|THE P.C.C. ERA IN DETROIT – Part 1
(The Need for a Modern Streetcar — But Detroit Would Have to Wait!)
THE NEED FOR A MORE MODERN STREETCAR:
Although the "Roaring Twenties" are often viewed as a period of economic boom for most Americans, things weren't
so upbeat at the time for the nation's streetcar industry, which was already in the process of losing passengers to
buses. Not only were buses replacing streetcars in many cities across the country, but the increasing popularity of the
automobile was also beginning to take a toll on ridership numbers. Many now considered streetcars to be old, noisy,
and most of all, slow.
In an attempt to reverse this decline in ridership, a group of executives representing a number of electric and street
railway companies, along with representatives from the various streetcar manufacturers, founded a committee in
1929 to design a new, modern, standard-designed streetcar, which could successfully fight off the increasing
competition arising from the rubber-tired transportation industry. Heavily involved in this new venture was Dr. Clarence
F. Hirschfield, who was Chief of Research at the Detroit Edison Company. Hirschfield had been hired by Dr. Thomas
Conway, Jr. (chosen head of this new committee) to lead the research effort behind the design of an entirely new
streetcar. Although he had no prior experience in electric railway transportation, Conway felt Hirschfield could enter
the job without any preconceived ideas.
The formation of this committee, known as the Electric Railway Presidents' Conference Committee (or the ERPCC),
would result in the successful development of a new modern high-performance streetcar. This new type of streetcar
would later prove that it could effectively hold its own against buses and automobiles, and would turn out to become
one of the most reliable and better designed streetcar ever built. This new streetcar was much quieter, larger and
roomier than buses, more comfortable riding, and offered a smooth and rapid acceleration—compared with the jerky
motion of the older cars. These cars actually accelerated faster than the automobiles of that day.
These newly designed streetcars would also successfully eliminate three major streetcar complaints from riders—
excessive noise, vibration, and poor ventilation. The newly designed under-truck would help to absorb bumps along
the tracks, while the heating, ventilation, and braking were much improved over the old streetcars.
This newly designed streetcar would be named, the Presidents' Conference Committee car—more popularly known
as the P.C.C. The PCC style streetcar design would become the standard for the industry for the next few decades.
The first fleet of PCCs were ordered in 1935 by the Brooklyn & Queens Transit Co. —but the first car (#100) was
delivered to the Pittsburgh Railways Company, and went into service on July 26, 1936. Production on the PCC would
continue in North America until the early 1950s, with a total of 4,978 units being built. Thousands more were also
produced in Europe through the remainder of the 20th century.
Meanwhile, here in Detroit,l the reception toward these new modern streamlined cars was somewhat lukewarm and
indifferent. Fred A. Nolan, who became DSR General Manager in 1934, found the PCC to be an impressive and
undeniably attractive transit vehicle—in addition to being quieter and faster than buses. But Nolan insisted that the
cars were not for Detroit—since he and DSR management had already determined that the city's street railway system
would be converted over to an "all bus" operation by 1953. Nolan felt that the PCC wouldn't be worth the investment for
so short a period. As a result, no new rail cars were bought by the DSR during that time. Instead, over two thousand
small-size Ford Transit buses would be purchased by the city beginning in 1936. However, World War-II would soon
follow, and somewhat sidetrack the conversion program plans—if only for a short period.
FIRST MODERN STREETCAR ARRIVES IN DETROIT:
The DSR entered the war era with a deteriorating streetcar fleet, and hundreds of small-size buses. The bus
operation had been performing well, as new buses were purchased prior to the war. But government-imposed
gasoline and tire rationing would force the DSR to make major adjustments, including restoring full-time streetcar
service on many of the lines which the department had begun to use buses during evening hours after 7 P.M. and al
day on Sundays.
This same government rationing program was also being imposed on private automobile owners, which turned these
auto owners into transit riders by the thousands. These events forced the DSR to bring out of storage retired, old, and
poorly conditioned streetcars—including some equipped with coal stoves. The cars had to be sent to the shop to be
refurbished, and then put back into service.
As auto assembly lines began producing tanks and airplanes for the war, depression era unemployment ceased, and
transit ridership boomed. But somehow the aging DSR streetcar fleet managed to hang-in there and performed quite
excellently, considering their age and worn-out condition.
When World War-II ended in August 1945, the DSR was operating with a fleet of 908 streetcars on 20 car routes. High
wartime ridership demands had taken its toll on the DSR's existing rolling stock. Most of the rail fleet at that time
consisted of Peter Witt style cars built between 1921 and 1930, and double-truck steel-body cars that dated back
even further, to the pre-1922 DUR years. During the war, orders from the Office of Defense Transportation (ODT)
required streetcar use over buses whenever possible to help conserve gasoline and rubber. Since no new rail
equipment had been purchased by the DSR since 1930, the department's aging streetcar fleet was badly in need of
In August of 1945, the DSR—realizing that its existing rail fleet had worn out—ordered "two" PCC cars from the St.
Louis Car Company for revenue service testing on its lines. Two demonstrator "air-electric" cars, numbered #100 and
#101, were diverted from an order being built for the Pittsburgh Railways Company. The cars arrived in early October,
still in their red and cream Pittsburgh colors, and were placed into service on the heavy Woodward Avenue line.
© 2011 – www.DetroitTransitHistory.info (PV 04-11-11)
Information for the above article was compiled from numerous on-line sources relating to the history of the PCC streetcar, and from
various articles written by Jack E. Schramm on Detroit's Street Railways.
|PCC car #101 was one of the first two PCC cars to arrive in Detroit in back in Oct. of 1945. The two cars
were first tested on the DSR's heavy Woodward Avenue line before additional cars were ordered.
(Photo source: Richard S. Short photo collection—online photos)