As a kid, there’s something almost hypnotic about powerful vehicles. The likes of fire engines, jet planes, ships and railway locomotives can be awe-inspiring the behold. Looking at, say, a giant excavator through child’s eyes, it seems perfectly plausible that it could still be working away at the end of time. Then we grow up. Even the most invincible of vehicles are scrapped, and the world moves on. Or does it? As these photographs demonstrate, many awesome machines go on to a sort of afterlife. Shrouded in dust, all but forgotten, these defunct machines continue to cut an impressive sight, well away from prying eyes.
Abandoned Fire Engine Graveyard
In an anonymous warehouse somewhere in France lies perhaps the greatest fire engine museum you’ve never heard of. Dozens of mothballed fire trucks are crammed into a vast space beneath the rafters, constituting a whole history of fire engine design. Squashed together, nose to tail, they seem almost unreal; a gathering of engines that could only take place in a child’s fevered imagination.
In a way, that’s almost what has happened. In the 1990s, French fire departments reportedly envisaged building a great collection of historic vehicles. Backed by funds from local government, they bought up and restored as many fire engines as they could lay their hands on. Then, in the early-2000s, funds dried up. Not yet in a good enough state for public display, the vehicles were placed in storage. The planned collection retreated to being merely a museum of the mind; a great idea that sadly never gained concrete form. (More here.)
Ghost Ship USS Sachem
(Images: Pat Bowen)
Go boating along a narrow stretch of the Ohio River, and you might just stumble across one of the least-known, most-historical shipwrecks of North America. The steam yacht Celt went by many names: USS Sachem, USS Phenakite, Circle Line V, Sightseer, and, eventually, just ‘the ghost ship’. Built in 1902, and abandoned for good in the 1980s, the Celt’s past reads like a history of 20th Century America.
Originally the toy of a wealthy railroad executive, the Celt was pressed into military service when the US entered the Great War. Renamed USS Sachem, she was handed over to Thomas Edison, with instructions that he harness the power of science to make America safe from naval attack. Although Edison filed a dizzying number of inventions, the government never built any and the Celt was passed back into civilian hands. Twenty-five years later, she was again conscripted for use in World War Two, before becoming a passenger ferry, turning up in a Madonna video, and, at last, becoming a victory boat to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty.
(Image: EOD Combs)
Abandoned shortly after, her final guise is as an Ohio River landmark, a photogenic wreck, quietly decaying on a lonely stretch of water.
Abandoned Formula Junior Racing Car
In the shadowy realm of urban exploration, a single, striking image can send chills down the spine just as effectively as thousands of words. The above photo, by Rui Almedia, is one such image. Showing a decaying, dust-coated Formula Junior racing car, it is hypnotic, melancholy, and intriguing all at once.
There’s little more we can tell you beyond this. We know the photo was taken somewhere in Portugal, but as is common practice in urbex photography, the location remains undisclosed. Dave Campbell, from Glasgow, commented on Facebook that the vehicle was likely a 1966-67 Formula Vee racer. But whatever its story may be, the picture remains haunting.
Defunct Aérotrain Prototypes
It looks like a vehicle from a retro future. The sort of machine you can imagine appearing on Captain Scarlet, or on the cover of a utopian pulp Sci-Fi novel. But the awesome Aérotrain is very real. Built in France at a period of intense technological optimism, it once promised to revolutionise the way we travel.
A high-speed hover train designed to operate in a similar way to mag-lev vehicles, the Aérotrain eliminated friction, allowing it to travel at incredible speeds. The brainchild of Jean Bertin, the project managed to get several test tracks constructed around France. When the above prototypes were built, it must’ve felt like the future was finally here.
Well, with hindsight we know that it wasn’t. The project was mothballed in 1977 due to lack of funds, and the death of Bertin, its main driving force. The abandoned Aérotrain prototypes were placed in storage, where they now provide the briefest glimpse of a world that could have been.
Defunct Renault ABJ Railcars
(Images: 4.4.2 Explorations)
The history of rail travel is packed full of exciting little detours; design elements that were popular once and have now vanished, styles that were outmoded the day they were made. Few compare in sheer class, though, to the Renault ABJ Railcars. Produced in the 1930s, they combined a sleek design with bright colours to create something that wouldn’t have looked out of place 30 years later.
Taken at an undisclosed location, the above photos are suffused with the kind of benign futurism that once dominated design. The seats are plush, the interiors elegant, and the whole thing brimming with optimism. You can almost picture commuters in a Jetsons-style future sitting happily inside these railcars, off to work in an optimistic world. Extremely well-preserved, these railcars now hark back to a bygone era, an anachronism in the modern day.
