Not only does San Francisco’s transit agency, Muni, have the world’s only multi-line system of street running cable cars AND one of the world’s most popular and varied daily vintage streetcar operations, it also preserves important pieces of its rubber-tire heritage in the form of vintage trolley buses and motor buses. (In San Francisco, transit companies have traditionally referred to buses as “coaches”, though the public calls them buses.
The electric trolley bus (called “trackless trolleys” in some cities) was first demonstrated in 1882 by Ernst Werner Siemens in Berlin. The initial US operations came in the 1910s, but practical systems didn’t come until two decades later.
Muni’s old competitor, Market Street Railway (for which our nonprofit is named) converted a streetcar line across steep Twin Peaks into the 33-line trolley bus in 1935. That line still runs today, and provides wonderful views! Muni opened its first trolley coach line in 1941, and oversaw the conversion of 24 streetcar lines to bus service in 1948-49, Today, Muni operates North America’s most extensive trolley coach network, all true zero emission vehicles, since the power to run them is generated by the City’s Hatch Hetchy hydroelectric power system.
Trolley buses use a pair of overhead wires for power, one as the feeder, the other as the ground. (Almost all streetcar and light rail systems use a single overhead wire to get power, completing the circuit by using the metal tracks as the ground. Neither the rubber tires on trolley buses nor the street pavement can serve as a ground.) Being freed from tracks gives trolley buses greater operating flexibility than streetcars, but not as much as motor buses (though Muni’s current generation of trolley buses has enough onboard battery capacity to allow them to operate without wires for a distance, allowing some recent route extensions).
Today, there are 280 trolley buses in Muni’s fleet.
The word “bus” derives from the Latin word “omnibus”, which means “for all”. It was initially applied to a public horse-drawn carriage service started in 1823 in France. The name stuck, eventually shorted to “bus”.
The world’s first mass-produced motor bus was the famous London double-decker “B type”, introduced in 1910. The US was slower in adopting this new gasoline-powered technology, partly because engines weren’t yet powerful enough to carry anywhere near the loads of rail vehicles. Early US motor buses were usually custom bodies dropped onto truck chassis.
San Francisco’s first transit motor buses were introduced by Muni in 1918, used in outlying parts of the city to connect to streetcar lines. By the late 1930s, the bus profile we’re now so familiar with — no hood, engine under the floor — became the standard. In the 1950s, diesel fuel replaced gasoline as the usual bus fuel; later gas-electric hybrid buses became standard.
Today, Muni operates about 550 motor buses.
Vintage Buses at Muni
Our nonprofit, Market Street Railway, was originally formed in 1976 to purchase and donate back to Muni one of its 1950-vintage trolley coaches. From that beginning, Muni has added to its collection of vintage buses that once operated in regular service.
Today, the vintage buses only operate on special occasions, though we at Market Street Railway would like to see them operate at least once in awhile in regular service as a delightful surprise to riders, bringing Muni history to neighborhoods the cable cars and historic streetcars do not serve.
These vintage buses are testimonials to the great skill and commitment of Muni’s maintenance team, which have restored several of them with volunteer hours from staff and occasional help from Market Street Railway.
Below are pages for some of the most venerable members of the vintage bus fleet. More pages will be added soon. Muni has also tried to save one bus of each major type it has operated in the last 30 years for future operation.