THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1960’S

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

By the dawn of 1960, the writing was on the wall for the transatlantic liner as a viable means of transport. More accurately, it was in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the new Boeing 707 jets of Pan American, TWA and BOAC that had cut the journey time, down from five days to almost as many hours. When that new decade dawned, the jets already had around  seventy per cent of the transatlantic passenger trade. The trend was irreversible, the prognosis terminal.

And yet, incredibly, new liners were still being built.

The first- and without doubt the greatest- of these was the SS. France. The longest passenger ship ever built, she arrived in New York for the first time in February of 1962. Her owners called her ‘The last refuge of the good life’. The American press said that she was an eighty million dollar gamble.

The France was a pure express liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Le Havre, Southampton and New York. There was never any intention that she would be used for cruising. In fact, she had very little open deck space, and her beam made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Built as a one ship replacement for her legendary forebears, the beloved Ile De France and the Liberte, she embodied all the cherished traditions for which the French Line had been renowned for almost a century.

She was also fast- very fast indeed. Only the United States was faster. But with the jets whispering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, the French Line directors decided that any attempt to run for the Atlantic speed record would be archaic. They preferred to let the style, service and cuisine of the new ship speak for itself.

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

This was a wise decision. The France guzzled fuel oil like so much cheap table wine and, like the Normandie before her, she was kept in service only by a very generous operating subsidy from the French government.

When she emerged, the France joined the rump of a transatlantic trade still dominated by the ageing, increasingly expensive to operate Cunard Queens, the Mary and Elizabeth, and by the record holder, the legendary SS. United States. All three of these ships were already running winter cruises; something to which they were wholly unsuited, in a Canute-like attempt to halt the rising tide of red accountant’s ink that threatened to swamp them. It was a temporary palliative at the very best.

The France was, however, very popular from the start. Incredibly, she would average an occupancy rate of some eighty per cent through the decade; a quite astonishing achievement. But even that was not enough to save her from being sidelined to winter cruising; either to the Caribbean, or even sometimes down to Rio.  Ironically, she was also very successful in this role but, even so, she was still on borrowed time as well.

Three years later, it was the turn of Italy to stun the industry with the introduction of not one, but two beautiful sister ships, also designed for the transatlantic run. At 46,000 tons each, both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged in the first half of 1965.

A view largely gone from the Atlantic...

A view largely gone from the Atlantic…

The sisters were typical Italian beauties, graceful as swans and both sheathed in bridal white. Their twin, latticed funnels and beautifully flared bows made them unmistakable from day one. The Italian Line had high hopes for them and, on the face of it, not without some reason.

The twins operated on the age old ‘Sunny Southern’ route between Genoa, Cannes, Gibraltar and New York. While their British and French rivals had to battle across the stormy northern ocean, the Italian ships spent much of their time on sunnier, calmer seas. They had outdoor pools for each class, and expansive, open lidos. Above all, they boasted the indolent, raffish, Fellini-esque vibe of la dolce vita afloat. They had style and panache by the boat load.

The Michelangelo and Raffaello also benefited in their early years from a residual, sea minded mentality that existed in southern Europe at that time. People as a whole in Italy and Spain were reluctant to switch to the jets, however much faster they were. The Italian Line was thus able to buck the trend of the airborne assault on their coffers for quite some time and, for a good few years, both ships sailed with very healthy passenger loads.

With their outdoor lidos, they should also have been much better set up for a cruising career in the winter seasons. But they were actually hamstrung by the large number of inner cabins on each ship, little more than shoe boxes with upper and lower berths. These compared poorly with the far nicer counterparts aboard the even earlier France.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Later, the two ships would suffer from falling passenger numbers, random crew strikes, and a resultant, fatal inability to keep to a reliable schedule. But, for the sixties at least, these two magnificent ships were the new Italian standard bearers on the Atlantic crossing, and they were sailed with great style and pride.

Last of all there came the oft delayed, problem plagued Queen Elizabeth 2, forever more to be immortalised as the QE2. Months overdue, she finally made her debut on the Southampton to New York run in May of 1969.