Abandoned Soviet-era Hydrofoils
For a period in the mid-20th century, everything about Soviet design seemed massive. Great, seemingly sci-fi aircraft filled the skies. Huge buildings that defied comprehension sprouted up like concrete mushrooms across the USSR. And, on the waters of the Volga river, great, gleaming hydrofoils began skimming between towns in a burst of glittering spray.
Designed by Rostislav Alexeyev, the hydrofoil riverboats were impressive to behold. Made of glittering metal, they were arguably one of the great contributions to design in the entire Cold War era. Looking like something a cosmonaut would ride to work, they began production in 1957, and were still being churned out as late as the mid-1970s. Sadly, though, the end of the Cold War took most of the surviving riverboats out of action. Now interred in hydrofoil graveyards like the one above, they exist for many in memories, though some remain active today.
Giant Abandoned Bucket-Wheel Excavator
They’re the behemoths of vehicle design. Giant mechanical monsters as powerful, more fierce and overwhelming than any dinosaur. They can alter entire landscapes, reshaping the very Earth to their owner’s will. They are giant bucket wheel excavators (BWE), and to see one is to gaze upon mechanical ingenuity at its most viscerally awe-inspiring.
At such a scale, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone abandoning such a vehicle, if only because the commitment to build one in the first place must have been so big. Yet, such abandonments exist. Dotting the world, the skeletons of BWEs occasionally rise out of the landscape, like the remains of some mechanical dragon. The one pictured above dates back to the 1960s, and is understood to have been abandoned in the early 2000s when the local mine was closed down. One can only wonder what our descendants will one day make of these great, ‘earth moving monsters’.
Abandoned Lun-Class Ekranoplan
(Image: Tom Wigley; one of the most awesome defunct machines around)
Remember when we said how Soviet design was massive? Even those hydrofoils had nothing on the Lun-class ekranoplan. Known in NATO circles, with some disparagement, as the Duck, it was designed by Rostislav Evgenievich Alexeev, and entered service in 1987. Equipped with six guided missiles, and capable of carrying its 15-strong crew up to 1,000 miles at 350 mph, the Ekranoplan was the stuff of western nightmares.
The ground effect vehicle was designed to skim five meters over the surface, parting the waters in a spray of fine mist. Originally meant to be the first in a series, it wound up being unique thanks to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Now effectively-abandoned at the Kaspiysk naval facility, it serves as little more than a monument to times gone by… and the bloated excesses and undeniable ingenuity of the Soviet Union.
Abandoned “Orient Express” Train in Belgium
(Images: Urbex.nl; abandoned luxury)
Nothing evokes the romance of train travel quite like the Orient Express. The Trans-Siberian may have the awe of incomprehensible distances on its side, and the Patagonian Express may creak to the rhythm of faraway lands. But in terms of luxury, nostalgia, and pedigree? The Orient Express beats them all. Even now, its name conjures exotic fragrances, and images of Hercule Poirot deep in deliberation.
So it can come as something of a shock to see the above images, and realise that this glorious line’s time is long past. After running – in various states of luxury – from 1883 all the way to 2009, the original Orient Express is now little more than a memory. The abandoned train above was actually used by a Belgian operator, but has gained a reputation as an “Orient Express” train in the urban exploration community.
(Image: FFUrbex Fotografie)
Having rusted away for decades in a Belgian railway yard, it’s managed to retain its elegance. They really don’t make them like this anymore.
Lost Tucker Sno-Cats (1966 Antarctic Expedition)
It’s the last, true frontier of our globalised world. Antarctica is a place that seems almost unreal: a brutal desert encased in ice, where temperatures drop to impossible extremes, and everything is shrouded in silence. Even now, the destiny of many things that make their way there is to remain on the continent, tucked away inside scientific bases for possible future use. Not so these abandoned Tucker Sno-Cats. Sent into the Antarctic wastes in 1958, they now lie forgotten on the edges of a small Belgian town, unknown and unloved.
That decade may have marked the last time anyone really thought of Belgium as a significant power. One of the 12 original signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, the tiny European kingdom dispatched a team to set up a base there, using the Sno-Cats as mechanical support. Yet the Roi Baudoin Base didn’t last long. By 1967, it had been decommissioned and dismantled, and the Sno-Cats returned to Belgium. Today, they sit preserved in this anonymous shed, like ghosts of past Antarctic exploration.
Bonus Defunct Machines: Giant Abandoned Haul Trucks
Giant haul trucks are impressive vehicles to behold at the best of times. But these two made for a striking photograph, seemingly left behind in a defunct stone quarry. (Read more.)
Bonus: Abandoned Digger in South Wales
(Image: Ben Salter)
With its long mechanical arm partially sunk into the limestone that it was once used to mine, this abandoned digger was photographed at an old quarry in South Wales.