An Entertaining & Informative Vintage Automobile Internet Magazine

The Zephyr Land-Yacht, a Streamlined Design by Brooks Stevens

  • stev1
  • Scale model of the “Zephyr Land-Yacht,” the Milwaukee Art Museum

Clifford Brooks Stevens was one of the most talented and prolific industrial designers of the 20th century. He and his staff designed about 3,000 products including a number of vehicle designs that went on to become a success in the marketplace. You can read his biography at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Stevens opened his first office in 1935, and one of his early commissions was for the Zephyr Land-Yacht, which he designed for William Woods Plankinton, Jr. At the time, Plankinton was a free-lance photographer for the New York Journal American and was a part of the high-society social scene in New York City. The photos above and just below are courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

stev10

Plankinton, whose family ran a very successful packing company that his great-grandfather started, wanted to pursue cross-country travel in style. His goal was to have a tractor-trailer combination of superior design and personal comfort that included the following: The tractor would serve as the living quarters for the driver and the valet; the trailer would sleep nine comfortably, and include a shower bath, kitchen facilities and the latest in radio equipment.

  •                  pat1                              pat2

On November 9, 1936, Stevens filed a patent for the tractor and the trailer that were both assigned to Plankinton. The chassis the tractor was based on was an International Truck cab-over-engine unit with a six-cylinder engine. The total combined length of both was within the 35-foot state and federal limitations at the time. About a year after it was first finished, the engine was swapped for a heavy-duty Ford flathead V-8 unit. The original two-speed rear axle was retained which allowed for a 75 m.p.h. cruising speed with the new engine.

stev11

It attracted attention from the moment it was finished which then quickly lead to another commission. As Stevens told it: While on a test run with the rig and the crew in 1936, a stop was made at a friends residence for hors d’oeuvres and cocktails in the trailer. As the valet was serving the gathering, there was a knock at the door from an executive from the Western Printing Company wanting to inquire about having its own vehicle designed. A meeting was arranged which led to his next commission, the design of the Western Clippers, but that is a story for a later date.

stev3

Good photos of the rig and details of its construction are hard to come by some 75-years after it was first built. We have also been unable to find out what happened to this unique creation after its useful days were over. If anyone can point us to more information about it, please let us know.

*Update*

Since this was posted we have been in contact with the owner of the tractor which has survived and is in reasonably good unrestored condition. The trailer was not as fortunate, and was left outside for a number of years where it deteriorated and was eventually dismantled by one of Plankington’s workers.

13 responses to “The Zephyr Land-Yacht, a Streamlined Design by Brooks Stevens

  1. That is quite an example of mid-’30s streamlining and decorative design. I’d be interested to see interior views, and to learn if the tractor and trailer included any type of air conditioning (cooling) for those cross country trips.

    The tractor reminds me of the Stout Scarab.

    Tom M.

  2. Comfort must have had a different meaning back then. We have a 29 foot 5th wheel which combined with our truck is a bit longer than the Plankinton rig. I cannot imagine nine people sleeping comfortably in it

    • Since this was posted we have been in contact with the owner of the tractor which has survived and is in reasonably good unrestored condition.

      The trailer was not as fortunate, was left outside for a number of years and deteriorated and was eventually dismantled by one of Plankington’s workers.

  3. I saw this Zephyr in the late 1970s the owner was a customer / friend of my father. The owner kept this & other cars in a coach house in downtown Milwaukee just north of Wisconsin Ave near city hall. The owner lived on Lenox Ave near the airport. I believe he still lives there , his name is Paul Brownell. He may still have it!

  4. There is a limited amount of motion picture film of the tractor and the outside of the trailer at The Milwaukee County Historical Society in the Plankinton film collection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please note: links to other sites are not allowed.