All Aboard!

Leaving the car keys on the kitchen counter for a change and boarding a train…


…but with a twist, in that the rail vehicles described here today are well and truly connected to the car business. In the course of the twentieth century, several car manufacturers and one important supplier thereof have entered the train manufacturing realm for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it was a case of simple survival after economic depression or war undermined their existing business, other times it was a way of promoting the virtues of a core product, or an attempt to revitalise an economically struggling national rail network itself.

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In Italy for example, FIAT produced a range of Littorinas in the period before the Second World War under Il Duce’s reign; in France, Renault had its Autorails for many years, and Michelin built a series of Michelines, all those of course riding on the rubber tyres for which the company was famous. Even high-end luxury car maker Bugatti entered the arena, while British manufacturer AC ventured onto the rails in Southend-on-Sea. Finally, in the USA, mighty GM attempted to counter the steadily declining occupancy rates of the American public rail network. These last three are the subjects of today’s article.

Bugatti WR/WL, 1933-1958


Ettore Bugatti’s creations are the stuff of legends; the mighty but unsuccesful type 41 Royale doubtless being among the most compelling. Larger than life with its seemingly endless 169 inch wheelbase and 12.8 litre (778 cubic inches) straight-eight engine, just six Royales were manufactured, falling well short of the goal of twenty-five cars.

Announced in 1927, it was not until 1932 that the first Royale was delivered. By that time the world was feeling the full impact of the economic depression that followed the 1929 crash. Hence, Bugatti’s crown jewel proved a tough sell even to those in the most elevated social circles. Bugatti’s other models, while not as extremely expensive as the Type 41, were still on the very pricy side, so the company soon ran into difficulties forcing it to find ways to keep the business with its six-hundred strong workforce afloat.

Serendipity threw the troubled luxury carmaker a lifeline however: the French state owned railways SNCF(1) was in need of new trains to replace the steam-powered ones on its lower traffic lines. A fast yet relatively light rail vehicle was needed, not driven by steam or electricity but by internal combustion power. Ettore Bugatti contacted the general manager of the SNCF, a Mr. Dautry, with a sales pitch for Bugatti to provide just such a thing.

Engine-wise, the superfluous straight-eight engines originally destined for Royales that in all likelyhood would never be sold were perfectly suited for the task according to Bugatti as they put out around 200 horses at a relatively low RPM. The SNCF and Bugatti indeed came to an agreement, resulting in the first prototype being presented in the spring of 1933. It was built in the Bugatti factory in Molsheim, which at that time was not yet connected to the rail network, so a temporary 2 kilometre stretch of rails had to be laid in order to transfer the new train onto the regular SNCF tracks.

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Simply called WR for Wagon Rapide, the Bugatti train looked highly modern with its smooth body and streamlined nose- the driver by the way piloted the WR not from there but rather from a somewhat odd looking cockpitlike structure situated on the roof in the middle of the locomotive. The WR being mid-engined, the engines were placed right under the driver- and there were four of them, producing 800 Horsepower in total. In testing trials the WR reached a maximum speed of 119 mph (192 km/h) which was a record at the time. When in actual passenger service, operating speeds would be lower but still between 80 and 88 mph (130 and 140 km/h) making the WR the TGV of the 1930s.

In the summer of 1933 the WR was officially put into service on the Paris to Deauville line. Later on they would see service between Paris and Lyon, Paris and Clermont-Ferrand, Paris to Strasbourg and more. While the train was fast and comfortable (although depending on where one was seated there were complaints issued about engine noise) maintenance costs were quite high: after every 90,000 km (56,000 miles) travelled the engines needed a major overhaul – performed by the venerable De Dion works – and the brakes frequently required replacement of the brake pads, which involved removing the wheels. Their fuel consumption was also very high.

Drivers also reported deficiencies: visibility from the central pod was abysmal in close quarters manoeuvring, requiring assistants at the front and rear of the railcar to help. In total, between 1933 and 1939, 88 trains were manufactured by Bugatti, but only 19 of these were of WR specification. In order to reduce purchase and operating costs, the rest were of the WL (Wagon Legère) specification. They looked similar but had just two instead of four Royale engines.


With war looming on the horizon, the Bugatti locomotives were taken out of service at the end of 1939 and put into storage; service was resumed in late 1945. Mirroring their manufacturers’ state of affairs their glory days were now past however, and the WR’s were retired in 1953 while the last WL was taken off the rails five years later. Only one complete Bugatti train survives and is on display at a fitting location: the Cité du train in Mulhouse.

