The FRANCONIA was built in 1955 as the IVERNIA, the second of four intermediate liners for Cunard Line's Canadian run from Liverpool. The company was clearly not thinking ahead when they built these 22,000 gt two class ships without air conditioning and blocks of cabins with no private facilities. Unlike the sleeker dual-purpose competition from Holland America, Norwegian America, and Swedish American Lines, they were poor off-season cruise ships. At the time, Cunard was enjoying such a strong boon in Atlantic travel, it was quite easy to ignore the impending change on the horizon, or, rather, above the horizon.
IVERNIA followed the 1954-built SAXONIA and was externally almost identical to her older sibling, although she was the only one of the four to feature rectangular (versus round) windows in her forward superstructure. She was followed in 1956 by the CARINTHIA and in 1957 by the SYLVANIA. Perhaps their only collective modern external feature was the dome crowning their towering aluminum funnels. Otherwise, their vertical superstructures, slightly raked bows, derrick-cluttered decks, and cruiser sterns were leftover pre-war concepts.
IVERNIA was distinguished internally from her sisters by sporting a more modern style with heavy accents on Canadiana. According to Clive Harvey, author of the excellent SAXONIA SISTERS (Carmania Press), both SAXONIA and IVERNIA were disliked by Cunard loyalists for their bold decorative themes. In response, they chose to decorate the CARINTHIA and SYLVANIA in retro style with mixed results.
In 1958, the Atlantic ferry had reached its zenith, but within a few short years, it began to decline considerably. SAXONIA and IVERNIA were sent to their Clydebank shipwrights, John Brown and Company, in 1962 for major rebuilding into the chic cruise ships CARMANIA and FRANCONIA. Initially painted in shades of green to emulate the legendary CARONIA, their cargo gear was removed and their public rooms were restyled by noted designers like Jean Munro and Michael Inchbald. Full air conditioning was installed, and large lidos with the first heated kidney-shaped pools were housed in their now terraced sterns. With lounges and some rebuilt cabins sporting contemporary "chintz meets Regency style" decor, the two ships caused quite a positive stir in their early years and made excellent off-season cruise ships. By 1967, they were engaged in full time cruising, the CARMANIA mainly venturing into the Mediterranean and FRANCONIA becoming the new darling of Bermuda cruising following the closure of Furness Bermuda Line.
By the early 1970s, Cunard had hit a very rough patch and the two aging sisters had fallen out of step with the company's glamorous new QE2. Both ships were laid up in Southampton in late 1971 and offered for sale. Their buyers were the Soviets, who in August of 1973, took delivery of the twins and renamed CARMANIA after the Russian actor LEONID SOBINOV and FRANCONIA after the actor/singer FEDOR SHALYAPIN. Neither ship was changed much over the next two decades, save for some dreary Soviet upholstery and dull carpeting. Both ships initially enjoyed long charters to British-based CTC Cruises for line voyages to Australia and European and South Pacific cruising. Their solid construction and good seakeeping qualities made them ideal for long cruises, especially with those not requiring white glove service and gourmet cuisine. While still under Soviet ownership, they even were used as troop ships to transport Cuban soldiers to Angola.
In the latter years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian-owned, Maltese-registered FEDOR SHALYAPIN was the more well-kept of the two. She sailed up until 1994, catering mainly to Germans in European service. Her Cunard fittings had been left mostly unchanged when she laid up at the shipyard in Iliychevsk, near Odessa. There was even an attempt to bring her back into active service in 1998 when a partial refit was underway and soon cancelled, the rumor being that her new owners gambled the funds away. In late 2003, scrap prices were so high that the Indian breakers were seeking out anything they could find, so the then very decrepit FEDOR SHALYAPIN had her boilers fired up one last time to sail off to Alang under the delivery name SALONA. She was beached in February of 2004 and I leapt at the opportunity to salvage most of her wheelhouse and a huge assortment of her furnishings and fittings. What was run-of-the-mill in the mid-1950s has now become symbolic of an era often lamented. Wonderful wood veneers, classic British joinery, bakelite, molded plastic handles, and quaint fittings from the "glory" days! She was the last unaltered classic Cunarder (save for the QUEEN MARY) and there would never be another chance to rescue such treasures.
EMPRESS OF CANADA ENCHANTED ISLE EUGENIO C FEDOR SHALYAPIN FESTIVALE FIESTA MARINA FRANCONIA ISLANDBREEZE IVERNIA IVORY JEAN MERMOZ LURLINE MADAGASCAR MARDI GRAS MARGARITA L MARIANNA VI MARIANNA 9 MAYAN EMPRESS MERMOZ MONARCH STAR MONTEREY MS PHILIPPINES OLYMPIA OLYMPIC PRINCIPE PERFEITO PRINCESA VICTORIA REGAL EMPRESS RENAISSANCE RHAPSODY REGENT STAR S. A. VAAL SAPPHO SERENADE SHOTA RUSTAVELI SPERO STATENDAM STELLA MARIS II STELLA OCEANIS STELLA SOLARIS TAHITIEN THE BIG RED BOAT II
The FRANCONIA in Cunard's "cruising green". Peter Knego collection.