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.)
Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the bus icons to see a history of several of Muni’s preserved buses. For our short history of transit buses in San Francisco, click here. What follows here is a brief discussion of the two basic types of vintage buses in Muni’s fleet.
(We offer souvenir magnets of several vintage Muni buses in our museum and online store.)
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 internal combustion 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 1930s, engine technology had developed enough to move past the smaller original bus designs and arrive at the bus profile we’re now so familiar with — no hood, engine under the floor. By the 1950s, diesel fuel had replaced gasoline as the usual bus power source; later, diesel-electric hybrid buses became standard, and as the 2020s began, battery-electric motor buses began spreading through US transit system fleets.
Today, Muni operates about 650 motor buses. Almost all are diesel-electric hybrid models, with a small number of battery-electric buses entering test service in 2022. Muni’s goal is to have a completely zero-emission bus fleet (except for its few vintage motor coaches) by 2035.
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.
Trolley buses use a pair of overhead wires for power, one as the feeder of 600 volt electricity, 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.
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 is still operated by Muni 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, creating the most extensive trolley coach operation in North America. That’s still true today. Muni’s 280 trolley coaches are true zero-emission vehicles, since the power to run them is generated by the City’s Hetch Hetchy hydroelectric power system. The latest generation of Muni trolley coaches carry enough battery capacity to allow extended off-wire operation. This has allowed extensions of the 22-Fillmore and 30-Stockton lines where wires were unfeasible.
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 on special routes. We at Market Street Railway would like to see them operate on a very limited basis in regular service as a delightful surprise to riders, bringing Muni history to neighborhoods the cable cars and historic streetcars do not serve. We recognize, though, that the vintage buses in Muni’s fleet don’t have replacement parts readily available and that their preservation must be the primary consideration.
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 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.