AC, 1949-1979

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Among the oldest British car companies, AC assisted in the war effort by producing ammunition, airplane components and such. When hostilities ended in 1945 demand for these naturally evaporated overnight. Although many in Britain would dearly love to become mobile once more few could afford the not inexpensive AC sportscars- the market just was not there. The securing of a government contract to produce Invacar invalid cars helped to generate funds for the Thames Ditton plant but more than that was needed to secure longer term survival.

A tender issued by Southend-on-Sea for the production of four complete light electric trains comprising a total of 28 carriages caught the eye of Willam Hurlock, then boss of AC. One of the attractions of the seaside resort not far from London was its over 1,3 miles long pier for which in 1889 the Southend Railway was put into service to transport visitors on small electric trains. After almost sixty years in service, these were due for replacement. It is not known if the relative proximity of the AC factory to Southend-on-Sea was a factor, but AC won the contract that would enable them to make some good money and relaunch their core business a few years later with the new Ace in 1953.

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Each train set comprised seven carriages, of which three were equipped with two electric 18 Horsepower motors each. Full up, 250 passengers could be transported along the pier at a maximum speed of 18 mph (29 km/h). The system was electrified at 500v DC using a centrally located third rail, and the track width was 3ft 6in (approximately 106cm). By 1979 the entire Southend pier was in need of renovation, and the AC trains were taken out of service as well- they would be replaced by Diesel engined trains when the pier finally reopened in 1986. As so often happens, most retired AC trains ended up as scrap metal but a few carriages have been saved for posterity and one can be examined in Southend-on-Sea itself.

GM Aerotrain, 1958-1966

Image: Patty Allison

By the mid 1950s the American rail network was experiencing a sharply dropping amount of passengers, resulting in annual losses of around US $700 million, roughly the same as the profit made on freight transport via rail. Due to the fact that by federal law the railroads were obligated to continue providing passenger train services, ways to make rail travel more attractive for customers, but above all less costly for the rail companies to provide were sought.

At first glance it might appear odd that America’s car making giant General Motors was to step in to revitalise what would seem like a competing transportation entity. However, GM was and is of course a very large company with several divisions; and among those was its Electro-Motive Division that manufactured locomotives and their engines. None other than GM’s styling boss Harley Earl oversaw the project, while designer Chuck Jordan was the one actually responsible for making it a reality. In february of 1956 the first GM Aerotrain was completed and released to the Pennsylvania RailRoad (PRR) for real-world testing.


For the design of the Aerotrain, Earl and Jordan found inspiration in the Greyhound inter-city buses: an area under the passenger compartment would hold all luggage, thus eliminating the need for an extra luggage carriage. The Aerotrain carriages were also much smaller than the existing ones at 40 feet (a little over 12 meters) long and of aluminium construction – including the locomotive – in the interest of weight saving.

For styling the locomotive, the famous 1951 LeSabre dream car had obviously served as an inspiration witness the panoramic windshield shape and the prominent oval ‘inlet’ in the nose. GMED’s model 567C twelve cylinder Diesel with an output of 1200 Horsepower provided the motive force for the Aerotrain which was claimed to be able to cruise at a speed of 100 mph (over 160 km/h).

Over 600,000 miles were covered in testing, during which another Aerotrain had been put in service by the New York Central railroad, but neither the PRR or NYC expressed an interest to purchase Aerotrains for their network, both returning the trains to GM in 1957. The two main reasons for their refusal were unacceptably high NVH(2) levels which annoyed passengers (an unpleasant side effect of the weight savings as it turned out), and difficulty to reach and maintain its intended cruising speed of 100 mph due to insufficient power. Furthermore there were negative comments from the service and repair departments about difficulties concerning maintenance of the Aerotrains.

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GM managed to sell two of the three Aerotrains built to the Rock Island Community which put them into service in and around Chicago until 1966- the maximum speed allowed on that network was just 60 mph (96 km/h) however and may have helped softening the NVH issues. Despite the big names behind the Aerotrain project, it proved not to be the solution to the American railroad’s problems; two of the Aerotrains have been saved and are on display at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Missouri, respectively.

(1) Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français.

(2) Noise, Vibration and Harshness.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

36 thoughts on “All Aboard!”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. An interesting sidestep today. I haven’t seen any of the trains in the metal, but was aware of the existence of the Bugatti WR/WL and GM Aerotrain. I also didn’t know the WR/WL program ran for a quarter of a century. Not sure if it was a success, because of the high running costs.