The QE2 was intended not so much to replace the illustrious Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as she was to completely reinvent the Cunard brand. More than anyone, that pioneer of transatlantic steamship travel had seen the writing on the wall. And, from this most cautious, inherently conservative of steamship companies, there emerged the boldest, most strikingly different modern ship of them all.

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

For the QE2 was to be a dual purpose ship from the start, spending summer seasons crossing the Atlantic between Europe and America, and whiling away her winters in warmer cruising climes. She had broad, stepped lido terraces with outdoor pools at the stern, air conditioning right throughout the ship, and every cabin on board came with shower and toilet.

Her interiors were totally modern, like a very smart Hilton hotel afloat. Originally intended to be a three class ship, wiser heads prevailed, and she was- in theory, at least- a two class vessel on crossings.

Her exterior was strikingly beautiful. A graceful, tapered bow opened onto a gloriously proportioned charcoal hull, topped with a gleaming white superstructure. There was a single staunch, graceful funnel two thirds of the way aft, painted at the time in black and white. Not until 1982, after her legendary Falklands adventure, would the famous, ‘traditional’ Cunard colours be added.

Traditional, die hard Cunard passengers reviled her for the lack of a traditional, interior ‘liner’ promenade. Instead, her public rooms were built right out to the sides of the hull, with huge, floor to ceiling windows on both sides. Posterity would vindicate this design over some four decades of unparalleled success.

By the time she emerged in the spring of 1969, the QE2 shared what was left of the Atlantic passenger trade with the France and the United States, as well as with the two Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello. But by this time, the United States was also suffering badly.

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

The big American liner, still the holder of the Blue Riband, had been sold on her speed. With the jets thundering overhead at ten times her best pace, that advantage had gone. Lacking a reliable running mate, the United States was approaching mid age by the end of the sixties, and her once cutting edge interiors looked pale and antiseptic in the new era. And, with the France still winning all the plaudits for food and service, it became hard filling her at all.

This was partially alleviated by sending the big liner on cruises. The United States appeared in such unlikely places as Cape Town, and even Tenerife but, like the old Cunard Queens before her, the deep draft necessary for a fast ocean liner acted as a drag on her cruising viability. She usually had to anchor far offshore, and transfer her passengers in by tender.

Labour disputes with her all American crew became increasingly common- a foreshadow of the fate that would also befall her French and Italian competitors. In November of 1969, the fabled ocean greyhound entered dry dock in Newport News, Virginia, for her annual overhaul.

She never sailed again.

By the end of 1969, the decline in passenger numbers was catastrophic. Only four in every hundred people making the journey between Europe and America still did so by sea.

The collapse had been massive, and it shattered whatever ostrich mentality might still have existed in the boardrooms of the ocean liner companies. Even as late as 1964, the Queen Elizabeth, the France and the United States had still often been booked pretty much to capacity on summertime crossings. Now, even that certainty had sunk.

By the dawn of the seventies, the end was plainly in sight for the transatlantic liner. Even for such celebrated stalwarts as the still hugely lauded France, the only real question was not so much if, as when.

POST WAR AIR TRAVEL- THE RISE OF THE MACHINES

Air travel gained undeniable ascendency after the Second World War

Air travel gained undeniable ascendency after the Second World War

After the Second World War, it took a few years for the patterns of past war transatlantic travel to re-establish themselves. All of the big surviving transatlantic liners were in need of massive refurbishments, and the only planes capable of making non stop transatlantic flights were still propeller driven, and mostly adaptions of mass produced bombers.

Planes like the Boeing Stratocruiser offered sleeping berths, personalised service and dining, and comfortable, armchair style seating with more than ample personal space. They could cross the Atlantic in around twelve hours. Even the fastest of the renovated ocean liners took eight times that long. On paper, air travel had the game sewn up.

But those same planes were notorious, unstable bone shakers, and even the long range ones had to land in Eastern Canada to refuel. And they could also carry relatively small numbers of passengers on each crossing. Reliable, mass market air travel remained an elusive chimera.

And the ocean liners fought back with a vengeance. By 1947, more than a million passengers a year were once more routinely crossing the Atlantic, and the premier liners of companies like Cunard and the French Line were almost always full. Far more so, in fact, than at any other time before.

