During the 1930s a new style of visual art swept across the globe influencing the worlds of art and architecture. This new style also impacted the railways and locomotive design, including our fantastic “City of Birmingham” locomotive here at Thinktank.
Art Deco, formed from the French term Arts Décoratifs, combined luxury and modernism and came to represent glamour and wealth during the early twentieth century. This was a time where the world had just about recovered from the impact of the First World War and people began to see real technological progress. This was also a period of great change in the transport industry in Britain, with increased competition from road traffic the railways were sectioned off into four companies. These companies, which became known as the “Big Four”, were the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish), LNER (London and North Eastern Railway), GWR (Great Western Railway) and Southern Railways.
So what does the British Railway network have to do with Art Deco?
As roads became more and more popular the railways began to be seen as old-fashioned, dirty and under-funded. What the railways desperately needed was a new way of attracting custom back to their services and a new way of appearing modern. It was the LNER that first thought of combining the new, popular Art Deco style into their trains in Britain after their chief engineer, Sir Nigel Gresley, visited Germany to see a rather curious locomotive. The fantastically named “Flying Hamburger” was a streamlined diesel which impressed Gresley very much, however he was determined that steam was just as good, if not better than diesel, and so set about designing his own streamlined train.
The act of streamlining was in keeping with the new modern stylings of Art Deco and led to the formation of a new, separate form of the movement known as “Streamline Moderne”.
The end product to Gresley and the LNER’s efforts was the A4 Pacific class locomotive. These locomotives were the fastest of their day and one in particular, “Mallard”, still holds the world speed record for a steam locomotive at 125.88 mph.
It wasn’t just the LNER that took to this new styling and soon all four of the big rail companies had their own streamlined engines. The Southern railway had the Merchant Navy Class, the GWR had streamlined diesel railcars and, despite their chief engineers’ reservations, an experimental castle class called Manorbier Castle.
One of the most stunning examples of streamlining though came from the LMS. The Coronation class, painted in Midland Railway crimson, had a streamlined shell which encased the locomotive and our locomotive here at Thinktank, the City of Birmingham, was built with this streamlined case.
Whilst these locomotives certainly caught the imagination of the public they were not without their problems. Most mechanics disliked the streamlining as it significantly affected accessibility when repairs were needed. Many designers were not in favour of streamlining, the GWR in particular, and saw it as a passing phase of fashion. The casing could also be dangerous, as was discovered when the streamlined Coronation locomotives entered service. The smoke from the chimney was not pushed away from the train as the streamlined casing actually pulled smoke towards the driver windows!
There was one factor though that none of the railway companies could have foreseen which truly bought to an end the era of streamlining, the Second World War. With the coming of war the railways were once again bought under national control and many locomotives had parts of their streamlined casing removed for ease of access. The war also bought about a new type of locomotive design, the “austerity engine” which totally rejected the idea of luxury for functionality and cost cutting with incredibly simple engines such as the Q1 built by the Southern Railway. Once the war was over most locomotives lost their streamlining with our loco, the City of Birmingham, being the very first to be totally de-streamlined in 1946.
Streamlining did not die out after the war; it still carries on to this day but with a more prominent focus on the technological benefits instead of coming from a place of art. Most high speed trains are designed using wind tunnels with the inter-city 125 and the class 390 Pendolino trains at the forefront of modern rail travel.