"It was a sweet ride," CB&Q president Ralph Budd said as he disembarked from the Burlington Zephyr on its May 26, 1934, Dawn-to-Dusk Run. The ride would prove historic, too, going down in the books as the longest nonstop train trip the world had ever witnessed.
With the Zephyr, Budd intended to capture the hearts and pocketbooks of Americans. Its technological innovations allowed him to achieve his goal. Budd sought improvements in speed, weight, power, and design. Prior to the construction of the Zephyr, locomotives were powered by steam, but the Zephyr used a diesel-electric engine. Less efficient than diesel, steam power converts only six percent of the heat from burning fuel into power, as opposed to diesel-electric, which powers the pistons directly and can convert up to 40 percent.
The powerful engine was encased in a stainless steel exterior. Shiny, rustless, and beautiful, stainless steel is also extremely lightweight, and its use kept the train's overall weight down. Lightness plus diesel power equalled a train that could travel at fantastically high speeds.
Stainless steel was just one element that gave the Zephyr its distinctive look. The other was streamlined design. But the importance of streamlining was more than skin-deep. Smooth, rounded shapes lessened drag, a resisting force caused by friction between the air and the vehicle's surface. The Zephyr experienced one-third less drag than the square, boxy locomotives it replaced. To prevent the train from tipping over as it rounded sharp curves -- a deadly consequence of reduced weight and increased power -- the Zephyr was designed with a lower center of gravity than conventional locomotives.
The American public liked what it saw. On April 18, the day of the Zephyr's christening, the train attracted 24,000 visitors. Over the next three weeks, touring 30 Eastern cities and covering 2,900 miles, almost 380,000 people saw the Zephyr. On its return to Chicago in May, 33,565 people flocked to it in two days. On its home territory, the Zephyr attracted over 105,000 people during a two-week, 16-city tour of Burlington route towns.
Now Budd put the wheels in motion for the Dawn-to-Dusk Run. The Zephyr, he promised, would go from Denver to Chicago in 14 hours, nonstop. No locomotive had ever traveled more than 775 miles without stopping; furthermore, the regular Denver-Chicago run took 26 hours. Utterly confident, Budd arranged with Chicago World's Fair officials that the Zephyr would leave Denver at dawn and arrive onstage for the climax of the "Wings of a Century" transportation pageant.
When the Zephyr pulled out of Denver, Budd did what any man taking a train ride would do: He pulled out a straight-edge razor for a shave. There was no greater testament to a smooth ride than no nicks. The shave went off without a hitch, and, with the exception of one scare -- a broken electric cable that threatened to stop the train -- so did the run.
The nonstop trip was even faster than Budd had predicted. At 7:10 p.m., 13 hours and five minutes after it had left Denver, the Zephyr arrived in Chicago, almost a full hour ahead of schedule. Fifty-nine minutes later, the Zephyr appeared at the Fair at the precise moment Budd had promised. Having followed all-day bulletins tracking the train's progress from Denver, the frenzied crowd surged forward to touch its new mechanical hero.
And indeed Budd had a champion on his hands. The Zephyr broke the records of both Great Britain's Royal Scot and Germany's der Fliegende Hamburger. Averaging 77.5 miles per hour, the Zephyr peaked at 112.5 mph. Also, getting 2.77 miles per gallon of oil fuel on the trip, at a cost of four cents per gallon, the fuel for the Dawn-to-Dusk Run -- 1,015 miles -- cost a mere $14.64. The numbers were concrete proof of the train's low cost and efficiency.
The Burlington Zephyr was a star, and streamlining became all the rage. Hollywood cast the train in The Silver Streak, and Madison Avenue appropriated it for advertising campaigns. Engineer Jack Ford pitched Camel cigarettes in an ad that capitalized on the successful run. He cut the trip's time by nearly half, the ad said, "and then he smoked a Camel!" (A newspaper interview later revealed that Ford was actually partial to Chesterfields.)