Gresley introduced the Class A4 locomotives in 1935 to haul a new streamlined train called the Silver Jubilee to run between London King's Cross and Newcastle. The new service was named in celebration of the 25th year of King George V's reign.
During a visit to Germany in 1933, Gresley had been inspired by the high-speed streamlined "Flying Hamburger" diesel trains, and indeed the LNER had considered purchasing similar trains for use from London to Newcastle. However, the diesel units of the time did not have the desired passenger carrying capacity and the capital investment in the new technology was prohibitive.
Gresley was sure that steam could do the job equally well and with a decent fare-paying load behind the locomotive and so, following trials in 1935 with one of Gresley's A3 Pacifics No.2750 Papyrus, which recorded a new maximum of 108 mph (173.8 km/h) and completed the journey in under four hours, the LNER's Chief General Manager Ralph Wedgwood took the initiative, authorising Gresley to produce a streamlined development of the A3. Initially four locomotives were built, all with the word 'silver' as part of their names. The first was 2509 Silver Link, followed by 2510 Quicksilver, 2511 Silver King and 2512 Silver Fox. During a press run to publicise the service, Silver Link twice achieved a speed of 112.5 mph (181.1 km/h), breaking the British speed record and sustained an average of 100 mph (160.9 km/h), over a distance of 43 mi (69.2 km).
Following the commercial success of the Silver Jubilee train, other streamlined services were introduced: the Coronation (London-Edinburgh, July 1937) and the West Riding Limited (Bradford & Leeds-London & return, November 1937) for which more A4s were specially built.
The A4 Pacifics were designed for high-speed passenger services. The application of internal streamlining to the steam circuit, higher boiler pressure and the extension of the firebox to form a combustion chamber all contributed to a more efficient locomotive than the A3; consumption of both coal and water were reduced. A further improvement to the design was the fitting of a Kylchap double-chimney first introduced on 4468 Mallard, built in March 1938. This device improved the capability of the locomotives further, and the final three locomotives of the class (4901 Capercaillie, 4902 Seagull and 4903 Peregrine) were fitted with the Kylchap exhaust from new. Eventually the rest of the class acquired it in the late 1950s.