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Fair Lane: The Fords’ Private Railroad Car

July 28, 2021 Archive Insight
Drab green railcar sitting on railroad tracks

Fair Lane, Henry and Clara Ford’s private railroad car. / THF80274

Fair Lane, the private Pullman railroad car built for and used by Henry and Clara Ford, turns 100 years old in 2021. It provides a fascinating window into business and pleasure travel for the wealthy in the early 20th century.

By 1920, the Fords found it increasingly difficult to travel with any degree of privacy. Henry, in particular, was widely recognized by the public. He’d been generating major headlines for a decade, whether for his victory against the Selden Patent, his achievements with mass production and worker compensation via the Five Dollar Day, or his misguided attempt to end World War I with the Peace Ship. The Fords could travel privately for shorter distances by automobile, and their yacht, Sialia, provided seclusion when traveling by water. But anytime they entered a railroad station, the couple was sure to be pestered by the public and hounded by reporters. Their solution was to commission a private railroad car for longer overland trips.

Private railroad cars are nearly as old as the railroad itself. America’s first common-carrier railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, opened in 1830. Little more than ten years later, President John Tyler traveled by private railcar over the Camden & Amboy Railroad to dedicate Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument in 1843. Not surprisingly, railroad executives and officials were also early users of private railroad cars. Cornelius Vanderbilt, president of the New York Central Railroad, used a private car when traveling over his line, both for business and for pleasure. For a busy railroad manager, the private railcar served as a mobile workspace where business could be conducted at distant points on the railroad line, far from company headquarters.

Print of train mounted on white matboard; also contains text
Pullman cars on the First Transcontinental Railroad, circa 1870. / THF291330

Following the Civil War, the Pullman Palace Car Company earned a reputation for its opulent public passenger cars with comfortable sleeping accommodations. Company founder George Pullman designed a private railcar to similar high standards. Pullman named the car P.P.C.—his company’s initials—and used it when traveling with his family. Pullman enjoyed lending the car to other dignitaries, by which he could simultaneously impress VIP passengers and advertise his company. Eventually, Pullman began renting the car out to patrons who could afford the daily rate of $85 (more than $2,000 today).

Clara and Henry Ford ordered their private railroad car from the Pullman Company on February 18, 1920. They hoped to have it delivered by that September, for a planned trip to inspect properties Henry had recently purchased in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But delays pushed the car’s actual delivery date back by about nine months. Some of those delays were due to changes to the car’s interior. Clara designed the interior spaces, working with Sidney Houghton of London, who had earlier provided the same service for the Fords’ yacht.

The finished railroad car was delivered on June 23, 1921. The Fords named it Fair Lane—the same name they’d given to their estate in Dearborn, Michigan. (Fair Lane was the area in County Cork, Ireland, where Mr. Ford’s grandfather was born.) The final bill for the railcar came to $159,000 (about $2.3 million today). The Fords paid 25 percent of that cost upon placing their order, a further 25 percent during construction, and the final 50 percent on delivery.

Surely the finished Fair Lane was worth the wait and expense. The car included accommodations for six passengers and sleeping quarters for two additional staff members. When traveling, Fair Lane typically was staffed by a porter to attend to the passengers’ needs and a cook to prepare meals.

Interior of room with wooden paneling, blue upholstered seating, and an arched ceiling
Fair Lane’s lounge offered the best views of passing scenery. / THF186264

At the rear of the car, a comfortable lounge provided a spot to read, relax, or simply watch the passing scenery through the large windows. An open porch-like platform at the very rear of the car was particularly enjoyable at moderate train speeds. Typically, Fair Lane was coupled to the end of a train, meaning that the view from the platform would not be obstructed.

Room with wooden paneling, bed with shelf over it, and arched celing
Bedrooms in Fair Lane were cozy but comfortable. / THF186273

From the lounge, a narrow hallway ran most of the car’s length. Four bedrooms were located along the corridor. These rooms were cozy but comfortable. Each room had a bed, but berths could be unfolded from above to provide additional sleeping space if needed. Dressers and small desks rounded out the furnishings. Likewise, the bathrooms in Fair Lane were small but serviceable. Each one had hot and cold running water and a toilet. The master bath also included a shower.

Interior of room with wooden paneling and carpet, containing wooden dining table and chairs
Fair Lane’s passengers dined in this area. An on-board cook prepared meals to order. / THF186285

The dining area, near the front of the car, featured an extension table that comfortably seated six adults at one time. The chandelier, which hung directly above the table, was secured with guys that kept it from swaying as the car rolled down the railroad track. Built-in cabinets housed the car’s glassware and china. Clara Ford stocked Fair Lane with 144 various glasses, 169 pieces of silverware, and 230 crockery items. Wood posts and rails kept things from sliding around or falling out of the cabinets.

Small stainless steel galley kitchen
The car’s kitchen was small but sufficient for elaborate meals. / THF186289

Logically, the kitchen was located just in front of the dining room. Finished in stainless steel, the kitchen included an oven, a stovetop, a sink, and numerous additional cabinets. Food and supplies were loaded through the door at the car’s front end, so as not to disturb the riders farther back in the car. Staff quarters were located in the front of the car too. Compared with the other bedrooms, the staff room was sparse and utilitarian.

