The art deco 1938s tube stock might be the most loved of any; just look at the way people fawn over it in London Transport Museum's Acton depot. Look at the way people pay £45 a pop for the pleasure of riding on it, for just a brief moment, in 2020. But these trains could have looked a whole lot different — and, for a brief while, they did.
The London Passenger Transport Board was formed in 1933, and with it came a push for a fresh, innovative kind of tube stock. One of the major niggles with previous stock was that the electrical control equipment took up a chunky portion behind the driver's cab, greatly reducing the capacity of each train.
When new stock started trialling on the Piccadilly line in 1935, this equipment was conveniently stashed beneath the floors; suddenly you could fit as many passengers in a six-carriage train as you could have in a seven.
A huge practical boon, but aesthetes of the time would have been equally enamoured by the new look for three of these six-car trains. They were quite magnificently streamlined, the driver's cab forming a kind of Darth Vader's helmet of a frontispiece, skirting out at the bottom and seemingly purring: "The modern age has arrived — step aboard and I'll whisk you there."
Streamlining was rife at the time, in everything from the Mallard train to women's dresses, and the Metropolitan-Cammell Carriage & Wagon Company was signed up to the same dynamic school of thought — or at least tickled by it.
There don't seem to be any colour photos of the streamlined trains to hand, but they were laquered in the same glace cherry red as the 1938 stock. The trains even starred in the boys' magazine Modern Wonder, where they were depicted in all their vibrant glory:
The Middlesex County Times raved about the new design in 1936:
In every way the comfort of the passenger has been studied in this new design...By placing the [electrical] equipment beneath the floor...all the space within the train...can now be used for seating passengers... Special gears and wheels with new silencing devices have been employed. Pillars between the windows are smaller than usual... thus enlarging the passenger's outlook.
London was rushing headfirst into the streamlined revolution. Except there was resistance. For one thing, drivers hated the cabs, which involved an impractical 'armchair' in the centre, with the brake and master controller handles arranged like aircraft joysticks at the side.
Safety was an issue too; evacuations would take place through the cab — not ideal. And anyway, for the streamlining of the train to have any kind of practical rather than looks-based effect, it'd need to be travelling at least 80mph. Even today, tube trains don't go over 60mph.
Intriguingly, one of the streamlined units was double glazed, and pumped full of fresh filtered air. A nice idea, but when the system broke down (and it did), the heat rose swiftly, and passengers practically melted. You might remember a similar snafu with the non-opening windows of the New Routemaster buses.
The three experimental streamlined trains had gone out for trial alongside a fourth, non-streamlined design. And in the end, it was this less derring-do, but more practical design, which got the thumbs-up — and which you'll know from various London Transport Museum open days and pictures online:
And the shame of the three experimental streamlined trains didn't stop there. During the second world war, two of them were sandbagged, placed over a pit, and used as make-do air raid shelters at Cockfosters. Then, three years after the war all three streamline trains were converted into trailer cars for 1938 stock. It was akin to demoting Greta Garbo into the chorus line.
With thanks to London Transport Museum for material. Images: London Transport Museum