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Racing The Limited

Spring/Summer 1990 | Volume 6 |  Issue 1

I have yet to meet a genuine vintage-auto enthusiast who does not also wax eloquent over a steam locomotive. In their day they were, in a sense, adversaries; but now that the steam engine has vanished and the great old marques have been replaced by less glamorous descendants, many automotive enthusiasts can’t forget that Walter Owen Bentley, Walter Percy Chrysler, Henry Royce, and other . motoring giants began as apprentices in locomotive shops. It is perhaps worthwhile to make a farewell comparison between classic car and classic locomotive at the zenith of their development on the eve of World War II.

Some very impressive locomotives were coming out of the shops in those years. From the late thirties through the final Class 1 mainline steam fifteen years later, the Norfolk & Western’s tremendous home-built articulated mallets and bullet-shrouded passenger engines took on a smoother look that coincided with their increased efficiency and power. You’d have had a difficult time convincing the man in the street that Henry Dreyfus’s Roman soldier’s helmet casing didn’t really boost a Hudson J3’s performance at the head of the Twentieth Century Limited. Even with that silver-gray cowling removed, engineers at the New York Central would still be able to slip a J3’s sixfoot seven-inch driving wheels on greased rails at 11.3 revolutions per second for a piston speed usually reserved for race cars: 3,370 feet per minute. At the equivalent of 164 miles an hour, this Hudson was churning nearly twice the actual top speed of all but a few larger and overdrive-equipped automobiles of the day.

Before racing one of your favorite steam locomotives to a grade crossing in your dream car of yore, a realistic look at performance might be in order. A decently shopped Pacific (4-6-2) would have no trouble leaving behind a 1927-30 4.5-liter Bentley, good for around 92 miles per hour, with the famed supercharged Blower Bentley grazing 100 mph. Forget the incredible feats attributed to the ancient Bentley in James Bond novels; Ian Fleming knew more about cuisine and British naval bureaucracy than automobiles.

A 1930 Packard boattail speedster with its tuned version of the 3.5- by 5-inch bore x stroke 385-cubic-inch in line eight pumping out 145 horsepower at 3,400 rpm through a long-legged (for its day) axle of 3.31 to 1 would nudge an honest 100 mph, as would one of the high-compression Chrysler Imperial roadsters of a year or two later, or the Auburn Twelve with the optional Columbia rear axle. But if the locomotive engineer adjusted his valve cutoff and advanced the throttle another notch, the big Pacific would skip away. Given a long, straight road, perhaps only a Duesenberg J might haunt the Pacific’s cab; its 420-cubic-inch twinoverhead-cam in-line eight might peak at 116 mph, and the supercharged (SJ) model would approach 130.

As steam power was developed to its railroading zenith in the late 1940s, the decade’s automobiles were generally little more than mildly revised editions of pre-war fare. The great cars of the 1930s had been done in by the Depression, and the steam locomotives quickly followed them into extinction.

A car might race a diesel today, of course, but somehow that doesn’t seem to occur to anyone. The true road-and-rail contest belongs, rather, to a time not so far gone, but remote; a time when, driving along an empty road beside the track, you might have sensed a faint light behind you. The trees and telephone poles brightened almost imperceptibly as you checked your rearview mirror. There was a single headlight, but clearly off the road. A few more moments and its brilliance and intensity were unmistakable.

The child in you imagined some giant closing steadily and was relieved when he seemed to be on a more pressing errand than catching you. You accelerated until the telephone poles flew by like the slats of a garden fence. You sensed watching eyes, but they were not the rushing giant’s. They were the fireman’s as he smiled down on your efforts from his window two stories up. The smell of coal, oil, warm steel, and steam drifted into your car. Suddenly there was the most astounding, glorious sound. It was so incredibly loud that only its beauty prevented it from offending. There was nothing shrill about it. The powerful, worldweary moan was tinged with sadness that might break your heart if you listened carefully. It was pitched higher than the deep, resounding bellow of an ocean liner, but it was just as authoritative. It instantly became forever a part of you. Less than a minute later only the club car’s marker lights twinkled in the distance.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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