    The AC is new to me. The engine driver has a clear view screen, which I’ve only seen in marine applications. One can also find them in trains and trams in Hokkaido, Japan, for instance. Attempts to have the clear view screens installed on cars were unsuccessful.

    The photo where the lady is christening the GM Aerotrain was the only image I had of this train. The front of this train. has always looked weird to me. I had no idea how the rear of the train looked, but to my eyes it is more successful than the front. It reminds me of a little of a Chevy Nomad.

    I’ll be hopping on a Bombardier in about an hour from now. I’m pretty sure I won’t hear “All aboard” just before the doors close, but I will think about the title of todays article just before the train gets in motion.

  2. Good morning Bruno. As an avid fan of train travel*, this piece is right up my street (or should I say siding).

    The Bugatti looks rather sinister in the monochrome image, like something out of WW1 or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, although the later(?) version in the colour photo with the more rounded front end looks much less so. The GM Aerotrain looks straight out of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, with its weird overlay of late 1950s American auto styling motifs. Looks neat from the back, though.

    The AC could only be British, rather sweet looking and self-effacing. Incidentally, Southend Pier is reputed to be the longest in the world. It has had a torrid recent history, with a tanker taking a 70-foot section down in 1986 and major fires in 1995 and again in 2005 causing extensive damage. On both occasions it was restored and is still a major visitor attraction today.

    * I deplore the removal of face-to-face seating across a table in favour of aircraft-style seating on trains. The former is sociable and affords interesting panoramic views of the passing environment. The latter is cramped and claustrophobic and, if you pick the wrong seat, you might have no view at all. 😬

    1. In the Netherlands we still have face-to-face seating. We get no table, but only a small shelf.

      From my observation it seems people want to sit alone in the trian. They usually put a bag on the seat next to them, to prevent anyone from sitting there. If you ask them politely, they will remove the bag and let you sit there. Once you get out they put the bag back on the seat.

    2. In a face to face seating arrangement you alway have trouble with someone putting his feet in front of your seat.
      In aircraft style seating the person in front of you reclines his seat backreast into your personal room and you can count the dandruff on his head.
      It’s always fun to press my foot or knee against the backrest in front of me and watch the passenger trying to recline the seat.
      If there was an airline with fixed backrests for the seats I’d prefer that over all others.

    3. One of the budget airlines has seats with a fixed backrest. The reason behind it is it’s cheaper to buy and maintain. I can’t remember if it is EasyJet or Ryanair as I’ve never used either of them.

  3. Excellent article Bruno, as a train enthusiast and industry worker I recognised two out of three of these vehicles straightaway. The AC I knew little about but, at the time, quite a few coach and bus manufacturers tried their hand at building first generation railcars and diesel multiple units (DMU) with varying degrees of success.
    The later classes of Pacers based on the Leyland National bus probably the most numerous and successful.
    And of course Bombardier built many types of skidoos recreational vehicles as well as the best trains in the world.

    1. The passenger railcar that “made it” in North America in the 1950s wasn’t a GM, but made by Budd in Pennsylvania. That’s what was in CPR service when our family emigrated to rural Eastern Canada in 1959 from England. The local CPR subsidiary was the Dominion-Atlantic Railway and the two-car unit was dubbed The Dayliner.

      Compared to the half-cocked Bugatti and the GM Aerotrain, the Budd was a solid piece of work from top to bottom, and could get a decent head of “steam” up all right, whizzing past cars on adjacent parallel highways. No lightweights. I used them often to go from my hometown to uni on weekends, a 90 mile trip each way. A charming stop for elevenses was at the halfway point of the 22o mile total line length.

      In fact, when I returned to England in 1969, I had occasion to travel on British Rail railcars to Oxford, and on other East-West rail lines including to Harrogate. These flimsy seemingly jerry-built (Leyland, I think) rattling things were amateur hour compared to the Budds. And I’m not being snarky. Slow, bumpy and uncomfortable and not a patch on the Budd. They even had manual gearboxes. Rather similar to my experiences of motor coaches from Portsmouth to Oxford in the ’50s, compared to the fleet, fast and comfy rear-engined US made Flxible and GM highway coaches in Canada — both of which had been of monocoque construction since before WWII. And that was due to Budd who also inspired the Citroen Traction Avant and hated separate chassis nonsense.

    2. There has been mention of Budd and their interest in unit-bodies, but don’t know much detail. Can you enlighten, or perhaps point a direction to look?

