Brooks Stevens’ Distinctive Sky Top Cars

The SkyTop observation cars for the Olympian Hiawatha have been fittingly described as among “the most distinctive cars ever built.” I say “among” because, at first glance, the six Olympian cars resemble four observation cars built for the Twin Cities Hiawatha.

This image, which one photo caption says is from 1959, shows the interior of a Twin Cities SkyTop car. The interior of an Olympian SkyTop car would have similar, though a little larger. The man in the center resembles, and may have been, Brooks Stevens.

The main difference (aside from the fact that the Twin Cities cars were built in the Milwaukee shops and the Oly cars were built by Pullman) is that the Olympian cars contain eight double bedrooms while the Twin Cities cars have one drawing room and 24 parlor seats.


Top: The SkyTop car for the Twin Cities Hiawatha. Bottom: The SkyTop car for the Olympian Hiawatha. Click either image for a larger view.

To design these successors to the Hiawatha’s pre-war beavertail cars, the Milwaukee turned to Wisconsin industrial designer Brooks Stevens. “Trains are the brutes of the transportation world,” says Brooks Stevens Design Associates today. “Big, ugly, uninteresting hulks. And that was the passenger trains. Brooks Stevens changed all that. We designed the Olympian Hiawatha for the Milwaukee Road to be a sophisticated mode of transportation. Streamlined and elegant, inside and out, coming and going.”

Brooks Stevens’ own rendering of the Olympian Hiawatha’s SkyTop car. Curiously, the image shows a waiter serving drinks, but the floor plan shows no place for a bar.

They are obviously taking more credit than they are due, as Paul Cret’s Zephyrs, Henry Drefuss’ 20th Century Limited, and Raymond Loewy’s Broadway Limited got there way before Stevens. Still, Stevens was able to turn a decade of streamlining traditions into something entirely new.

Click image for a larger view.

Stevens also designed such things as the chairs and other interior decorations for the cars. He also took credit for the design of the locomotive, but since the body was designed by Raymond Loewy all Stevens had to do was decorate it with paint and logos.


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