The Coolest Planes, Trains, and Cars That You Need to Know About

The past isn't finished with you.
Marcia Wendorf
The Mercury American Rails

The image at the top of this article is:

  1. A new Japanese bullet train
  2. A model used in the 1991 film The Rocketeer
  3. A real train from the 1930s
  4. None of the above.

If you selected number three, give yourself a pat on the back. For the rest of you, meet The Mercury.

The Mercury was the name given to a set of trains operated by the New York Central Railroad starting in July 1936 that were operated as daytime coaches between the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

The trains were designed for speed, which is why they were named for the Roman messenger god, Mercury. They were designed by the famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, who was one of the first to apply the study of human factors to his designs, while at the same time working to make consumer products cheaper to manufacture and repair, better looking and feeling, and safer.

Dreyfuss made significant contributions to the fields of ergonomics, anthropometrics, and human factors by creating anthropomorphic charts for the average "Joe" and "Josephine", who represented the 50th percentile of the population in size. Dreyfuss published several books including, Designing for People in 1955, 1960's The Measure of Man, which included ergonomic reference charts that provided industrial designers with precise specifications for product designs, and in 1972, Dreyfuss published The Symbol Sourcebook, A Comprehensive Guide to International Graphic Symbols. This work contained over 20,000 symbols, and it continues to be used by industrial designers to this day.

Princess phone
Princess phone. Source: Mcheath/Wikimedia Commons

Henry Dreyfuss was best known for his designs of consumer products which included the iconic Western Electric Model 302 dial telephone, the Princess phone, which was designed to fit the hand of an "average-sized" teenage girl, the Westclox Big Ben alarm clock, the Hoover 150 and Hoover Constellation vacuum cleaners, the Polaroid SX-70 camera, and the Honeywell round thermostat. Before Dreyfuss, thermostats had been rectangular and were often misaligned during installation. Dreyfuss's round design eliminated that problem.

During World War II, Dreyfuss designed the Pentagon war room, used by the Joint Chiefs of staff, along with two other industrial designers. About the industrial design process, Dreyfuss was quoted as saying: "We bear in mind that the object being worked on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated or in some other way used by people. When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the Industrial Designer has failed." In 1965, Dreyfuss was elected as the first President of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA).

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Honeywell round thermostat
Honeywell round thermostat. Source: CC-BY/Wikimedia Commons

Streamline Moderne

Henry Dreyfuss's work was part of the design esthetic known as Streamline Moderne, which was first introduced during the Chicago World's Fair that ran from May 1933 to October 1934. The style featured aerodynamic designs, curving forms, long horizontal lines, rounded corners, porthole windows, flat roofs, chrome-plated hardware, and nautical elements. In France, Streamline Moderne was known as Style paquebot. It was an offshoot (some argue a reaction to) Art Deco, but unlike Art Deco, which focused on decorative elements and abstractions of modern forms, Streamline Moderne focused on mass production, functional efficiency, and form.

Bakelite telephone
Bakelite telephone. Source: Holger Ellgaard/Wikimedia Commons

New materials were a feature of the Streamline Moderne style, and these included bakelite plastic, Formica, enamel, stainless steel, and opaque glass. Consumer products in the Streamline Moderne style included the first bakelite telephone in 1931, the Electrolux vacuum cleaner in 1937, and a streamlined toaster.

Streamline moderne stoves were very popular during the 1930s. These had curved edges and were covered in white enamel for easy cleaning and maintenance. Henry Dreyfuss's circular washing machine, known as the "Toperator", featured chrome bands around its body.

Planes designed along the Streamline Moderne style included the 1933 Boeing 247 and 1935's Douglas DC-3. Trains, besides The Mercury, that featured the Streamline Moderne style included Germany's 1932 Hamburg Flyer, and the London Midland and Scottish Railway's 1938 Duchess of Hamilton locomotive.

Hamburg Flyer
Hamburg Flyer. Source: Appaloosa/Wikimedia Commons

In the United States, The Mercury trains remained in service until July 11, 1959, when the Cleveland Mercury made its last trip.

Duchess of Hamilton
Duchess of Hamilton locomotive. Source: coolddudeandy01/Wikimedia Commons

During the 1930s, the Streamline Moderne style also started appearing in automobiles that looked as if they were moving even when at rest.

1934 Chrysler Airflow
1934 Chrysler Airflow. Source: Randy Stern/Wikimedia Commons

These cars sat lower and wider than their counterparts, and they featured smooth curves, horizontal lines, and grills and windshields that tilted backward. Cars that featured this new style included the 1934 Chrysler Airflow and the 1934 Studebaker Land Cruiser.

1934 Studebaker Land Cruiser
1934 Studebaker Land Cruiser. Source: Rian Castillo/Wikimedia Commons

The Streamline Moderne style also started showing up in buildings having to do with transportation, such as train and bus stations, airport terminals, port buildings, and roadside cafes.

L.A. Coca-cola factory
L.A. Coca-Cola factory, 1936. Source: Carol Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons

Homes designed in the Streamline Moderne style featured aerodynamic curves, smooth stucco surfaces, and contrasting-colored interiors. Today, the greatest number of Streamline Moderne homes can be seen in Los Angeles and Miami Beach where it is sometimes referred to as Tropical Deco.

Greyhound bus terminal
Greyhound bus terminal. Source: Nyttend/Wikimedia Commons

As the 1930s ended and World War II began, Streamline Moderne faded, replaced by the International Style after WWII. However, modern architects, such as Steven Ehrlich, have begun featuring some Streamline Moderne elements in their designs.

Streamline Moderne was reintroduced in 1991 with the release of the movies, The Rocketeer and Dead Again. The latter film featured the appearance of Los Angeles' Streamline Moderne High Tower Apartments.

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