Book review: Trains, Planes, Ships & Cars – The Golden Age 1900-1941, by James Hamilton-Paterson

Extraordinary images and bizarre facts make this book – although it is not simply a volume of pictures, it has barely a page without some amazing form of transport, whether real or imagined. Among the latter category, there are designs for a nine-deck seaplane with a gymnast and a librarian amongst its crew, a futuristic bullet-shaped car from 1913 and an ocean liner modelled on a torpedo. These are accompanied by some of the classic visions that did get built, from streamlined Coronation class steam locomotives to the Queen Mary liner and the Douglas DC-3 aircraft.
Steam trains, seaplanes and ocean liners all feature prominently in James Hamilton-Paterson's bookSteam trains, seaplanes and ocean liners all feature prominently in James Hamilton-Paterson's book
Steam trains, seaplanes and ocean liners all feature prominently in James Hamilton-Paterson's book

Among other illustrations are some classic posters, with the railway portfolio featuring the original LNER’s wine waiter advert  which assured “Discretion –  in mixing cocktails & serving crusted port [in] regard for our passengers’ eupeptic [digestive] welfare...” and a 1930 map for the Orient Express showing it could take you as far as Tehran and Basra. But I was particularly taken by the serene poster for a 1947 Daimler Straight Eight, a sleek black limousine in which a smartly-dressed couple are being driven by a uniformed chauffeur past the gates of some imposing residence.

Further glimpses of such rarefied travel are provided in cutaway diagrams of giant aircraft, showing lounge areas and even bunk beds, and the sumptuous state rooms of liners like Cunard’s Aquitania.

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But those who could afford such travel did not always sit in the lap of luxury, as James Hamilton-Paterson explains. While the first flights to South Africa in 1930 by Imperial Airways – one of BA’s forerunners – involved passengers staying in the best hotels during a journey lasting up to a week, those travelling in flying boats found them so cold that water in their glass might freeze. In addition to the engine noise, they could also suffer the indignity of being both airsick and seasick, because of a combination of the aircraft flying so low and choppy transfers via launch to dry land.

The timescale covered in the book, when “the age of speed and elegance was at its most refined,” is somewhat arbitrary, but justified as the dates between Zeppelin’s first steerable airship and when the United States entered the Second World War.

It is odd, because the narrative starts before and continues after this period, with some later design classics like Concorde and the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train mentioned, but not others like the QE2 liner. However, it gives Hamilton-Paterson the opportunity to focus on airships – one of two “what if” forms of transport among those featured.

He describes airship-maker Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin as “an aviation pioneer on a par with the Wright brothers,” his craft able to carry several passengers for hours at a time when other aircraft could barely lift the weight of their pilot.

Significantly, the only images of disasters in the book are of airships – the wreckage of the British R101 and the blazing Zeppelin Hindenburg. The latter, Hamilton-Paterson observes, was a “cruel irony” since it saw the first passenger deaths among 50,000 carried in 2,300 flights over 17 years – an “impeccable safety record” in stark contrast to the considerable death toll from other aircraft over that period.

The other intriguing invention highlighted in the book which is also very topical is the electric car. One of them beat petrol-engined vehicles to set a world record of 65.8mph as early as 1899. I was also amazed to read that half of all cars were electric at the turn of the century, and New York alone had 16,000 charging stations, which I see compares to only around 4,000 today. Such vehicles had a similar range to today’s most basic models and were then much more reliable than petrol cars. They were only eclipsed by petrol becoming much cheaper. Hamilton-Paterson rightly observes that for us to be coming full circle, 120 years later, to see electricity as the future of transport, is “wholly ironic.”


Trains, Planes, Ships & Cars – The Golden Age 1900-1941, by James Hamilton-Paterson, Head of Zeus, 219pp, £30