train, something that had never been done in 1933. Dean enclosed the underside of the train, creating a smooth undercarriage to reduce drag, that would compliment the sloped front end, designed by John Harberson. Everything on the train was flattened, even the rivets to prevent wind drag. The sides of the train had horizontal flutes, like the grooves in a column, that also reduced wind resistance. The original Zephyr was a small train, only three cars but it was a sensation. Dedicated in Philadelphia, the train was announced by its owner Ralph Budd as “a symbol of progress.” But Budd had plans to publicize the new invention–a three-week tour of American cities that would attract a million people.  

Observation Car

Having chosen the name, Zephyr and fitting the name started with the letter Z or the “last word in trains,” Ralph Budd left the design of the train to Edward Budd and his company artists and engineers. Old trains were cold and uncomfortable in America, but in Europe, train travel was a luxurious experience. The tight tube-like exterior design came from Albert Dean who was given the task of streamlining a train, something that had never been done in 1933. Dean enclosed the underside of the train, creating a smooth undercarriage to reduce drag, that would compliment the sloped front end, designed by John Harberson. Everything on the train was flattened, even the rivets to prevent wind drag. The sides of the train had horizontal flutes, like the grooves in a column, that also reduced wind resistance. The original Zephyr was a small train, only three cars but it was a sensation. Inside, the interior was equally streamlined. Each passenger compartment was self-contained and could be heated and cooled (the train even had air conditioning). Designer Paul Philippe Cret took care to made the interior design appear to be ultra-modern. Unlike European trains that looked like home interiors, this train was stripped down–no baggage racks–padded in pale cool colors, luxurious and comfortable seats, and gray carpeting that complimented the steel exterior.

The publicity had attracted nationwide attention and demand for the relatively small number of tickets–85–for the next event–a non-stop ride from Denver to Chicago where the Zephyr would arrive at the World’s Fair. According to The Tragedy at the Loomis Street Crossing by Chuck Spinner, the previous record had been 775 days.  The Pioneer Zephyr reported, The first car held the diesel engine, engineer’s cab, a 30-ft. railway post office, and space for baggage. The second car carried a larger baggage compartment, a buffet- grill and, at the rear portion of the unit, a 16-ft. smoking section with seats for 20 passengers. Third and last was a 31-ft. compartment with seats for 40 persons, and a solarium-lounge with chairs for 12. Prior to the Pioneer Zephyr, the traveling public knew only ornate but gloomy railroad car interiors. All that changed with the high- stepping Zephyr. Each individual compartment had a distinctive color harmony coordinating wall colors, window drapes, upholstery, and floor covering.” As Budd had hoped, the train lifted the depressed spirits of the public, suggesting a modern future and better things to come. As a passenger on that Pioneer ride explained, “I have always felt that the Pioneer Zephyr, in introducing a new type of service at a time when the Depression was still fresh in our minds, had a stimulating effect in that it lifted our spirits and had much to do with reaffirming the faith of the people in the free enterprise system. True, it was not a world-shaking event, but it pointed the way for better things to come.” The record-breaking ride of the Zeypher was made possible by the cooperation of the towns and villages along the way which idled all other railroad traffic to allow the train to fly past. Crowds gathered along the way, cheering on the “Silver Streak.”

Interior of Zephyr 

In his book Railroads and the American People H. Roger Grant wrote that the train traveled at an unheard of speed of 77.6 miles per hour. He wrote that “An estimated 1 million people observed the fast-moving Zephyr. As J. S. Ford, assistant master mechanic of the Burlington told reporters, ‘It seemed like the entire population was lined up at every town, city, and village to cheer us along.” Commented the New York Times, ‘At each station, where crowds gathered to see the silver kind of transportation speed through, the track was guarded by local law officers, posts of the American Legion and Boy Scouts.'”  The train barrelled on, dropping news bulletins along the way, watched by reporters and a delighted public until at last, it pulled into the platform for the “Century of Progress.” The Zeypher seemed to the midwest that had enjoyed this joyous run to be the arrival of “progress” personified. The “Dawn to Dusk” ride had been completed and the era of the steam engine had been closed.

The passengers on the “Dawn to Dusk” run arrive at the Chicago World’s Fair

Ralph Budd brought new trains, bearing legendary names, Silver Meteor, Rocket, Champion, Mark Twain, Flying Yankee, El Capitan, and Empire Builder, online during the 1930s, bringing the romance of train travel and speed and modernity together. As Kevin EuDaly and his co-authors pointed out in The Complete Book of North American Railroading, these successors of the Zephyr had four cars for additional passengers or freight. A year after its famous Dawn to Dusk journey, the train was renamed the “Silver Streak,” and a movie was made about the train at the same time in which the train was a hero, delivering an iron lung to a polio victim. Edward Budd designed a number of version of the Silver Streak,  entire trains that were designed to take into account of the route the train would take, the territory it rode through, the market size which would determine the capacity, and the competition. The America of the Depression is rarely thought of as a place of innovation in design, but the decade was a golden age of industrial design led by the sensational arrival of Art Moderne embodied by a fleet of trains the announced the arrival of the future. Whether they moved or not, other consumer goods would copy the look of the Silver Streak. Ironically at a time when few could afford gas for their beat up and broken down cars, speed was the slogan of the 1930s and its streaks were imprinted on the new household products.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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