Thanks to Powell Street gripman Val Lupiz for providing this interesting article.
Notes: Readers are referred for further discussion and illustrations
of the operational aspects of cable cars as written in this page
to How Do Cable Cars Work?. Also,
the author states that the (1962) "
two remaining routes are the California Street and the Powell
Street." This is incorrect. There were three – California
Street, Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde. (Walter Rice)
ultimate town car, with instant acceleration, fantastic wear index,
all-weather traction, phenomenal passenger capacity, and an unmatched
degree of customer loyalty.
COMMON ILLUSION AMONG READERS of automobile magazines is that the life
of the road tester is one long round of novelty and excitement. Actually,
this is far from the truth, because his days are almost entirely occupied
in trying to accurately assess the performance and handling qualities
of such mundane automobiles as the XK-E Jaguar, the DB-4 Aston Martin
and, perhaps, an occasional Ferrari or Scarab. However, the appalling
monotony of this work is occasionally relieved by the presentation of
a vehicle which, because of its superlative performance and unsurpassed
beauty of line, stands head and shoulders above all other machines.
One such vehicle, which was offered to us recently for testing, is the
San Francisco cable car.
our impressions of this vehicle, it is necessary to delve rather deeply
into the history of the marque in order to ascertain both its origins
and its purpose, and to obtain some idea of the unique method of propulsion
which is employed.
The San Francisco
cable car predates the work of Gottlieb Daimler by 13 years, and the
first model was introduced in 1873. It was designed and built by a Scot
named Andrew Hallidie who felt that the problem of transportation in
San Francisco, due to the incredibly steep hills, could best be solved
by the use of Street cars pulled by a cable running underground at a
constant speed. Furthermore. his design incorporated a novel grip mechanism
that enabled the operator to engage or release the cable at will, and
it is a tribute to his remarkable ingenuity that this system is still
Hallidie’s system was almost totally destroyed by the earthquake
and tire of 1906, hut much of it was rebuilt, and there are still two
separate lines operating. These lines carry considerable daily traffic,
and it is unlikely they will be discontinued in the foreseeable future.
Road & Track editors had a bias in favor of compact
cars. They, therefore, rejected the larger California Street cable
cars in favor of the "compact" Powell Street cable car
for their road test. Here a California Street cable car, during
the era of private ownership, is at the line's then outer terminal
Presidio Avenue, prior to the line being cut back to Van Ness Avenue.
Walter Rice collection.
The two remaining
routes are the California Street and the Powell Street, and it completely
different model is used on each line. The California car is much larger
and its general dimensions reflect the type of domestic thinking that
wits prevalent before the European influence was felt in the postwar
years. Therefore, bearing current trends in mind, we selected the compact
Powell-Hyde Street model for our test, as we felt that its more progressive
design was in keeping with the desires of the readers of Road &
Track. Apart from these consideration., the route taken by the
Powell car is far more taxing than that taken by the California car,
as it incorporates all of the special tests and checkpoints that can
be anticipated and successfully completed by the experienced cable car
runs beneath the street at a steady 9.5 mph. suspended on an extraordinary
system of pulleys which take it tip and down hill and around turns until
it reaches the end of the line, where it is returned by a 10-foot sheave
supplied by one 750-hp electric motor installed in the combination car
barn, workshop and power house at Mason and Washington Streets. Actually,
due to the complicated route taken by the Powell car, there are four
different cables involved, and each one is wound on two 10-foot-diameter
wheels. The longest cable is 21,000 feet
The car itself
is connected to the cable through a slot like a third rail in the center
of the tracks, and the grip projects down through this slot to make
contact with the cable. The grip is the heart of the cable car, and
it is a most ingenious mechanism. A complete unit in itself, weighing
260 lb. it can be removed from the car and replaced in a matter of minutes.
It is actuated by it long lever which, when pulled retracts a yoke,
lined with replaceable steel dies, around the cable, and it grips so
strongly that there is no slippage at all. Because of this device, a
cable car operator is always referred to as a gripman.
A cable car
is operated in a standing position and, on taking our place at the controls,
we found ourselves confronted by three levers, with a vertical foot
pedal in the floor just behind us. The three levers project from a great
hole in the floor of the car, which we felt was a very bad design feature
as it subjects the gripman to an unhealthy draft while the car is in
motion. However, we realized that the ill-effects of this are partially
offset by the heat-inducing physical energy expended by the gripman
while operating the controls.
On the other
hand, we were immediately impressed by the rugged construction of the
controls. In an age when emergency brakes hide in shame under the instrument
panel it was pleasant to observe that these levers, each five feet long,
obviously had been beaten out of red hot steel by old-world craftsmen
with sledge hammers.
