Is it a plane? Is it a train? No, it's a prop-driven V12 locomotive!

Time again for outrageous pre-war German vehicle designs. You’ve already seen the Nazi rocket plane built to nuke New York from orbit. The propeller-driven aluminum train Schienenzeppelin is miles tamer but every bit as magnificent. And unlike the Amerika Bomber, it really ran—at 140 mph in 1931!

What makes the Schienenzeppelin (“Rail Zeppelin”) even better is that the concept and execution predated the Nazis by years. Like quantum physics, Bauhaus architecture and Marlene Dietrich, it was a product of the Weimar Republic, and all the Nazis contributed was the loco’s eventual dismantling to turn its aluminum into Messerschmitts.

Conceived and built in 1930 by the German rail company Deutsche Reichsbahn, the Schienenzeppelin was a design alternative to the streamlined steam locomotives of its day. It was a slippery, lightweight construction at 20 tonnes, running on but two axles, powered by a 46-liter BMW V12 which was later used to power the light bombers of the Luftwaffe. The engine’s 600 horsepower were channeled into a massive ash propeller, tilted at a 7˚ angle to produce downforce. It was one of those designs that would shock and delight even in these times, when aluminum is used not for Bauhaus trains but for high-revving V8’s and

Is it a plane? Is it a train? No, it's a prop-driven V12 locomotive!

computers from the near future.

Originally good for 120 mph—comparable to the fastest streamlined steam locomotives—the Schienenzeppelin topped out at a magnificent 140 mph in the summer of 1931, a speed record which stood for 23 years and which has never been surpassed by a gasoline-powered locomotive. Unfortunately, the train never made it into production. Problems with propeller safety and reliability prevented it from attaining mass production and the speed record prototype was dismantled in 1939, on the eve of World War II.

But it does make one wonder at an alternative rail network, one where evolutions of the Schienenzeppelin scream across the land, rat-tat-tatting like fighter planes, blurred silver bullets toying with the speed of sound.

Photo Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv