These Initial BART Prototypes Looked Like Actual Rocket Ships

“Hey, Alexa. Play ‘Rocket’ by Beyoncé [while we read up on these 1960s BART prototypes that indeed looked like rocket ships].”

Founded in 1957, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Agency (BART) has become one of the largest agencies of its kind in the entire country. Though the first BART train didn’t pull into the MacArthur Station in Oakland until years later on September 11, 1972, the rapid transit agency nowadays operates 50 stations along six routes on 131 miles of track. It’s also become a darling among Transit Twitter enthusiasts.

But the otherwise utilitarian, streamlined trains we all know and have a waning affinity for these days could have looked far different if earlier prototypes made it to production. Like… we’re talking NASA-like differently. (Read: Boarding BART might’ve felt akin to stepping onto a spaceship.)

In a recent blog post published by BART, the agency waxed on how the “iconic origin BART car” would’ve looked like a galactic vessel if early iterations from the industrial design firm Sundberg-Ferar, which created the concept and design of the original cars, had taken off — pun intended.

Recently, a collection of photographs from the 1960s were unearthed and digitally restored that show BART in its infancy. And in that pool of images were snapshots that captured these more premature prototypes… that spanned the gamut of otherworldly creativity. 

“Prototypes are a low-cost, low-risk way to test design ideas,” explained Lynnaea Haggard, Sundberg-Ferar’s Marketing Manager, to BART. “They’re the creation of artifacts for stakeholders to react to, which helps figure out what’s working and what’s not working.”

BART initially contracted Sundberg-Ferar to design cars sometime in the early 1960s with the idea of these cars operating by the time service lines were opened about a decade later.

In 1964, the industrial design firm began putting together basic concept sketches; a series of car prototypes at 1/12th scale were built from these initial sketches; these test cars stretched less than 6 feet long and allowed both engineers and designers to build the foundation for future, more scalable concepts.

Fun fact: A lot of these original BART car concepts were designed by Syd Mead — the acclaimed and well-decorated designer and neo-futurist concept artist responsible for creating designs for Star Trek, Blade Runner, and Tron.

“I worked on the original design for the BART system train cars. Sundberg-Ferar designed the BART system cars,” Mead said in a 2015 interview on Sunday Interviews before his death in 2019. “I did all of the presentation renderings for that.”

Mead’s prototype designs were also incredibly complicated; they, among another quirk, involved having a spare cab on each end of each line, so operators wouldn’t have to change the whole train around when crossing the Bay. 

“You could take the control cabin off the back, install another one on the front, and then, and away you go,” he once said, describing how the elaborate nature of them played a part in these prototypes’ not making it to production.

That idea never came to be because “it was such an elaborate thing,” Mead said.

These Sundberg-Ferar prototypes were first constructed using less costly materials, like wood and plastics, before later designs adopted metal finishes. The spaceship-like prototype was modeled to quarter-scale models — and eventually led to a full-scale prototype being unveiled at BART’s Hayward Test Track in June 1965.

Though no one ever got to ride this aeronautical train, the full-scale model was shipped around the Bay Area and BART allowed members of the public to walk through to get a feel of it for themselves.

Alas, we (obvi) don’t have such an option available to us now — but we can tour them vicariously through these pictures published by BART. And we can (prob) all agree that these prototypes are far less nightmare-inducing than the BART train replica that graced the agency’s 50th birthday bash.

Feature Image: Courtesy of Sundberg-Ferar.


  • CrustySock

    Back then, the BART was so futuristic that they didn’t have straps and poles, because there wouldn’t be standees. Yeah, in about a week, there were standees.

  • Eric Holub

    My father was the designer of a preliminary BART report by Parsons Brinckerhoff Hall and Macdonald in 1955. The one thing I remember from it is that a monorail was considered, maybe there was a pendant monorail too.

  • 🚇 Gene Roddenberry had a made-for-TV movie called _Genesis_II_ that was basically a continent-spanning BART train that was still running beneath the remains of post-apocalyptic America. It was never picked up as a TV series, but the idea was that each episode would be a new BART (NART?) stop with a new civilization, and nobody had to beam down.

    The scantily-clad women had two navels, since they weren’t allowed to have even one on _Star_Trek_.

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