GM’s domed “Astra Liner” pointed the way

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 6, 2020

GM's Astra Liner concept train, unveiled in model form 75 years ago this month, introduced the dome car to the railroad industry. From September 1945 Trains
“If you go by a school and the kids don’t whistle, then it’s back to the drawing board.”

With that, the great General Motors stylist Harley Earl pretty much summed up his design philosophy, one that manifested itself in two generations of Chevys, Pontiacs, Buicks, and Cadillacs adorned with chrome, fins, and bulging taillights. Writing of Earl for Motor Trend, K. Scott Teeters described him as a “visionary with corporate clout and the resources to get anything done that he could imagine; and he had an amazing imagination.”

Among Earl’s accomplishments was his role in creating Chevrolet’s enduring contribution to sports cars, the Corvette. That alone is quite a legacy. 

But Earl’s imagination wasn’t limited to automobiles. It was 75 years ago this month that Earl’s team at GM, the famed Styling Section, introduced American railroads to the Astra Liner, a concept streamliner that emphasized domes. Though now largely forgotten, the unveiling of the Astra Liner was a fateful moment before the postwar streamliner boom. 

The Astra Liner was created by GM's famed Section, led by legendary auto designer Harley Earl.
Earl first made a name for himself in the 1930s, introducing more flamboyant concepts to the staid business of automobile design, and he went on to directly influence every line of GM cars for the next three decades. He is also known, for better or worse, as one of the authors of the “Dynamic Obsolescence,” or planned obsolescence, which dictated that annual evolutionary changes in automobile design would cause buyers to get the newest model whether they needed it or not. It worked.

Not everyone admired Earl, notably Raymond Loewy, famous for his GG1 design for the Pennsylvania Railroad. “Dad called Earl’s designs ‘chrome-plated barges,’” said Loewy’s daughter, Laurence Loewy, in a 2005 interview for CNN. “He said that, if left to his own devices, Harley Earl would put fins on a TV or refrigerator.”

Meanwhile, for operators of passenger trains, the place to be back in February 1945 was an automobile showroom in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, where GM arranged to show off the Astra Liner concept to the officers of 55 different railroads. After a brief promotional presentation, visiting railroaders would be ushered into a studio where they could ooh and ahh over a large model featuring three 10-foot-long cars with removable roofs, so as to reveal a crowded, bustling train of tiny passengers and crew, all made of clay.

Viewed through the prism of the stylish streamliners that would begin arriving a couple of years hence, the Astra Liner is a bit of a clumsy, even goofy take on the art of streamlining, more Aerotrain than California Zephyr — maybe not Earl’s and his stylists’ finest hour. But for railroad officials with one foot still in the heavyweight era, the train must have seemed tantalizingly radical. 

One of the Astra Liner's three cars was a sleeper with nine rooms topped by a 24-seat dome. From September 1945 Trains
The Astra Liner made specific hints of the future. A sleeping car offered a dome with 24 seats, each seat to be matched with a passenger in one of the bedroom or compartment options downstairs. Patrons in the dining car would gather beneath a curved glass roof, suggestive of what Santa Fe would introduce in 1956 with its Budd-built Hi-Level cars for the El Capitan.

Possibly the Astra Liner’s biggest “wow” factor was its lounge car, which featured both another dome as well as a round-end observation room. The car featured five separate levels, if one included a slightly depressed passageway to provide adequate headroom beneath the dome. In the rear of the car, a raised rear floor and deep windows would provide a majestic view of tracks and scenery, something New York Central patrons would come to know later in the Creek-series cars of the 1948 Century.

The Astra Liner made a strong impression on at least one member of the news media, Al Kalmbach, still the editor of Trains as well as its publisher. “Sounds a bit fantastic, doesn’t it,” Al wrote in the September 1945 issue. “But it is all within the limitations of sound railroad engineering practice. It is simply the result of turning loose on railroad car design men who have been successfully catching the public attention with auto, refrigerator, and appliance designs.” 

The curved rooftop windows of the Astra Liner's dining car anticipated Seaboard's Sun Lounge cars and Santa Fe's Hi-Level lounges of a decade later. From September 1945 Trains
The Astra Liner had one, immediate, direct effect on passenger trains. One of the guests in that Oak Park showroom was Ralph Budd, president of the Burlington, a railroad already well-versed in the business of operating stainless-steel streamlined trains.

Budd was so taken with the Astra Liner’s domes that he went back to his company and ordered his shops in nearby Aurora come up with the prototype Silver Dome, customized from a 1940 Budd coach called Silver Alchemy. That early dome — with its flat glass, necessitated by wartime restrictions — was the first of its kind. The fleet it would bequeath on CB&Q would become legend. 

Astra Liner led naturally to another seminal moment, the creation in 1947 of GM’s Train of Tomorrow, the famous full-size demonstration train led by a new model from its Electro-Motive Division, the E7, and trailing four dome cars built by Pullman-Standard.

The Train of Tomorrow was an audacious move by GM. The automaker had no intention of getting into the passenger-car business: it simply wanted to whet the industry’s appetite for a new generation of cruise trains, all of which would need diesels to match. It’s a story beautifully told in author Karl Zimmermann’s book Domeliners (Kalmbach Books, 1998).

Capping the Astra Liner was a dome observation car with decidedly futuristic styling. From September 1945 Trains
Writing about the Train of Tomorrow’s unveiling at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1947, Karl wrote, “The cumulative effect of this four-dome consist on the thousands that toured it must have been magical, so numerous and provocative were the innovations.”

The Train of Tomorrow is a story all its own, with national headlines to match. But the next time you’re in an Amtrak Sightseer lounge, or are lucky enough to be riding in a real dome car, remember that it all started in an old car dealership in Oak Park with GM’s Astra Liner, with which the father of the Corvette momentarily dabbled in the train business. 

Comments
To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

SUBSCRIBER & MEMBER LOGIN

Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!

FREE NEWSLETTER SIGNUP

Get the Classic Trains twice-monthly newsletter