  4. Another delightful DTW diversion – thank you Brrruno! The Southend Pier units were not the only railcars produced by AC; prior to the infamous 1963 Beeching Report various attempt were made to reduce operating costs on branch lines with low volumes of passenger traffic. British Railways’ Western Region took delivery of four AC railbuses – they were single units with only two axles and did not provide a particularly comfortable ride…..

    I was going to mention the Leyland National-based experiments of later years which evolved into the Class 144 Pacers – but Mr Rowlands has beaten me to it! And Daniel, you are spot on in your condemnation of current seating trends – blame the DfT’s incompetent specifications.

  5. The aerofoil shape of the Bugatti railcars are said to have inspired the streamlining of the Gresley A4 Pacifics.
    The raised driving position was used on other SNCF railcars too, the X3800 series nicknamed Picassos.

  6. I too was well aware of the Bugatti, but didn’t realise that they had lasted in service for so long. However, for any kid who dreamed of being an engine driver, I think a short period at the controls of a Bugatti HR would have dissuaded them. The oddly situated ‘cockpit’ was claustrophobic enough but if you also realise that the controls were mounted side-on, so that the driver had to operate the railcar side-on, the whole experience must have seemed particularly unsatisfactory.

    1. Looking at the SNCF ‘Picasso’, it too has the same side-on controls. Is it just me who finds the idea of driving anything sideways totally unacceptable?

    2. Taking this further, and considering the panoramic view from the controls of GM’s Aerotrain, am I reading too much into the different 20th Century approaches of New and Old Worlds? There is something mean and tortured about the driver’s positions in the French Bugatti and X3800 railcars. Even when streamlined, they are, quite literally, not forward-looking.

    3. Sitting sideways on to drive the Bugatti makes sense when you realise it enables the driver to see either end of the unit, whichever direction it is travelling in. In a conventional railcar with a cab at each end he has to walk the length of the train at each end of the line…. and sideways sitting has always been normal procedure for small industrial battery-electric locomotives.

      With regard to Daniel’s love of rail travel, Ireland had an early user of railcars in the County Donegal Railway; he is far too young to know about that of course but some CDR railcars ended up in the Isle of Man and one may one day return to its native land. Amongst the earliest railcars of all were the Model T Ford-based machines introduced by Colonel Stephens on various light railways in which he was involved during the 1920s.

    4. Hello John. Here in Cobh we are fortunate to have the only commuter railway outside Dublin. It takes just 25 minutes to wend its way along the coast into Cork, offering some interesting scenery along the way. Here’s the schematic of the route:

      The best bit is that as my partner is, ahem, a certain age, we both get to travel on it (and all over Ireland by rail and bus) for free, with no peak-hour restrictions.

    5. JTC. Your explanation does make sense ….. but my neck aches just looking at it.

    6. Daniel, I’m not sure what make the Cork to Dublin train is, but the Kerry to Dublin is a Hyundai.

  7. The comparison between Bugatti and GM trains demonstrates how much better the former could look without the protruding buffers necessitated by the hook and link coupling. With a Jenney or similar the end of the train can be much smoother.
    Without any coupling it can be even smoother like the ‘Flying Hamburger’

  8. Wonderful article, thank you. A recent visit to the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago included a brief look at the Zephyr, a high speed streamlined electro-diesel that had some good success. Surprised to find that the bodies were made by Edward G. Budd Manufacturing, likely with the unit-body car patent from the 1920s. Also of interest is the overlap between aero and auto engines in the early part of the 20th c.

    1. I seem to remember resident passengers on the Zephyr – all looking very pale….

  9. Some of these machines seem to have had their problems, but what style and flair!

    A huge contrast to the widely used and universally hated 1980-onward Class 141-144 Pacer, a collaborative venture between Leyland Motors and British Rail Engineering Limited, a railbus and DMU series based on a Leyland National road omnibus, with the body and engines supplied (until around 1985) by Leyland and chassis manufacture and assembly at BREL in Derby. The awful thing was in service for forty years, long before, their removal from service became a political commitment, not fulfilled until 2021.

    The Pacer was a grim reminder of the managed decline of Britain’s railways, now thankfully reversed.

    Here’s something far nicer from the Piaggio museum in Pontedera, didn’t investigate further – too much to see, and too little time:

    1. Hi Robertas, I seem to recall travelling on a Pacer on the Chiltern line from Amersham into London many years ago. The diesel engine sounded very truck-like and, although I might be mistaken, there seemed to be a change in engine note as though it was changing gear before tackling hills?

