Throughout the 19th century, Cunard Line produced larger, faster and more luxurious ships. Its ships never pushed technological boundaries -- when a new technology was proved by other lines, Cunard adopted it. The line also could boast never having lost a life at sea due to failure of ship or seamanship.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Cunard applied for and received a subsidy from the British government to build a pair of ships that would not only be the largest in the world, but also the fastest. The government agreed to the subsidy to keep the Cunard Line British at a time when J. P. Morgan, the American financier, was acquiring steamship companies in an attempt to form a trust. In return for the subsidy, Cunard Line agreed to permit its ships to be used as armed merchantmen in time of war. The two new liners, Mauretania and Lusitania, were one-third larger than any existing ship and powered by turbine steam engines, a new technology. Mauretania was the slightly faster sister and quickly took the North Atlantic speed record (and held it for a record 22 years). It had a long, profitable career. Lusitania, on the other hand, was less fortunate. Continuing to carry passengers and cargo during World War I, it was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland.
Cunard's express liners carried three classes of passenger: first, second and steerage. First class was opulent, with public rooms imitative of the decor of country houses and hotels. Second class was comfortable and cheaper. Steerage was for immigrants. Even though immigrant fares were low, the volume of immigrants carried made this the most profitable class of passenger.
Between the world wars, Cunard fielded a fleet of three grand liners on the premier Southampton to New York run: Mauretania, Aquitania (a larger four-funnel ship that would sail for 35 years) and Berengaria, a former German liner (Imperator) that had been surrendered as war reparations.
In the late 1920s Cunard laid down plans for a pair of liners that would be capable of maintaining the weekly service between Southampton and New York. Construction was delayed by the Great Depression, but the British government issued loan guarantees on the condition that Cunard merge with its rival, White Star Line. Cunard-White Star Line launched Queen Mary in 1935 and Queen Elizabeth in 1939. Queen Mary won the speed record for the North Atlantic from the French liner Normandie and kept it for the next 16 years.
Both Queens and numerous smaller Cunard ships served with distinction as troop carriers during World War II. Winston Churchill credited the two Queens with shortening the war in Europe by a year, as they were able to transport 10,000 troops each trip -- without escort -- because of their speed.
After the war, Cunard resumed trans-Atlantic service with its Queens and a large fleet of smaller ships, including the notable Caronia, Cunard's first purpose-built cruise ship. With the arrival of the jet airplane, however, the profitability of line voyages between ports, of ship travel as transportation, declined. Cunard's ships began to lose money, and, one by one, they were withdrawn from service. Queen Mary was withdrawn in 1967 and sold to the City of Long Beach, California, to become a hotel and conference center. It remains there to this day, having been a shoreside attraction longer than it sailed the seas. Queen Elizabeth was withdrawn in 1968. It later burned in Hong Kong harbor, as it was fitting out to become a floating university.
In 1960, the British government agreed to lend Cunard money for the construction of a new liner on the condition that the ship could be requisitioned for national service in an emergency. Initially, an 80,000-ton Atlantic liner with accommodation in three classes was envisaged, but by 1965 the planned Q3 was replaced by a concept of a smaller ship of some 65,000 tons that could make Atlantic voyages -- but which was also well suited for cruises. Hence the Q4 design was born.
In 1967, Queen Elizabeth II launched Queen Elizabeth 2
, named for the earlier ship, Queen Elizabeth. QE2, as it became known, made its maiden voyage in 1969, as a two-class ship for crossings and a one-class ship for cruises. To replace inefficient steamships, Cunard acquired two ships already being built, launched in 1971 and 1972 as Cunard Adventurer and Cunard Ambassador.
From the 1970s until the 1990s, Cunard Line passed through a series of owners that tried to build or buy running mates for QE2. The first was Trafalgar House, a properties investment company that acquired Cunard in 1971. It commissioned two new ships for the line, Cunard Countess and Cunard Princess (Cunard Ambassador was gutted by fire, and Cunard Adventurer was sold).
In 1982, the British government requisitioned QE2 to serve as a troopship in the Falklands campaign. Upon its return it was refurbished and returned to cruising.
In 1984, Cunard acquired Norwegian American Cruises and its highly regarded ships, Sagafjord and Vistafjord. In 1986, the line acquired Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II from Norske Cruises.
In 1987, QE2 was re-engined. Its trouble-prone, bulk oil guzzling steam turbines were removed and replaced with diesels. The improvements in fuel efficiency and reliability ensured the ship's survival.
In 1994, Cunard, by then a division of Norwegian conglomerate Kvaerner, acquired Royal Viking Sun, the last surviving ship of Royal Viking Line.
In 1998, Cunard was acquired by Carnival, which merged the management of Cunard with Seabourn, its other luxury brand. By that time, Cunard was down to two ships, QE2 and Vistafjord (later renamed Caronia). Carnival's chairman, Micky Arison, had big plans for Cunard. With the deep pockets of Carnival Cruises behind it, Cunard commissioned a new liner, one that would be superlative in every way.
The year 2004 was a momentous year in Cunard's history. In January, Queen Mary 2
-- the largest, longest, highest and most expensive ship ever built -- was christened by Queen Elizabeth II and made its maiden voyage attended by worldwide media coverage. In May, Queen Mary 2 took over the North Atlantic liner service between Southampton and New York and became the flagship of Cunard Line. In that month QE2 was repositioned to make cruises out of Southampton for the British market. In November, QE2 became the longest serving ship in Cunard's history, and Caronia was sold.
And 2004 was momentous for another reason. As one of the Carnival family fleet of cruise lines, Cunard was later in the year moved under the Princess/P&O Cruises umbrella, where its operations were overseen by an almost entirely new staff (both onboard and on shore).
The year 2007 saw the inevitable happen as Cunard unveiled the sale of QE2 -- for $100 million to developers from Dubai, where the ship will be converted for use as a hotel. The venerable ship sailed its last voyage in November 2008.
That same year, the company debuted the 90,000-ton, 2,014-passenger Queen Victoria and ordered its sister ship, Queen Elizabeth (the third Cunard ship to have that name). The 92,400-ton, 2,092-passenger Queen Elizabeth entered service in October 2010.
Under Carnival Corp. ownership, Cunard has adopted a much tighter focus. It only operates large ships that are British in feel and that fly the British flag. In design, Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth capitalize on the long history of the company. Gone are the days of the 1980s and 1990s, when the Cunard name was blurred by sub-brands -- such as Cunard Sea Goddess, Cunard NAC and Cunard Crown -- that operated a mixed bag of ships in terms of size, age and ambiance.