Both the enormous Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were usually sold out six months in advance, even in the winter seasons. And, riding the wave of this massively resurgent market, America introduced the barnstorming SS United States in the summer of 1952.

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

The big American liner thundered across the Atlantic in July 1952, and took the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, at just under three and a half days. Under any circumstances it was an amazing performance and, true to form, the United States prospered mightily as the new speed record holder.

At about the same time, the first commercial jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet, entered commercial service. Fast, smooth, and capable of carrying large numbers in relative comfort, the Comet eliminated almost all the discomfort of its propeller driven predecessors.

But this beautiful plane suffered from a series of design flaws and, in the next few years, no less than thirteen of them came down, killing some 426 people in all. The adverse media publicity was enormous, and it undoubtedly gave the transatlantic liners a few years’ breathing space.  Even the sinking of the beautiful Andrea Doria off Nantucket in July, 1956 did nothing to deter the tidal wave of businessmen and tourists still sailing across the Atlantic each year.

In 1958, more than 1.2 million passengers sailed the old route, either on business or pleasure. But this was quite literally the high water mark. That same October, a Pan American Boeing 707 named Clipper America flew from New York to Paris in less than seven hours. In its vapour trail, that pioneering flight carried the death warrant of the ocean liner. The writing was not so much on the wall, as it was in the sky.

Air minded visionaries such as Juan Trippe at Pan Am, and Howard Hughes of TWA, now set about monopolising the air routes, together with players such as BOAC, the predecessor to the current British Airways. The 707 itself was a complete game changer; one of the most significant and successful aircraft in the entire history of commercial flight.

The ocean liner as a breed did not give up easily

The ocean liner as a breed did not give up easily

Suddenly, air travel was safe, frequent, a lot more comfortable, and competitive price wise with the cream of the ocean going crop. The liners began to lose ground very quickly indeed. By the turn of the new decade in 1960, the jets already had around seventy per cent of the total transatlantic trade.  Even the famous and popular Cunard Queens often carried more crew than passengers on winter crossings. The big ships of all the famous old companies were sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. The flow could not be halted, much less reversed.

Yet still, big liners continued to appear. On a cloudy February afternoon in 1962, thousands lined the banks of the Hudson to watch the maiden arrival in New York of the brand new SS. France. Helicopters buzzed the great ship like so many curious dragonflies as a quartet of fire boats hurled huge, icy plumes of water skywards in welcome. Banners snapped in greeting in the frigid breeze as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her pier. She was magnificent, utterly magical, and way, way too late; a last burst of bravado in the face of the inevitable.

The France was popular and successful, but only a titanic government fuel subsidy made it possible for her to sail at all. The jets kept slashing at the Atlantic liner’s passenger numbers. By the mid sixties, the ageing Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. Attempts to use them on off season, warm weather cruises met with only partial success.

The Italians in particular fought doggedly against the airborne assault. In 1965, a pair of lithe, sparkling new sister ships called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged to sail on the Italy to New York run.  Italians have always been particularly sea minded and, for a few years, these two ships were able to buck the airborne trend, before ultimately succumbing in the mid 1970’s, after just a decade each of service.

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

Then, in 1969, came the brand new Queen Elizabeth 2, a ship designed from the start both to make crossings and off season cruises. After a shaky and troubled start, the ship- forever after to be immortalised as the QE2– settled down to almost four decades of legendary service. For many years, she would steam stubbornly back and forth across the Atlantic as the last surviving liner and, in doing so, she would become the most legendary and beloved of all the long lineage of illustrious, hallowed Cunarders.

1969 also saw the withdrawal from service of the stunning SS. United States, and the inauguration of the new, mass transit successor to the 707. This new plane was the Boeing 747, forever to be immortalised as the Jumbo Jet.  Huge, capacious, and offering unparallelled economies of scale, it took commercial air travel to a whole new level. By the time it was flying in regular service in 1970, the jets had ninety six per cent of the transatlantic trade.

By that stage, only the France and the QE2 were still making regular crossings on the old superliner route and, while they were indeed sometimes still fully booked in summer, the winters saw them seeking refuge, and indeed survival, in warmer cruising regions. The triumph of air travel was as unassailable as it was undeniable.

