San Francisco's Vintage Buses

graphic of Muni trolley coach 506
No. 506

St. Louis Car Company Trolley Coach

Built 1941 • Awaiting Restoration

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.

So, when Market Street Railway’s franchise for its streetcar line on Howard Street and South Van Ness Avenue expired at the end of 1939, Muni took it over and ordered nine trolley coaches from St. Louis Car Company to run it, which they did, beginning in September 1941. These pioneering Muni trolley coaches were delivered in the blue and yellow livery that Muni was then applying to its streetcars, but with a solid yellow front, which made them very visible on the streets. The front end resembled St. Louis Car’s PCC streetcars except with two headlights instead of one.

St. Louis Car Company Trolley Coach
Brand new Trolley Coach 502 poses at the R-line’s Beale and Howard off-street terminal with equally new American Machine & Foundry (ACF) Motor Coach 063, signed for the 4-Embarcadero line on November 7, 1941. The Bay Bridge trains ran on the viaduct behind. Horace Chaffee photo, SFMTA Archive

Muni lettered the route as though it were a streetcar line, calling it R-Howard/South Van Ness. The R-line was no test of the coaches’ hill-climbing ability, as it was dead flat the whole way, but Muni had bigger plans, looking to convert its E-Union streetcar line, which ran a scenic route from the Presidio over Russian Hill, through North Beach and the Produce District to reach the Ferry Building. The grades were so steep the E could only use specially designed single-truck streetcars, known as “Dinkies”. The plan was to do this as soon as St. Louis Car could deliver additional trolley coaches.

St. Louis Car Company Trolley Coach
After World War II, more St. Louis Car Co. trolley coaches were delivered, this second batch in Muni’s then-new green and cream “Wings” livery. Here, Coach 521 test-climbs a stretch of Union Street on Russian Hill that its predecessor E-line streetcars had to detour around.

But World War II intervened and St. Louis Car Co. turned to making amphibious assault craft, tanks, and even mobile generating stations for the Soviet allies. So, the E wasn’t converted to trolley coaches until 1947, when 16 more buses of the same model arrived. The E-Union trolley coach line was soon through-routed with the R, making a long U-shaped route renamed the 41 Union-Howard. By this time, some of Muni’s pioneering trolley coaches were helping out on the 33, which Muni had taken over in the 1944 merger with Market Street Railway. But as Muni began its major “rails-to-rubber” route conversion in 1948, the arrival of new trolley coaches pushed the original nine, including 506, to the back of the barn. All nine were disposed of in 1954.

St. Louis Car Company Trolley Coach
Trolley Coach 524 tries to squeeze past a double-parked car on Clay Street, 1948. Ohio Brass Collection, Illinois Railway Museum, via

But the 506 had a savior: a Muni shopman named John Graham, who had it towed to the backyard of his home on the Peninsula, where it sat for more than a third of a century, used for storage. Our nonprofit traded John a storage shed for the bus, and had to chop down several small trees that had sprouted to get it out of the yard. Our volunteers restored it cosmetically, and it has been towed to and displayed at several Muni Heritage Weekends, its original interior still intact. However, it is in need of a differential, which so far has not been found, as well as a complete rewiring and additional work.

St. Louis Car Company Trolley Coach
Trolley Coach 506 on display at Muni Heritage Weekend, 2017. Rick Laubscher photo, MSR Archive

Muni keeps the bus stored under cover; we hope a way can be found to return it to operating condition, a true pioneer of rubber-tired electric transit in our City.