Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Fascination with Transportation

Like many boys, I was intrigued by large things that move; in some ways, I’ve never grown up.  Living next door to a busy Pacific Electric line, on a street that had heavy truck traffic meant there was a lot to watch when I was a lad.

Automobiles:  (Song: American Pie by Don McLean--“Drove my Chevy to the Levee..”)

1941 Chevy:  The first car my parents bought new was a 1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe four door sedan.  It was the family’s  main car until they bought a 1952 Chevy.  Eventually it got handed down to me when I needed a car in 1970.  It was fairly well thrashed by then, but I was able to sell it in running condition.  Since it was designed during the same period as the streamlined diesel locomotives that were drawing much attention on the railroads of America, I used to wonder what it would look like in a Southern Pacific “Daylight” paint job.  An intriguing interior detail was the trim on the doors, just below the windows—four rectangular pieces of white plastic, with an upper corner of the end pieces rounded off, like a stylized version of a four-unit EMD diesel locomotive.

Swoose:  During the 1930s, my dad worked in an auto wrecking yard in East Pasadena, across the street from the current Target store location.  Back in the late 1920s, Essex cars were the low priced entry of Hudson Motors.  They had sturdy steel framed bodies, but wimpy engines.  In 1929, Chevrolet came out with their straight six overhead valve engine, sometimes called the Stovebolt Six.  The basic design lasted into the 1950s, with various upgrades through the years.  But Chevy bodies in that era had quite a bit of wood in them, so when the yard took in a 29 Chevy with serious body damage but a good chassis and engine, and an Essex with an engine that had thrown a rod (the Blues Brothers movie comes to mind) was also available, dad made like Dr. Frankenstein, and combined the best features of both makes, with parts from other brands incorporated to make the whole assembly work.  (Cue up “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash).  He named it The Swoose (half swan and half goose) and kept it running into the late 1940s.  Along about 1945, he chopped the body, making it into a truck cab and building a wooden bed on the back.  This came in handy when he added two bedrooms to the house in 1948-49.  But eventually it became more trouble than it was worth to keep the critter running and we cut it up for parts.

We’ll dive further into the Davis family motor pool later.  Meanwhile, we’ll make sure we have a pocket full of change or a valid fare card and “Get on the bus, Gus.”

Transit Buses  (Song: Magic Bus by the Who)

Vintage TV fans may remember “The Honeymooners” starring Jackie Gleason as bus driver Ralph Kramden.  I don’t think they ever had a bus running in the show, but there was a publicity photo showing Ralph in a 1940s-50s GMC bus.  This was similar to the buses that Pacific Electric bought to replace the Red Car lines in the San Gabriel Valley.  They were powered by a GMC 2-stroke cycle diesel engine that was a scaled down version of the “mills” that powered GM diesel locomotives and turned steam locomotives into an endangered species.  I first got a close look at a GM bus when PE parked one in front of the Monrovia Public Library in 1951.  A PE representative was on hand, and a table was set up with pro-bus pamphlets on display.  It wasn’t long after that that the Big Red Cars gave way to red and silver buses, and my interest in railways faded, but did not disappear entirely.  Another bus service in the Monrovia area was the Pasadena City Lines buses that came out Colorado Boulevard, went through downtown Arcadia, and came back up to Colorado, which took them to 5th Avenue where we lived.  They went up 5th and then east on Foothill to downtown Monrovia.  Pasadena City Lines was the company that bought out PE’s Pasadena local streetcar and bus lines in 1941.  When their extension to Monrovia opened around 1947, it filled a gap in the PE system-- to get from Monrovia to Pasadena on the Red Car meant going into San Marino or South Pasadena and transferring to one of the lines from LA.  I remember riding one of the PCL buses into Pasadena in the 1950s; in the front of the coach were three of the proverbial “Little Old Ladies from Pasadena.” They were discussing medical problems, operations and prescriptions, and I thought it was rather sad that these unhappy situations were their main topic of conversation.  Years later, I would see a poster listing indications that one is growing old, and one of the entries was “You know you’re getting old when--- You still have a ‘Little Black Book’ but all the names in it have MD after them.”