And yet, incredibly, in the years to come, both jet and ocean liner would come to form an alliance of sorts. As crossing gave way to cruising, the former rivals would become working partners, with each being necessary to the successful operation of the other.

But that, my friends, is entirely another story….

AIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW- WAS FLYING EVER GLAMOROUS?

ImageSo, what do we think? Does flying still retain a patina- even a gossamer thin one- of the perceived glamour of old? Or was that very perception as easily applied as the make up on the actresses that played the cabin crew of the recently aborted Pan Am series, bruited to be a slice of Mad Men in the air? Well, here’s my take, for what its worth.

Of course, flying is a hell of a lot more comfortable if you happen to find yourself ensconced at the front of the plane. But even for those uber privileged souls, the departure and arrival experience of modern airports is no magic carpet ride. In the last thirty years, the hassles inherent in the airport ground experience have done much to dilute any residual magic quality that air travel may have once had. But how magical was that, exactly?

It’s sobering to recall that even the legendary Concorde had a seat pitch of only thirty eight inches- around the same as on Premium Economy on today’s BA. Of course the food and service were in a very different league, but- as any purveyor or retailer of luxury will tell you- it’s all about the amount of personal space.

True luxury air travel was often associated with the great, pre war Empire Flying Boats, with their bar, restaurant, and bunk beds for passengers. How well those passengers could sleep as these propeller driven beasts almost shook themselves to bits as they tried to maintain schedule is a good question. Add natural turbulence to that mixture, and you can see where the ‘bone shaker’ nickname came from.

That said, the experience of taking off, and indeed landing on water, must have been quite magical. And those same lugubrious, lumbering birds had huge portholes from which to admire the view; one very different at such very low altitudes to those we get today.

The airship was a very different creature. The first ever, round the world flight by any aircraft was made by the legendary Graf Zeppelin as far back as 1929. She was the first craft ever to fly over- and photograph- the frozen land masses of Siberia. During her stellar career, the ‘Graf’ quite literally flew all over the world, from South America to the North Pole.  In America especially, she was accorded almost matinee star status.

In 1930, the R100 made a hugely successful maiden flight, from Cardington to Montreal and back. Only the grisly funeral pyres of the R101 and, later, the Hindenburg prevented a pre war rush to the skies by the travelling public. The airship was too early, and way too unlucky.

But the comfort levels on the Hindenburg, in particular, were equal to any ocean liner of the day, except for the small, Pullman sized cabins. The Hindenburg had a sealed smoking room, a bar complete with a grand piano, and a separate restaurant, as well as viewing galleries on both sides, lined with steamer chairs. For the fourteen months that she was in service, the great silver airship really did bring style, glamour and luxury to air travel. It never came back.

The dawn of the Jet Age brought air travel to the masses, and today we take it for granted. As a television series, Pan Am offered an insight into a supposedly more refined era, complete with silver service and immaculately made martinis at 36,000 feet. It all looked very glamorous indeed.

My experience of the real Pan Am was not quite like that……

I flew back from New York with them in 1986, when the airline was already flying on fumes, and just two years before the horror of the Lockerbie disaster. It was, as they say, quite the ride.

An irate, very loud- and very drunken- European gentleman was denied boarding, and hustled away from the gate by a pair of knuckle dragging, cro-magnon predecessors of the TSA, The seats had virtually no recline- and this was a Boeing 747.

The stewardesses were completely uninterested in their passengers. The meal consisted of something called meat, coated in a simmering brown gloop that had almost coagulated. The bread roll was hard enough to take out a pocket battleship at ten miles if thrown properly.

The coffee had the consistency- and the colour- of Bunker C diesel oil, and may indeed very well have been. And, while I don’t expect a lot from being in ‘cattle class’, was it asking too much to have crackers that could actually be eaten without a fight? I suspect that the Siegfried Line was easier to crack.

In conclusion, I don’t think flying has any real patina of glamour. But we live in a world where glamour as a whole is in short supply; a world where the ascendancy of hype over style has reached almost stratospheric levels. So why expect more from air travel?

Forty years ago, we had the Supremes and the Temptations. Now it’s One Direction and Cheryl Cole. The defence rests. Though not in any real comfort.