As a boy, my late father used to climb up to the signal-box to join his Uncle Harry, a signalman on the London & North Eastern Railway in Newcastle. Naturally, I inherited my Dad’s interest and he was delighted to receive copies of some of my first railway books. I now have sixteen Amberley titles in print, mostly covering railway topics. I am also a teacher of Design & Technology so one of my favourite works is The Golden Age of Streamlining, which helped the world to move faster, combining the science of aerodynamics with aesthetic design. It also looks at how the streamlining design movement influenced architecture, furniture, etc. As usual, though, the railway, and specifically the golden interwar age of glamorous, streamlined express trains, takes centre stage. In this book I have attempted to tell the story of the streamline era, its designers, some of its successes and some of its failures.

By the time the 1939 New York World’s Fair, with its theme of Building the World of Tomorrow opened to the public, streamline style was everywhere: General Motors had its own Highways and Horizons pavilion, featuring Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama exhibit, a scale model of his City of 1960.  This bold vision of the future showcased streamlined GM cars on broad motorways with sweeping intersections, between graceful, elegant skyscrapers.

The New York World’s Fair of 1939 showcased all that was best in streamlining. The people in this image are queueing on the Helicline, which passes through the base of the landmark Trylon and leads into the Perisphere, containing Henry Dreyfuss’ City of Tomorrow and Raymond Loewy’s Transportation of Tomorrow exhibits. (John Van Noate collection, The Golden Age of Streamlining, Amberley Publishing)

The focal point of the Fair was the 600-foot Trylon, a futuristic landmark drawing attention to the neighbouring 180-foot diameter Perisphere, containing Henry Dreyfuss’ City of Tomorrow.  Also, inside was Raymond Loewy’s Transportation of Tomorrow exhibition of yet more streamlined vehicles and even a Transatlantic rocket-ship.

Four years earlier, my Great Uncle Harry’s London and North Eastern Railway had publicised a new four-hour service from Newcastle to London, with an average speed of 67mph. This was made possible by the streamlining of Sir Nigel Gresley’s legendary A4 Class locomotives. Always with an eye for publicity, the first four locomotives and the train they hauled, wore an eye-catching livery of silver grey, and the service was called The Silver Jubilee, commemorating 25 years of the reign of George V. 

Sir Nigel Gresley’s beautiful A4 Class locomotives are synonymous with internal and external streamlining. (Colin Alexander, The Golden Age of Streamlining, Amberley Publishing)

This streamlining was no mere cosmetic exercise, for the A4s were streamlined on the inside, too.  The diameters and curvature and angles of all the internal pipework, even the smoothness of the surfaces of castings, were designed to permit the smoothest possible flow of high-pressure steam to the cylinders. 

The Silver Jubilee was a triumph both mechanically and commercially, leading to the introduction of two further A4-hauled streamlined services, the Coronation and the West Riding Limited.  Streamlined ‘beavertail’ observation cars were provided and fairings were placed between the coaches to reduce wind resistance around corridor connections.  On a trial publicity run in 1935 the Silver Jubilee, behind no.2509 Silver Link, reached the unprecedented speed of 112½mph. 

Henry Segrave’s incredible, dramatically streamlined record-breaking Golden Arrow at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu. (Karen Roe, The Golden Age of Streamlining, Amberley Publishing)

Not to be outdone in the publicity stakes, the LNER’s rival for Anglo-Scottish traffic, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, introduced its own glamorous streamliner in 1937, the Coronation Scot.  Sir William Stanier designed the powerful 'Coronation' Class, with four cylinders to cope with the route's arduous gradients.  He was against streamlining, feeling it was superfluous, but the company wanted the publicity being enjoyed by the LNER. 

On a press run, no.6220 Coronation reached a maximum speed of 114mph, but in doing so almost came to grief on the complicated trackwork of Crewe station where she was still travelling at an excessive speed despite frantic braking. 

Sister engine 6229 visited the USA and was exhibited as the epitome of British engineering at the aforementioned New York World’s Fair of 1939.  The bulbous, almost brutal streamlining of the Stanier engines lacked the grace of the A4s, and it was removed by the 1940s.

The pioneering Greyhound Super Coach, by Raymond Loewy. (flickr.com autohistorian, The Golden Age of Streamlining, Amberley Publishing)

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.  

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.

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.

Reginald Mitchell’s 400 mph Supermarine S6B seaplane. This one was exhibited at the 1951 Festival of Britain. (John Alexander, MBE, The Golden Age of Streamlining, Amberley Publishing)

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.

The book looks at the contribution of the Wright brothers, wind-tunnel testing, the earliest successful airliners, the streamlining of cars on both sides of the Atlantic with icons like the Chrysler Airflow and the Czech-built Tatra. Some of the greatest American designers, such as Buckminster Fuller and Raymond Loewy are featured, and explains how the aesthetics of streamlining was ultimately applied to objects that were never going to move, such as refrigerators!

Of course, World War II changed everything, permanently.  When manufacturing resumed after the war, the streamlined Machine Age had been replaced by the Atomic Age, and the styling of vehicles and products continued to evolve. By then, the age of Streamlining, had delivered a better, faster, more beautiful future, and its legacy is today's modern, fast, economical transport and our minimalistic, stylish, and efficient lifestyles.

Colin Alexander's book The Golden Age of Streamlining is available for purchase now.