Using Fair Lane was not like driving a limousine or flying a private airplane. The railcar’s travels had to be coordinated with the various host railroads that operated America’s 250,000-mile rail network. Usually, Fair Lane was coupled to a regularly scheduled passenger train. The fee for pulling the private car was equivalent to 25 standard passenger tickets. One standard ticket on a train from Detroit to New York City in the early 1920s cost around $30, meaning the Fair Lane fee worked out to about $750 (around $10,000 today). If Fair Lane required a special movement—that is, if it was moved with a dedicated locomotive and not as a part of a regular train—then the fee jumped to the equivalent of 125 standard tickets.

The fee structure was different when Fair Lane moved over the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad. Henry Ford personally owned DT&I from 1920 to 1929. It was considered official railroad business when Mr. Ford used his private car on DT&I, so he did not need to pay a fare for himself. But he did pay fares for Fair Lane passengers who weren’t directly employed by DT&I.

Several people stand on the back platform of a railcar, some waving
Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara Ford, and Mina and Thomas Edison pose on the car’s rear platform about 1923. / THF97966

The Fords made more than 400 trips with Fair Lane in the two decades that they owned the car. Annual excursions took Henry and Clara Ford to their winter homes in Fort Myers, Florida, or Richmond Hill, Georgia. Likewise, Edsel and Eleanor Ford, Henry and Clara’s son and daughter-in-law, occasionally used Fair Lane to visit their own vacation home in Seal Harbor, Maine. The Fords hosted several special guests on the car too. Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge both spent time on the car, as did entertainer and humorist Will Rogers. Not surprisingly, Thomas and Mina Edison—among Henry and Clara Ford’s closest friends—also traveled aboard Fair Lane.

Clara Ford enjoyed trips to New York City, where she could visit friends or patronize specialty boutiques and department stores. Fair Lane could be coupled to direct Detroit–New York trains like New York Central’s Wolverine or Detroiter. Both trains arrived at the famous Grand Central Terminal in the heart of Manhattan. In 1922, an overnight run from the Motor City to the Big Apple on the Wolverine took 16 hours.

Both Henry Ford and Edsel Ford used Fair Lane when traveling on Ford Motor Company business. Chicago, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., were all frequent destinations on these trips. Of course, they’d travel to distant Ford Motor Company properties too, including those previously mentioned holdings in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Aerial view of large building with railroad lines and trains behind and to one side of it; lawn and driveways in front and other buildings behind
Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, where most of Fair Lane’s journeys began and ended. / THF137923

Most of the car’s trips started and ended at Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, ten miles east of Dearborn. The large station had facilities to clean and stock Fair Lane, and crews to switch the car onto regular passenger trains. Michigan Central was a New York Central subsidiary, and New York Central trains provided direct service from Detroit to Chicago, New York, Boston, and many places in between. For longer trips, New York Central coordinated with additional railroad lines to transfer Fair Lane to other trains at connecting points, making the trip as seamless as possible for the Fords.

When Fair Lane wasn’t traveling out on a railroad, the car was stored in a shed built for it near Henry Ford’s flour mill on Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn. The shed was just west of Dearborn’s present John D. Dingell Transit Center, where Amtrak trains stop today.

The Fords considered updating or replacing Fair Lane at different times. As early as March 1923, Ernest Liebold, Henry Ford’s personal secretary, wrote to the Pullman Company to inquire about building a larger car surpassing Fair Lane’s 82-foot length. Whatever Pullman’s reply, Ford did not place a new order. Twelve years later, Edsel Ford wrote to Pullman to ask about adding air conditioning to Fair Lane. The company responded with an estimate of $12,000 for the upgrade. Apparently, the cost was high enough for the Fords to once again consider building an entirely new, larger private railcar. The Pullman Company prepared a set of drawings for review but, once again, no order was placed.

Black-and-white image of train car
Fair Lane in November 1942, at the end of its time with the Fords. / THF148020

By the early 1940s, Fair Lane was aging and in need of either significant repairs or outright replacement. Henry and Clara Ford were aging too, and weren’t traveling quite as much as they had in earlier years. On top of this, the United States joined World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Wartime brought with it restrictions on materials, manufacturing, and travel—each on its own enough to sidetrack further work on Fair Lane. Somewhat reluctantly, Henry and Clara Ford sold their private railroad car in November 1942.

The St. Louis Southwestern Railway purchased Fair Lane from the Fords for $25,000. The company used the car for railroad business, carrying executives on its lines concentrated in Arkansas and Texas. In 1972, St. Louis Southwestern donated Fair Lane to the Cherokee National Historical Society. The organization used the car as an office space for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Richard and Linda Kughn purchased Fair Lane in 1982. They moved it to Tucson, Arizona, and began a four-year project to restore the car to its original Ford-era appearance. At the same time, they updated Fair Lane with modern mechanical, electrical, and climate-control systems. The Kughns enjoyed the refurbished railcar for several years before gifting it to The Henry Ford in 1996. Today Fair Lane is back in Dearborn—a testament to the golden age of railroad travel, as experienced by those with gilded budgets.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Fair Lane railcar, travel, railroads, Michigan, Henry Ford Museum, Henry Ford, Detroit, Dearborn, Clara Ford, by Matt Anderson

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