The PCC (short for Presidents’ Conference Committee) streetcar has been in continuous use since 1936, a remarkable 79 years. It literally saved the North American streetcar from extinction, but its development took several years and it did not appear in a vacuum. The presidents of several transit companies banded together in 1929 to develop a new, modern streetcar that could compete with buses and automobiles. The first production PCCs were made in 1936, the last in 1952.
The Chicago Surface Lines played an important part in the PCC’s development. Chicago ultimately had 683 PCCs, the largest fleet purchased new by any city, but in actuality CSL had 785 modern cars in all. There were 100 Peter Witt streetcars built in 1929 by a combination of CSL, Brill, and Cummings Car Co., and two experimental pre-PCCs, 4001 (built by Pullman-Standard) and 7001 (Brill), which dated to 1934.
The Peter Witt car was developed by its namesake in Cleveland around 1914 and set the standard for streetcars for the next 20 years. (Chicago’s batch were also referred to as “sedans.”) During the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a similar type of car known as the “Master Unit*” made by Brill (Pullman-owned Osgood-Bradley made a similar model called the “Electromobile.”)
In conjunction with the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as A Century of Progress, CSL commissioned two experimental streetcars, the 4001 and 7001, with advanced features. (You can read an excellent and very comprehensive history of those cars on the Hicks Car Works blog.)
Of the two cars, the 4001 was more radical in both design and construction, with a streamlined all-aluminum body, but probably the less successful of the two. Both were taken out of service in 1944. The 4001 is the only pre-PCC car to survive, and is now preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum. The 7001 was scrapped by CTA in 1959.
Ironically, the 7001, made by J. G. Brill, was closer to the eventual design of the PCC car, although ultimately Brill did not build any true PCCs. The company had a policy not to pay patent royalties to other companies, and refused to do so with PCC technology owned by the Transit Research Corp. (TRC).
In 1935, Capital Transit ordered 20 pre-PCC cars for Washington D. C. based on the design of car 7001, but shorter. The order was split between Brill and St. Louis Car Company. This was an important step, since these were more than simply experimental units. Car 1053 managed to survive the end of streetcar service in Washington DC in 1962, until September 28, 2003 when it was destroyed in a fire at the National Capital Trolley Museum in Maryland.
There were also two additional 1934 experimental cars, the PCC Model A and B, which were used for field testing. The Model A was built in 1929 by Twin Coach and purchased second-hand to test new components. It was tested in Brooklyn circa 1934-35 and was scrapped in 1939.
The streamlined Model B incorporated all the latest PCC developments and was tested in Chicago, arguably the first PCC car operated here. While in use in Brooklyn, the PCC Model B dewired and was involved in an accident with a truck after its brakes failed. This led to the brake systems being redesigned for the first PCCs. The Model B was kept in storage for some time, and although the front end was repaired, it was never again used in service and was scrapped in the early 1950s.
By 1936, the first production PCCs were ready to go and the first one was delivered to Brooklyn and Queens Transit on May 28, 1936. However, Pittsburgh Railways put the first PCC into scheduled public service in August.
Brill’s decision not to build true PCCs ultimately proved fatal. Their 1938-41 “Brilliner” was considered somewhat inferior to the PCC car and few were built. 30 single-ended cars went to Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, while 10 double-ended cars were built for Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Co., where they continued in service into the early 1980s.
These were the last streetcars made by Brill, who had once dominated the industry. Most PCCs were built by the St. Louis Car Company, with a smaller share from Pullman-Standard.
We hope that you will enjoy these pictures of these pre-PCC cars, the ones that laid the groundwork for the “car that fought back,” which continues to serve faithfully and well in a number of North American cities, and hopefully will continue to do so for a long time to come.
*According to History of the J. G. Brill Company by Debra Brill, page 173, the Master Unit model was officially introduced in January 1929:
“The idea was to produce standardized cars. Both ends of the car were to be identical in construction. Height and width of the car, size and number of windows, seat width and therefore aisle width were to be the same for every unit of a specific type. The cars were offered in single-or double-truck, and single-or double-end style, with doors located at the ends or with a combination end door and center door. Master Units could be constructed with steel or aluminum, the difference in weight being about 5,000 pounds. Interestingly, the cars had curved lower sides very much like the curve used on the lower panels of the Kuhlman and Brill-built cars of a few years previously. There was nothing patentable about the Master Unit: it was merely a standardized design.
To Brill’s disappointment, buyers did not appear in large numbers. Only seventy-eight Master Units were built in all, with just two constructed exactly to Brill’s specifications.”
Here is an article about Scranton car 505, one of the last surviving Osgood-Bradley Safety Cars, also known as “Electromobiles,” now in the process of being restored at the Electric City Trolley Museum. An Electromobile was also the last trolley to run in New York City.
Here is an interesting blog post about the effort to restore the 505.
Here is a video showing a model of an Electromobile:
As an added bonus, as streetcars prepare to return to service in Washington D. C., here are some vintage films showing a variety of streetcars in action, including both PCCs, the 1935 pre-PCCs, and even some older types:
Frank Hicks, of the excellent Hicks Car Works blog, writes:
Very nice job on the Pre-PCC post on your blog! It’s a great post with some outstanding photos, and of course I appreciate the “plug” as well.
Several of the photos you posted I had never seen before. The photo of the 4001 in service is really nice; shots of the car in regular use are really pretty rare. It was quite the “hangar queen” when it was on the CSL. And the Model B interior shot is fascinating! I think I saw that rear-end shot somewhere once but I don’t know that I’d ever seen a photo of the car’s interior. What I found most fascinating is that it appears the car was designed to have left-hand doors fitted in the middle, Boston style (and likely so that it could be used or tested out in Boston, as I think Boston is the only city that had PCCs with this feature). Close examination of the interior shot shows an inset panel across from the center doors and I bet it was designed for doors to be put there if desired. It would be interesting to know more about the Model B. I’m not even sure whether it was set up for one-man or two-man service; the photo makes it clear that there was no conductor’s station forward of the center doors, like the CSL cars had, but it’s possible there was a conductor behind the motorman (I think this was how Brooklyn set up its PCC cars). Or it could have just been a one-man car.
Anyway, thank you for posting these photos and for posting such large scans of them – fascinating stuff!