Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Sunday Streamline #29: Dreyfuss Rockets

These steam locomotives, hauling the most famous American express train, are the ultimate Diesel Era icons.

No other "steam-stream" design is so eye-catching. No other can be called a synonym of streamlining. Yes, among its contemporaries are true masterpieces like the Milwaukee Hiawatha Atlantics and Baltics or the PRR K4 and S1, but the NYCS J-3a streamlined by Henry Dreyfuss is The Masterpiece.

A bit of pre-history: on February 14, 1927, the New York Central presented the first of their fleet of 275 steam locomotives of the 4-6-4 wheel arrangement which they named the "Hudson" type. The design was influenced by the recent Lima "Superpower" 2-8-4 and NYC Pacifics. All but ten of them were built by ALCO (the others were built by Lima). These Hudsons were designed by NYC's former chief engineer of motive power, Paul W. Kiefer. The Hudsons were typically used to pull 16-18 car Pullman trains at speeds up to 94 MPH. All had boosters on the rear axle of the trailing truck which added roughly 10,000 lbs. starting TE.

Following the success of streamline Mercury trains*, the New York Central decided to launch all-new trainsets on its Chicago line. In 1938, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss was commissioned by the New York Central to design streamlined train sets in Art Deco style, with the locomotive and passenger cars rendered in blues and grays (the colors of the New York Central).

It was a triumph of technology and aesthetics.

The streamlined sets were inaugurated on June 15, 1938. His design was probably the most famous American passenger train of all time. The 20th Century Limited was built for style and stardom (the train conveyed the New York lifestyle) and it tailored perfectly to young executives and “new money.” So popular was the train that the Central often had to run two trains, one in each direction.

Everything was in style - including timetable booklets, menu covers ...

... and tableware, designed by Dreyfuss.Similarly Dreyfuss kept the theme of New York City and urban settings throughout the train and used tones of light and gunmetal gray for the interior and exterior (which was especially stunning inside the train matched against the urban theme). For instance, the diners served double duty.

During the day they were used for general fine dining, serving exceptional meals that rivaled the most exquisite restaurants of the day. However, after the final evening meal was served the white tablecloth linens would be replaced with rust-red linens and the car would become a nightclub known as “Café Century”.

Century's lounge cars were no less famous than its Café:

Michael L. Grace wrote: "If leaving from New York, you departed at 6 p.m. and arrived the next morning in Chicago at 8:45 a.m. Settling in for the evening, after boarding the Century in downtown Manhattan, you enjoyed cocktails in the observation car, dinner with views of the Hudson, a good night sleep and then with breakfast in bed or in the dining car. Dress was business formal with no room for baseball caps.

"Standing in line for security, enduring a long cab ride or enduring hours on the tarmac because of bad weather were not included in your first class Pullman fare.

"The glamorous departure aboard New York Central’s 20th Century Limited was equal to a sailing on the Queen Mary, Liberte or United States. This was still the only way to “cross the pond” from New York to Europe into the 1950s and Pullman was the only way to travel overnight by train in America. "

Dreyfuss' interior designs achievements shouldn't be forgotten, but his main achievement with the Century and probably his best design ever was the rocket-shaped shrouding of the mighty Hudson, with a sharp rib at the front, dubbed "Gladiator's helmet":

These ten locos (including the pioneering Commodore Vanderbilt* which received a new shrouding in 1938) look equally impressive on posters, paintings and photographs:

Another impressive feature of the J-3a Hudsons were their whitewall drivers:

Half of these locomotives had boxpok drivers. The other half had Scullin double-disc drivers.

More images:

Shrouding over the main air reservoirs was removed in 1941. All streamlining was removed from these locomotives in 1945. Anyway, the NYCS Hudson will be always remembered as streamlined:

After the Second World War, a whole new train-set was commissioned which was pulled by diesel-electric locomotives. The new set was ceremonially inaugurated by General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1948. It was this set that was featured in postwar films such as North by Northwest and The Band Wagon.

Another famous NYCS train designed by Dreyfuss is the Empire State Express. n 1941, the New York Central contracted with Budd to build a stainless steel fleet of passenger equipment to upgrade its train service. One of these trains was the "Empire State Express," and had specific equipment dedicated to the service.

Lot 2147 consisted of 16 stainless steel 56-seat coaches built specifically for the new Empire State Express, running from New York to Cleveland via Buffalo (620 mi.) Most of the equipment was named in honor of past governors of New York State. The new stainless steel coaches boasted every modern convenience of the period, including air conditioning.

The re-equipped train was to debut on December 7, 1941, but was upstaged by the events of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, drawing America into World War II.

Anyway, two locomotives soldiered on in their streamline shrouding very similar to Century's, no rib, grey-blue bicolor paint scheme:

Here they are together on a 1940s poster, the 20th Cenury Limited and Empire State Express, with their diesel successor at left:

Special thanks to: steamlocomotive.com, NY Social Diary, Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museumpaul.malon @ Flickr.

Wiki texts used (1, 2)

Artwork: David Mittner, Ted Rose


* I'm happy to announce that our past articles, severely damaged by my personal hosting service, are fully restored and look better than ever.

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Comment by thetrainguru on November 8, 2013 at 2:45pm

it the most beautiful train in the world, sure the F-Units that replaced the steam power looked nice but lacked the style of its predecessors.

as always, great article.

Comment by lord_k on April 24, 2011 at 12:47pm
My pleasure. It's the most amazing steam streamliner ever built and I'm happy you love it.
Comment by Cameron Henry on April 24, 2011 at 12:33pm
Ever since I was a baby I loved trians. This Article reminded me of an episode of Super man from the 1940's called "Billion Dollar Limited." Thanks again for the awesome reads.

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