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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

(continued from page 1)

Private car owners are fiercely dedicated to preserving the heritage of luxury. An example is the enamel Pennsy Keystone logos on the bases of the ashtray stands that grace the parlor room in Levin's 120. "A fine cigar and a glass of good wine is absolutely part of the ambience," Levin says. He's restored 120's interior with walnut from New Guinea and Madagascar to give the car the feel of an old-time men's club and outfitted the dining room and parlor with oils by Grif Teller, the artist who for years painted the Pennsylvania's calendar scenes. Original Pennsy flatware and serving pieces grace the dining room. Levin confesses he's updated 120's interior a bit, with edged-glass partitions, bookshelves, new bathrooms and dining facilities. Legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy once offered a distinctive "moderne" interior for the Pennsy president's car. The line rejected Loewy's design. Says Levin: "The Pennsy was Quaker and very modest."

Levin's guests and charter passengers won't see the concrete and lead sheets he's added under the floor to dampen noise and vibration. Railroaders insist the heavier the car, the smoother the ride. Levin has also installed new air conditioning and braking systems. He's equipped 120 with a television and VCR, cell phones and a Global Positioning System, which identifies the car's location by using radio signals from satellites. "You can set up a laptop and watch your progress along the route on a map display," says Levin. But he limits his personal use of technology when aboard. "I don't carry a beeper or cell phone," he says. "I've spent some of the best hours right here on the couch, heading up New River Gorge in West Virginia coupled to Amtrak's Cardinal or rolling across the state of Maine on the rear of a freight train. It's very nice when you're out of touch."

Levin recalls that he was on a business trip to Asia in 1985 when one of his sons called him with the news that a New Orleans entrepreneur--one of a number who've owned the car subsequent to its Pennsy service--had put the car up for sale. As head of his own engineering firm, Levin designed electrical and mechanical systems for large buildings around the country, but he insists the 120 restoration proved especially rewarding. "Three Levins and a couple of others did it," he says. "I crawled underneath and rewired the car. My sons, both now in their 30s, grew up in an affluent environment. But now they know how to weld."

Frederick Seibold manages a radio station in central Illinois, but on weekends he can be found in work clothes and a hard hat underneath his car, named Central Plateau. His current project: replacing a vintage ice cooling chest with modern air conditioning.

One day during his boyhood train-spotting days, the Baltimore & Ohio local arrived in Seibold's hometown trailing a car with an open rear platform and brass rail. Years later, passing through Chicago's Dearborn Station at breakfast time, Seibold recalled the aroma wafting from the galley of a Grand Trunk Western business car. "The brewing coffee and frying ham smelled so good and the car looked so good in its two-tone green-and-black livery, I decided that some day I was going to have one of those."

Seibold's P.V. rolled in when a Chicago-area freight line decided to sell the 1926 vintage observation car it had been using for track inspections and as a safety instruction classroom. Seibold couldn't believe his luck. He discovered that the car had been built by the Pullman Co. for service in premier New York Central trains, including the Twentieth Century Limited. Remarkably, all the furniture in the observation room was original.

Like a sailor who's as passionate about working on his yacht as cruising, Seibold has undertaken a painstaking restoration of the car. He acquired Central Plateau's original blueprints and pored over photos from the Smithsonian and pictures Pullman itself made during construction. Seibold versed himself in the complexities of the six-wheel Pullman 2610A trucks on which Central Plateau rides and he scours the country for all sorts of parts. "If you're looking for a hubcap for an Auburn auto, you can't get it at the corner parts store," he deadpans.

Seibold's restoration doesn't ignore the fact that Central Plateau was built for luxury transportation. He's created four mahogany-paneled staterooms and a dining room where the freight railroad had gutted the car for a classroom. He discovered that the German textile firm that wove upholstery fabrics for Pullman is still in business. His photo research enabled him to select a diamond mohair pattern close to the car's original design for re-covering the furniture. And when a Vanderbilt family member disposed of a railroad silver collection, Seibold acquired a serving tray that matched one a waiter held in an old photo of his car.

Central Plateau's dining room will boast place settings of the Pullman Co.'s Indian Tree china pattern, and Seibold is determined to recreate the atmosphere of 1920s first-class travel in the observation lounge, where he notes that gentlemen enjoyed their cigars. He's outfitted the room with a vintage brass ashtray stand--original Pullman Co. design, of course. Though he claims not to be operating "according to timetable," Seibold hopes in the near future to apply his PULLMAN stencil to Central Plateau's dark green "wet look" exterior paint (custom-matched by Rustoleum) and roll the car out for Amtrak inspectors. Once they certify his P.V.'s compatibility with their equipment, Seibold will be off to travel with friends and charter guests across what railroad enthusiasts sometimes call "America's iron ocean."

Seibold views P.V.s as the perfect vehicle for the "trip of a lifetime," and he takes a broad view of potential passengers. "Probably your most delightful company is friends, not necessarily foaming-at-the-mouth rail buffs," he says.


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