Mike Pigott looks at a set of classic American trams which was a premium offered with a book subscription.
Most people would be familiar with Reader’s Digest, a long-running pocket-sized magazine containing a wide range of stories and features. In addition to its monthly flagship title, Reader’s Digest also publishes a large number of books; these can be one-off publications such as atlases or instructional handbooks, or serial publication like encyclopaedias or ‘condensed books’ (volumes containing a number of abridged novels). Most of its products are sold via mail-order, and to entice customers to buy new titles – or continue subscribing to existing ones – free gifts have often been offered. These are often cheap items such as pens or clocks, but at times there have been diecast models. Sets of eight models were sent out with issues of ongoing publications; these have included fire engines, vintage cars, classic American cars and trains. At other times, boxed sets of two or four models have been included with large books such as DIY manuals or gardening handbooks. These have included vintage cars, classic vans, WW1 aircraft and the subject of this post…streetcars.
The Classic Streetcars set was produced sometime during the 1990s. It was a set of two American trams packaged in a square card box with a vac-form inner tray. It is not certain what publication it was sent with; most likely it was enclosed with various different books. The two models were a San Francisco cable car and a New Orleans tram (streetcar). As with most Reader’s Digest models, they were not retail models and had probably been specially commissioned by the publisher. Although not marked as such, they were made by the Chinese budget manufacturer Golden Wheel. Both trams had a diecast chassis, but all other components, including the wheels and bogies, were made of plastic.
SAN FRANCISCO CABLE CARThe cable car is an early type of tramway that runs by way of moving cables underneath the city streets. The cars themselves are unpowered, and move by engaging with the cable through a slot in the roadway. Power comes from stationary engines in the cable powerhouse that move the cables below the surface. The cable car driver, called a gripman, operates a lever that fits through the slot on the road to attach to the moving cable. To move forward he engages the grip; to slow down or stop the grip is disengaged, releasing the car from the moving cable.
During the late Victorian period, a number of cities around the world built cable tramways, as they were more efficient than the previous horse-drawn trams. However, cable trams soon lost ground to electric tramways which were cheaper to build and run. Most cities replaced their cable systems with electric street railways in the 1930s.One city that kept its cable cars was San Francisco, California. Many of the city’s streets had gradients that were too steep for electric cars to gain traction. The lighter, unpowered cable cars could easily climb these inclines when gripping the cable. Although some lines were replaced with electric trams, there is still a considerable network in San Francisco with three major lines currently operating: California Street, Powell Street – Mason Street, and Powell Street – Hyde. The cable cars are mostly used by tourists, with local commuters being a minority on board.
There are two types of cable car used in San Francisco: single-ended and double-ended cars. The single-ended cars have open sides with outward-facing seats at the front, while the back section is an enclosed saloon which is accessed by a rear platform. The gripman is located between the seats in the front section, and passengers are permitted to stand on the running boards in this area when the car is full. These cars run on the Powell Street lines, and are reversed using turntables at the termini. The double-ended cars used on California Street have a central enclosed saloon with open sections on both sides.The Reader’s Digest model is based on a single-ended car serving Powell and Mason Streets. It has a black-painted diecast base, but the body and interior are plastic. The main body is moulded in brown plastic, with the car sides painted dark green, cab ends in white, and running boards in grey. The interior seating of both sections is in tan plastic. The wheel assemblies are also plastic, with black turning bogies and chromed wheels. The roof has a raised clerestory section in the centre, and there are separate indicator boards on each side showing the route on an orange background. There is no glazing. A gripman figure is located in the front section. There are very fine tampo-printed details on the sides and car ends. Scale is not stated, but it is smaller than HO and larger than TT, possibly 1/100. Although there are a number of toy and model cable cars available as souvenirs in San Francisco, this model is better detailed and appears to be an original casting.
NEW ORLEANS STREETCARThe other model in the set is a streetcar from New Orleans, Louisiana. It is based on a 400-series streetcar built by Southern Car Company in 1915. These were double-ended electric trams run by the New Orleans Street Railway Company on the city’s extensive network. While some routes were closed down in the 1950s, there are five lines still in operation today.
I always had the impression that the title of Tennessee Williams’ famous play ‘A Streetcar named Desire’ took its name from a metaphor, but in fact it was inspired by the New Orleans streetcar system. In the play, the character Blanche DuBois was told to ‘take a streetcar named Desire’ to get to her sister’s house. The Desire Street line ran through the French Quarter of the city, but was discontinued in the 1940s and replaced by buses.
The Reader’s Digest model is larger than the cable car, and made in a different style. The black base is again diecast, but with stepped ends and tanks moulded between the bogies. The bogies and wheels are identical to the streetcar. The body is a single plastic moulding in light green. Except for the roof, the tram body is painted glossy dark green, with the doors and window frames finished in brown. There are ‘Desire St’ markings printed on the car sides, while fleet number ‘463’, destination boards and headlights are also added. There is a pair of black plastic trolley poles on the roof which do not lift or rotate.
The model has no interior or glazing around the doors or end windows. However, the side windows are fitted with opaque white strips showing printed silhouettes of passenger figures. This was a trick used by model railroad manufacturers such as Lionel and Tyco in electric streetcars. The internal lighting gave the impression of passengers by the windows, while the opaque strip disguised the mechanism and lack of internal fittings. However, while the Reader’s Digest tram copied this effect, it appeared to be an original casting that was better proportioned than the larger electric models.While the Classic Streetcars are clearly budget items, models of American trams are not common and these may be of interest to collectors of public transit vehicles. They are not easy to find in the UK but can usually be purchased online for a reasonable price from vendors in the USA.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Diecast Collector magazine.
Tect and photos (c) Mike Pigott 2020.