To set the
car in motion, the hand brake is released and a strong pull on the grip
lever takes up the permissible free-play of about two feet until the
grip starts to take hold. The car will then slowly move forward, and
a further, and stronger, pull locks the grip to the cable and brings
the car up to its cruising (and maximum) speed, of 9.5 mph. To stop
the car, the grip lever is thrown forward to disengage the grip, and
the hand brake lever pulled on. The hand brake operates by forcing wooden
blocks down directly on the rails. Soft pine is used and the shoes have
to be relined every three days. An added attraction of this system is
that one sometimes descends Nob Hill accompanied by a strong, and quite
delicious, smell of barbecuing.
which fall readily to hand, are laid out with the grip in the center,
the hand brake to the right and another lever to the left. which is
painted red and is a sort of panic button for use when everything else
fails. When pulled, this lever forces a steel wedge down into the slot
this is so effective in stopping any forward motion that it usually
has to he cut out with a torch.
the pine blocks, there are two other independent braking systems. The
conductor, who is normally engaged in the rather mercenary task of collecting
15¢ from each passenger, engages railway type brakes on the rear
wheels when the car is descending steep hills, these being operated
by a hand crank on the rear platform. Also, the gripman has a pedal-operated
brake which works a similar system l on the front wheels, and the pedal.
which is directly behind him, is of sufficient site to allow him to
stand on it with both feet and even jump up and down it things start
to get out of hand.
At the same
time, the cable itself can be considered as a brake because the car
is always taken down hill with the grip applied, so, theoretically.
all accidents take place at exactly 9.5 mph. Although controlling the
car on level ground is a simple 2-lever operation, it becomes much more
complicated while ascending and descending hills. Then the other braking
systems have to be brought into play, and the bell rope has to be pulled
constantly, because if traffic gets in the way while ascending, restarting
is impossible on a steep hill, and the car has to be backed down to
the next intersection. And, while all this is going on, the gripman
is frequently engaged in bawling out in Billingsgate a cab driver who
is trying to make a turn in the path of the car.
if 9.5 mph can he considered speed, the handling left little to be desired.
Despite the height of the vehicle, it was totally unaffected by cross
winds and its cornering was quite flat and without a trace of oversteer,
although we did notice a certain amount of swaying when making the difficult
turn from Powell Street into Jackson under full power.
that impresses one immediately about a cable car, and which differentiates
it from all other road vehicles. is the manner in which it totally disregards
gradients. The cable speed is 9.5 mph and once the car is locked to
the cable it progresses steadily on the level at 9.5 mph. Ascends San
Francisco’s gradients at 9.5 mph, descends the other side, still
at 9.5 mph. and one gets the impression that if the cable went up the
side of the Ferry Building, that’s where the cable car would go–exactly
at 9.5 mph.
Powell-Hyde cable car is about to descend the Hyde Street hill,
the steepest hill on the cable car system with a 21% grade. Both
descending the hill and ascending it, the cable car will travel
at the same speed–exactly at 9.5 mph.
& Track selected the compact Powell Street cable car to
road test. Here a Powell car No. 501 is at the Market Street end
of the line, where the ability to turn in its own length (using
a turntable) is occurring. Power for the about-face is furnished
by the crew, and at that time the crew was usually aided by passengers.
As a basic
package, the Powell car, due mainly to purity of its original design,
has remained unchanged since its conception. The total lack of model
changes, or even recognition changes, is most refreshing, and we were
pleased to note that the factory has steadfastly refused over the years
to introduce the almost inevitable Gran Turismo model. Designed to accommodate
25 seated passengers and at least another 35 standing, hanging or dangling
on the outside, we felt that the coachbuilt body did present a rather
squarish appearance in what we refer to as "British perpendicular,"
although it is obviously a well conceived approach to the particular
problem of transporting passengers in urban districts. Admittedly, the
frontal area by today’s standards is excessive, but with an unladen
weight of eight tons, a maximum speed of 9.5 mph and 750 hp available,
who cares about the frontal area?
information for our data panel, we have endeavored to follow as closely
as possible the procedure used when testing vehicles of less exotic
design. For instance, computing the all-important R&T wear index
presented a problem but, by accepting the proven longevity of the vehicle,
assuming that oil can lubrication would be carried out at the specified
intervals, and taking into account certain variables, we were able to
arrive at figure of 0.00000094, which we feel is fairly accurate.
On the other
hand, we were unable to obtain a coasting figure because we released
the grip at 9.5 mph and, like Ol’ Man River, the car just kept
In an age
of conformity, the San Francisco cable car bristles with novel design
features. Being upholstered throughout in wood, it can be criticized
from the standpoint of passenger comfort, and its maximum speed is low
by today’s standards, but for sheer simplicity, durability, ease
of maintenance and ability to climb hills, it is without peer, and we
are confident that it will stand the test of time.