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Classic Passenger Cars: Restored and On the Rails

Beckoned by a Clickety-Clack Clarion, Private Train Buffs Revel in the Ultimate Ride
Warren Kalbacker
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

"One of my sons and some of his friends took the car to New York the other night." * Like many fathers, Bennett Levin occasionally hands the car keys to his sons. In the Levins' case, though, the family car happens to be Pennsylvania 120, an 85-foot, 93-ton rail passenger car. A trip to Manhattan from its Philadelphia home base involves calling for a switch engine to couple 120 to an Amtrak train for a high-speed run up the Northeast Corridor main line. * Recalling a son's recent outing has solved the riddle of the rearranged stowage of cocktail snacks in the Pullman kitchen. Levin proceeds through the dining room with its etched-glass panels depicting

famous Pennsylvania Railroad locomotives and down the aisle past the car's four staterooms. He relaxes in a parlor room chair, which sports an antimacassar embroidered with a speeding Pennsylvania electric locomotive.

"That headrest is from the Congressional Limited," he notes.

The walnut-paneled room's large rear windows look out onto an open observation platform. A clock, a speedometer and an air brake pressure gauge are located just above one window. Levin recounts his car's history.

Pennsylvania 120 was built as a "business car," a rolling hotel/office, for Pennsylvania Railroad officials in 1928. The line later refurbished 120 for its president and also made it available for charter to VIPs. Every U.S. president from Herbert Hoover to Lyndon Johnson was welcomed aboard. Pennsylvania 120 carried John Kennedy to Army-Navy football games and his brother Robert's coffin from New York to burial in Washington, D.C. Levin particularly enjoys passing along the information that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Peter Lawford once chartered the car for a New York to Chicago jaunt. He glances toward the bedrooms and wonders what hijinks the Rat Pack might have perpetrated on that overnight trip.

"It had such important historic value, we decided to do a complete rebuild," Levin says, adding, "I bought this car because I had an affinity for the Pennsy. I would not have bought a New York Central or Texas & Pacific car."

As a child, Levin became entranced with the Pennsy freights passing his grandmother's house in New Jersey. While a student at Penn State, he borrowed fraternity brothers' cars for trips to watch trains at Altoona along the railroad's busy main line. Levin remains fanatically loyal to the mighty "P Company," which disappeared in a 1968 merger with the New York Central. For him, Pennsy tradition rolls on whenever 120 turns a wheel.

Sharp-eyed commuters may occasionally glimpse a private car coupled onto a passing Amtrak train. Some are "heavyweights" that date from the early decades of this century (and usually sport the open observation platform familiar from photos of politicians' whistle-stop campaign tours). These cars are sometimes painted in the subdued schemes of railroads long vanished in mergers. Levin's 120 sports the dark "Tuscan" red that the Pennsylvania Railroad applied to its passenger equipment. Other private cars are stainless steel veterans of 1940s and '50s streamliners such as the California Zephyr and Silver Meteor.

Frederick Seibold, a car owner who serves as spokesman for the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO) notes that private individuals own about 150 of these cars, equipped with running gear and power systems that adhere to Amtrak's requirements, which allow them to travel economically (admittedly, a relative term) from city to city. He estimates that another 200 cars are under restoration or operate on short lines. These cars, dubbed "private varnish" (P.V.) because of the high gloss displayed by nineteenth-century wooden passenger cars (boxcars received drab red paint), represent a long tradition of luxury rail travel. Railroad moguls and business titans such as E. F. Hutton and Henry Ford traveled in personal cars. F. W. Woolworth had one built for his daughter. Sidings (side tracks) at resorts such as Palm Beach and Newport hosted fleets of P.V.s during the vacation seasons.

For decades, passengers aboard the nation's leading trains shared much of the luxury. According to Fred Bartoli, a civil engineer who designs passenger stations for Amtrak and maintains an interest in rail history, "The nation's premier trains such as the New York Central's Twentieth Century Limited and Pennsylvania's Broadway, which were arch competitors on the New York-Chicago route, featured 'baggage smokers' immediately behind the railway post office car." Bartoli stresses that the presence of a luggage room in no way implied that these weren't first-class cars. Baggage smokers provided gentlemen travelers with a club atmosphere congenial for smoking, cocktails and late-evening drinks. The streamliners of the '30s introduced mid-train lounge cars that welcomed women, though Bartoli notes that in the 1938 edition of the Twentieth Century Limited, the famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfus retained head-end Century Club cars. Bearing names such as Century Inn and Century Lounge, these stylish Art Deco cars attracted an elite clientele.

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