Muni didn’t build the first trolley coach line in San Francisco. That honor went to competitor Market Street Railway (our namesake), which converted its 33-line streetcar over Twin Peaks in 1935 to use trolley coaches (Brills, of which none survives). But Muni was aware of the advantages of trolley coaches, especially their hill climbing ability and their need for only a single driver, instead of a crew of two, as streetcars retired.
The GM “Fishbowl” buses Muni bought in 1969 and 1970 did the job all right, but their loud V8 engines and even louder “Jake brakes”, which sounded like machine guns when applied downhill, ticked off people along their routes, especially in quieter residential areas. So, Muni decided to finish replacing its venerable fleet of Macks with a smaller, quieter bus.
This coach has great historic value – for what it didn’t do. It’s the only survivor of ten delivered to Muni in January 1947 for the express purpose of replacing the Powell Street cable cars. And it didn’t. And San Francisco is better because of it.
As a rule, American transit buses looked pedestrian until the late 1950s. Most resembled rolling loaves of bread, functional but not attractive.
When Muni converted two dozen streetcar lines to buses at the end of the 1940s, it bought 255 trolley coaches from three manufacturers (Marmon-Herrington, Twin Coach, and St. Louis Car Company). By the mid-1970s, these buses were at the end of their lives. They were all replaced by a new fleet of trolley coaches from Canada’s Flyer Co. The front ends of the Flyers resembled the GM “New Look” diesel coaches Muni was then using, but the sides appeared different, with squared-off windows. They arrived in the iconic livery of “California Poppy Gold,” “Sunset Glow,” and white created for Muni by famed San Francisco industrial designer Walter Landor.
This type of bus is iconic to San Franciscans of a certain age, for it carried them to school, to work, to shop, and to play for well over a decade.
Cable cars aren’t the only San Francisco transit vehicles that “climb halfway to the stars.” This 1938 White Motor Company bus spent parts of four decades growling up and down Telegraph Hill on Muni’s 39-Coit line. White had built Muni’s very first bus in 1918, and was Muni’s favored source for its then-infrequent bus purchases. Bus #042 was one of 22 Model White 784 buses delivered to Muni in 1938-39, at a cost of $10,477.53 each (including farebox).
Trolley coaches are a cross between streetcars and conventional motor buses. That’s why they were called “trackless trolleys” in some places. They run on electricity from double overhead wires, with one wire supplying the 600-volt DC power, the other serving as a ground to complete the circuit. (For streetcars, the track generally serves as the ground.)
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