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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.