Part 2: The MKX Express, Henry Dreyfuss, and Traveling by Train


Part 1: Catabolizing designs, The Three Schools of Car Design, Art Deco, and the 2011 Lincoln MKX can be found here.

Locomotives trains, as a form of transport, had their glory days when my maternal grandparents were young children. Not that their jet-black hair ever rustled in the passenger train’s open window. No, they missed the steam-powered magnificence along with the rest of their youth. In Axis-controlled Romania, trains were avoided, lest they be the kind with no return trip.

Life couldn’t have been more different in the sanguine land of opportunity that was America. In the early 1930’s, the stock markets took a beating the likes of which weren’t seen again until 2008. Still, American men and women had their pride – they were still living in the greatest country on earth and making sure that everyone else knew it. This meant constructing grand physical monuments and advancing technology to its limits wherever possible. The train system was no exception. Making it from New York to Chicago in 16 hours, less than 800 miles, was a monumental accomplishment for the rail system, or any system for that matter. The car wasn’t mature enough as a technology to accomplish the trip with anything resembling reliability. The mighty steam engine, on the other hand, averaged speeds of 50 mph, or 81 kph. This was a lofty industrial design problem, to be sure.

The solution is all the more impressive when you realize that the 1927-39 4-6-4 NYC Hudsons that accomplished this track-bound feat were designed by Henry Dreyfuss, perhaps the most inventive industrial designer of the early and mid-20th century. His rare combination of common sense and scientific understanding produced the Honeywell T87 circular wall thermostat, the Western Electric 302 tabletop telephone for Bell Laboratories, and, of course, that famously picturesque Hudson. Dreyfuss not only made the Hudsons capable of meeting the quantifiable demands of train service, but he made them sexier than a corset in the process. Today, you need only look out your dining room window at the plain grey cars and plain grey buildings to see that we could all use a healthy inoculation of Dreyfuss ideology.

In a roundabout way, what I’m getting at is that not only could Dreyfuss have designed the 2011 Lincoln MKX, but it appears that he did exactly that. Counter-intuitively, this has been done from his grave. And he based this nouveau American luxury crossover on the very NYC Hudson that captured a nation’s imagination all those years ago.

You see, the MKX is a train. It turns its driver into a 1930’s train passenger while it plays the role of conductor. At the helm of the wide Lincoln 5-seater, the train passenger is given a privileged and lofted view of the world ahead. Like a train, rear visibility isn’t a concern because forward travel is the modus operandi. This leaves the train passenger to relax, open the window slightly and let the wind rustle in his jet-black hair.

The outside world drifts by, preoccupied with itself, while the pampered train passenger is granted time to reflect. Such indulgence is rare in our freakishly busy world. You’ve seen the Telus smartphone ads: “Turn down time into up time”. Between texting, WiFi hotspots, Facebook and Twitter there’s no more down time, no more time for introspection.

My favourite passenger car on the Edmonton-Jasper-Vancouver snow train.

Instead, we’ve created fragile personas that depend on sharing every thought in our heads and crying out for positive feedback to reaffirm our own existence. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but a train ride (LRT doesn’t count) is one of the few environments that frees you to look out the window and tinker with thoughts for your own benefit, not for the benefit of others. Somewhat surreally, the MKX was able to very nearly replicate that experience. Minus the choo-chooing.

Not that the THX sound system couldn’t have pulled off a sharp impression, the sound quality was that impressive. With notes lightly dancing through the cabin, the MKX glides through traffic like blades on ice, scything through the complicated world.

On a particularly difficult Saturday morning, the wrong end of a long Friday night, I boarded the MKX Express, not really knowing where it was going. I hoped on and let The Conductor decide my fate. The first stop of the 1:00pm “morning” was Booster Juice. This is the way all of my toughest recoveries start, so I was thankful that it was on The Conductor’s route. The second train stop was a little further away at the Edmonton Valley Zoo, which isn’t open at this time of year, but it was a chance for the train to draw a few ovals loops around the deserted, packed snow parking lot.

After clocking an impressive 36-second lap time around the makeshift oval, the train left the Valley Zoo station. The Conductor didn’t quite seem to know where his next destination was because the route led me out west towards the River Cree Casino before looping onto the Anthony Henday and south towards South Edmonton Common. At speed, the ride quality of the MKX Express was beyond reproach. Potholes, pavement heaves, ice, gravel, and snow all made a valiant effort to upset the ride, but even on 20” wheels, the cabin was quiet and undisturbed.

On the Henday, the radar-guided cruise control proved itself to be one of the coolest fucking technologies ever. It really does make an enormous amount of difference on a divided highway where cars and trucks are constantly jostling for position, and the car slows itself down and speeds itself up to maintain a consistent distance between you and the car in front. I really do look forward to the day when it’s a standard feature on all new vehicles.

I despise South Edmonton Common at the best of times, but its saving grace is definitely Golf Town. Conveniently, that’s exactly where the Express stopped next. What are the chances? After eyeing the latest technologies and fashions, and running into an old teammate from the U of A golf team, I was starting to get the golf itch again. With several feet of snow still on the ground, this was ill timed. Frustrated, I re-boarded the train and wondered where it would take me next.

The answer turned out to be the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market just north of Whyte Ave right by the train tracks. There are few more enjoyable places to spend a Saturday. The sense of community, moral rightness, and delicious local food emanate from the old bus barns like a prominence eruption.

I wandered around lazily and happily, feeling rejuvenated with every slow step and friendly smile. The Conductor knew exactly what I needed. It was a circuitous path along the way, but the MKX Express took me exactly where I needed to go. It did so in comfort, elegance, and panache – just as Henry Dreyfuss would have wanted.


[Photo credits: mastermaq/Flickr, author]