    2. Trains with bus technology are very popular today like this Alsthom LINT.
      GRP bodywork makes for relatively low weight of 65 tons but interesting crash stability.
      Two MTU diesel engines (17 litres and ~350kW) with automatic gearboxes set to shift at different speeds to avoid jerks with the result that something is changing gear all the time at different ends of the train.

    3. DaveAR: The Danish government put some of the rail network out to service by Arriva starting after 2000. Arriva pulled a fast one and put commuter trains on the lines instead of intercity trains. They look like the one shown, made by Alstom (I think). Although passengers on these trains can take journeys of up to 2 hours´ duration and continue on to IC lines to the airports, they have hard seats with a high H-point, no trays, no vesitbule (so it´s windy and cold), no carpets and insufficient luggage space for anyone going on a longer trip. A kilometre on these trains costs as much as a kilometre on the much, much better IC3 and IC4 trains. It´s infuriating.

    4. The trains for short distances are called Sprinters in The Netherlands. They have no vestibule, which I actually quite like. The trains feels roomier and I actually like the fresh air that comes in whenever the doors open, even on the winter days. People in general don’ take off their coat on the short distances and it’s 21 degrees inside. There are no carpets. Carpets would be a nightmare to keep clean anyway, so I don’t see the use for it in a train.

    5. In Germany there’s a strict separation between non-subisised long distance railway travel using white trains with a red belly band and heavily subisised short distance and regional travel in red trains with white belly band.
      Regional travel is subject to public tenders and is often handed to companies not up to the task of actually running a railway system. DB Deutsche Bahn has lost many of these public tenders over the last couple of years but quite a number of supposed competitors have gone bankrupt and in the end it was DB that had to take over the operational business.
      In every public tender there are different criteria for the trains (and their operation) and manufacturers have to offer hundreds of different versions of one train system to meet them – which is quite daft in my eyes. Number of toilets in the train, number of seats per car, number of cars per train unit, number of units in one train, seat distance, number of bicycle stands, seats for disabled and so on are different every couple of kilometres and make linked operations very difficult.
      The LINT is used as a short distance train and it’s uncomfortable – hard seats, in the diesel versions there are permanent gearchanges in one of the drive units resulting in jerks in parts of the train and it’s noisy, cold in winter and hot in summer. I’ve seen an accident where a LINT collided with a construction truck and it didn’t look too good for the train which simply fell apart with lots of cracked GRP.

  10. Hi Daniel, the Pacers had automatic transmission much like the bus they were based on; SCG epicyclic gearboxes to begin with & later upgraded to Voith hydro-kinetic so yes, they would change up or down as gradient/speed dictated. And Robertas is being a bit cruel – they had one very big advantage over their successors in that the seat lined up with the windows; there are places today where they are sadly missed!

  11. Great to be reminded of the little green train on Southend pier. I don’t think I ever rode on it – we walked the length of the pier and saved our money for the slot machines in the Kursaal.
    Southend-on Sea was/is the closest ‘seaside’ to London, so you could do day-trips, and it wasn’t unusual to run into family members from other localities.

  12. Sorry for the late comment. It’s been a while since I’ve considered train materiel: purely because of the overstimulation it gives me, I tend to avoid public transport. As they are redesigned to be more open spaces, I find trains progressively less agreeable places to be in. In the old Dutch double deckers, you had nooks and crannies to occupy if (like me) you didn’t fancy the hubbub. There is of course a safety imperative to make public spaces as public and easily overseeable as possible, but it’s squarely against my own preferences – needs even.

    I knew vaguely of the Fiat trains but all of these were new to me. I like the Bugatti train, but have to question the use of Royale engines. While I understand the expediency, an engine for a prestige automobile doesn’t strike me as the best choice for public transport.

    Cue DTW article about improbable engine applications (prestige to prosaic and vice versa)?

    1. Alfa used to make a ‘Jeep’ powered by their lovely twin overhead cam four-pot.

    2. Alfa had the Matta with the old 1900 twin cam and the Romeo light van with the newer twin cam.
      Porsche built the PFM 3200 aircraft engine.
      There were marine versions for speed boat racing of Ferrari and Lamborghini V12 and Alfa Montreal V8.
      There were marine versions of the BMW M30 straight six.
      The VW air cooled flat four was used as the starter for the diesel of the Leopard tank.

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