Time marched on and PE gave way to Metro Coach and then the first iteration of LAMTA.  MTA was replaced by the Southern California Rapid Transit District, or RTD.  It wasn’t long before some of the local transit-watchers called it the Rancid Transit District, noting that the likelihood of rail-based transit making a comeback in the Los Angeles area was thought to be between “when the cows come home” and “Hell freezes over.”  I had married my high school sweetheart and had two daughters.  There was a time when Rosemary (first wife) worked the night shift, and she would leave the girls at the grandparents’ house in Monrovia.  I would get a ride from work in Pasadena, pick them up, and walk down to Huntington Drive where we would catch the RTD 64 line bus.  Sometimes we’d get one of the boxy “New Look” buses, which had Cummins engines that had a “clattering” sound quite distinctive from the “Jimmies.” If one of the old GMC coaches was assigned to our run, one of the girls would spot it coming and say, “Look Daddy!  A round bus!”  The 64 line was a carryover from the PE days, when it was a descendant of the Pasadena-Pomona Stage Line.  By the time we started using it, the service was four round trips a day, Monday through Friday only.  It took one bus and two drivers to cover the day’s runs, and it was a high-seniority job.  The afternoon driver was Charlie, who told me about the old White stick-shift gasoline engine buses that PE used when he started (he had never worked in railway service).  “With the old Whites, if someone was crowding your rear, we’d just pull the choke, drop a gear and lay down a smoke screen like a U.S. Navy destroyer.”  He would always welcome my daughters aboard, and when they stayed home one day, he asked, “Well, where are my young ladies today?”

Mid 1960s scene at the former Pacific Electric station in El Monte.  Bus 6025 was one of the new Flxible-Cummins coaches bought by the newly formed RTD.  2720 was bought by Pacific Electric to replace Red Cars in the San Gabriel Valley in 1950.  It was on its fourth owner by the time it became an RTD bus.

San Francisco has always been a rather weird place; when most cities were being served by GM buses, the Municipal Railway had a fleet of Mack diesel buses acquired through a leasing process that led to them being dubbed “Rented, dented (SF traffic is notorious) Macks. " They were powered by a turbocharged Swedish designed engine that had a rather “wheezy” sound.  By the time of my first serious visit to MuniLand, they had been in service for several years, and were getting a bit old and tired.  There was a bus line that connected the ends of two of the streetcar lines on the south side of the city, which I rode one day when trying to ride all of the rail lines in a minimum of time.  Back in the 1960s, going from the end of the K line to the M terminal meant taking the bus over the hill between the two.  When I rode it, there was an off-duty operator riding up front, chatting with the driver.  “How are the brakes on this thing?” “Seem to be OK. Why [do you ask]?” “I had this coach yesterday and the brakes were terrible.”  Not a comment that would inspire confidence in descending a steep hill.  SF also had a large fleet of electric buses, also known as trolley buses, trolley coaches or trackless trolleys.  Los Angeles had two of its streetcar lines converted to electric buses, and I recall my mother pointing one out to us on one of our rare visits to downtown LA.  But when the last five LA streetcar lines were abandoned in 1963, the trolley buses were also retired; I think some of them went to Mexico City.  But SF Muni had an advantage: Its own hydro-electric power plant in the Sierra foothills gave the city a cheap source of electric power that fed the electric buses, the streetcars, and even the big motors that keep the cable moving on the three surviving cable car lines. Also, some of the lines that went to trolley buses had been cable car operations, and they could handle steep grades a lot better than a diesel bus can.

Hiya, Mack! One of 450 Mack diesel buses that ran on the streets of San Francisco. The red circle on the front is the “Bulldog” trademark that Mack has used for decades.  Underneath it is a Mug Root Beer ad that adorned many Muni buses.

Muni trolleybus 776 running on December 28, 2012, as part of Municipal Railway Centennial special operations.  This bus dates back to 1950 and has been restored for ceremonial events.  When I was riding this bus that day I explained to a visitor how it runs on pollution-free hydro-electric energy: “Water flowing downhill makes the bus go uphill.”

Intercity Buses  (Song: Thank God and Greyhound by Roy Clark

Greyhound: I covered the Dog Tired Tour in three installments over five years.  A more localized intercity service was Modesto-Riverbank-Oakdale Stages, which had this classic Flxible Clipper coach from the 1940s running between its namesake cities in 1970, when I took it from Riverbank (where I was staying at a “no-star” hotel) to Oakdale, where I would board a Sierra RR freight train for a trip up the legendary “movie railroad.”

MRO Stage Lines 10.  The interior was an Art Deco time trip.  One could envision a movie where one of the characters falls asleep on this bus and wakes up in 1950.  Many buses of this type used a Buick Straight-Eight overhead valve engine.

We covered railways fairly well in earlier columns, so for a future Old Curiosity Shop we’ll go out to sea in ships and take to the skies in aircraft.

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