Early BART car designs were panned in newspaper editorials, but the public was more receptive. (Photo courtesy Michael Healy)

Star Trek, Blade Runner designer also left legacy at BART

Syd Mead, a visual artist and futurist, died Monday from complications from lymphoma, according to Variety. He was 86-years-old.

While his striking art guided the style of science-fiction films including Blade Runner, Tron, Aliens and Star Trek The Motion Picture, he left behind a visual legacy in the Bay Area as well.

Mead gifted BART its iconic train design.

The sloping, angular front cab, the off-center, left-side-only train operator’s windshield, and other subtle, retro-futuristic touches were designed primarily by Mead in early renderings, Mead told Sunday Interviews in 2015.

That off-center windshield is a signature part of BART’s train design, but Mead said it was practical as much as visual.

“The original idea was to have a spare cab on each end of the line so when the train would go across the Bay and then it would come back, you wouldn’t have to change the whole train around,” Mead told Sunday Interviews. “You could take the control cabin off the back, install another one on the front and then, away you go. That never happened because it’s such an elaborate thing.”

Still, the design stuck.

And that’s when Sundberg-Ferar Industrial Design, a Michigan-based design firm, began to tour the mockup across the Bay Area, according to BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, a historical account by Michael Healy.

Newspapers at the time ripped apart local officials for awarding the contract to produce the BART cars to Rohr Industries, an aerospace company in Chula Vista. The 450 cars would be billed at $71 million.

Instead, editorials at the time decreed that BART train cars should have been produced by “tried-and-true” rail car providers, Healy’s book states.

But Bay Area residents visited the train cars on their county tour, and were impressed by the design, including the cushioned seats, carpeted floors and clean, wide body.

And inside BART, the design was a hit, too.

“The renderings I did were hanging in the office of the President of (BART) when it first opened,” Mead told Sunday Interviews.

Today, perhaps showing the fate of creator and creation intertwining, the BART cars that Mead helped design are on their way out, to be replaced by BART’s Fleet of the Future.

But unlike the futuristic BART train cars of the past, their windshields are plainly symmetrical, their cabins flush and flat, lacking the dramatic nose designed when one science-fiction artist helped the Bay Area dream of the future.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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