“White Front” Cable Car Returns

Powell 12 new

Powell Street cable car 12 returns to service today after an extensive rebuilding process that lasted more than two years. Its return marks the completion of a project that Market Street Railway has supported Muni on for more than 20 years. Powell 12 now proudly wears the famous “White Front” livery of our namesake, Market Street Railway Company, that all Powell cars wore from the mid-1930s until 1944, when Muni took over its private competitor, acquiring the Powell cable lines as part of the deal. The livery is very simple: all white on the ends, all green on the sides. That was deliberate. Market Street Railway Company was in increasing financial trouble and wanted to keep labor costs down wherever possible. An earlier Market Street Railway Company livery, displayed on Powell Car 9, featured red window sashes. (The company painted all its streetcars and cable cars in the simpler scheme shown above.)

Since the Powell-Mason streetcar line opened in 1888, the “halfway to the stars” cars have worn numerous liveries (paint schemes) adopted by the five companies that have owned the Powell lines over the past 128 years. From bright yellow to red to green to blue to maroon, the history of Powell liveries is a kaleidoscope of color. Generally, though, the Powell cars were only one color at a time.  (There were interesting exceptions, which we’ll address in the next issue of our newsletter for members onlyInside Track, due out in July.)

In 1973, for the centennial of the first cable car line, one car was reconstructed and painted in the original 1888 livery of the Powell Street Railway Company (a subsidiary of Ferries & Cliff House Railway), thanks to Charles Smallwood, who was then cable car superintendent. The handsome livery on Powell Car 1 was just restored to its 1973 appearance with Market Street Railway’s help.

The maroon and sky blue livery was so well liked that the rest of the fleet was painted in a simplified version of it during the cable car system rebuilding of the 1980s. However, one car, Powell 3, was left in the previous Muni green and cream livery. This gave us, and some folks at Muni, an idea. Why not share other vintage Powell liveries with today’s riders? So over the past 30 years, as Powell cars went into the carpentry and paint shops for major rebuilding, various vintage liveries were applied to them.  Here’s a look at all of them. (Scroll down to the thumbnails of the various cable cars and click on any of them for the story of that car and its livery.)

The wonderful restoration work is a tribute to Muni’s dedicated cable car crafts workers. Market Street Railway helped by researching the liveries, preparing drawings and specifications and creating and purchasing decals for the cars that replicate the original owners’ logos (which were hand-lettered in the early decades of the cable cars.

Car 12’s debut marks the last of nine different liveries worn by Powell cars. Most of them are on the street most days of the week. We are working with Ed Cobean, Muni’s current cable car boss, to have all of them out, if possible on Muni Heritage Weekend this year, September 24-25.

Welcome back to this important piece of San Francisco history, bringing the famous “White Front” livery back to Powell Street for the first time in 72 years!