top of page
  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The Golden Age of Tramcar Design

In an era when prefabricated modules coupled together with synethic material interiors lacking any character or empathy with the localities they are destined to serve - are very much now part of the urban transit scene in many countries - and I am talking about railed traction here - it is worth just a passing thought at the greatest era of tramcar development, the 1930s. Not just in Britain but throughout europe and the americas - manufacturers were embracing if not chasing the trend setting fashionistas of the moment to develop breakthrough designs appealing to their patrons and customers.

Most tram operations at the time were municipal enterprises where the sway and opinions of the local council and transport managers were keenly felt and listened to. Blackpool's hosting the important municipal tramway and transport conference in 1933 was a chance for one of the country's leading vehicle builders, English Electric, to showcase their own breakthrough model - stunningly presented on the seafront at the Gynn loopline. As we all know this indeed led to a series of contracts awarded to the Preston company in a period when volume orders were dwindling compared to the previous decade in the aftermath of the Great War.

Below : two typical (or was it atypical) Lille town trams in their distinctive green colour scheme (shades of Blackpool and Blackburn) on display in the former AMTUIR museum in Paris. Quite prim enclosed designs unique to this city.

Elsewhere British engineers and draughtsmen were working on market opportunities whereever they could be found. South Africa's single modernising system, Johannesburg, was a particular success when after trialling two comparing designs, the JMT management placed an order for fifty modern double deck bogie cars with styling reflecting climate and conditions of that country. It must be said that at the same time British trolleybus manufacturers were similarly gaining success in the same market and at a cost to the tramcar sector. In the Netherlands, Rotterdam's RET municipal system adopted centre entrance trams to a distinctive square ended design together with an equally distinctive black and mustard yellow fleet livery. France's Lille interurban saw a brief flurry of design excellence with stylish fast running four axle cars for the long runs to the Belgian frontier whilst the town's urban system pursued its staid path of two and three axle gothic styled cars in a distinctly non-French green and pale cream colours.

Germany of course was a hotbed of innovation with diverse manufacturers from that nation's extensive geography (of the time), Intermittent trade exhibitions brought together examples of new tram designs large and small. Dresden's 'Hechtwagen' being a particularly notable entry, whilst prototypes for Hamburg, Essen, Cologne and Hannover are of equal relevance amid a plethora of tram developments. Italy likewise was not left out of the tram development stakes, with impressive models being introduced in Milan, Rome and Genoa - to name but a few operators.

In the United States, the move towards a 'modern streetcar' was fuelled by inroads made by the oil, gas and rubber lobby led by General Motors in acquisition and control over large (and medium size) urban systems. Conversion to buses was always an outcome especially when the typical US streetcar had not change overmuch since before 1917. Some individual systems such as Chicago, Detroit, New York's Third Avenue Railways (actually a tram operator), and other cities made focussed efforts to develop more advanced models. Washington DC Capitol Transit being another good example. However a consolidated root and branch rethink and new approach to tram design and operation came about through a cooperative funding of the 'Presidents Conference Committee'. Here a working laboratory with two test platforms trialled on the Brooklyn and Queens transit system - ended up with a thoroughly worthwhile and proven success - quickly known as the 'PCC Car'. Initial orders for both Brooklyn and Pittsburgh quickly led to a flood of 'me too' contracts for licensed manufacturers of equipment, bodies, bogies and controls. St Louis Car Company becoming the most famous supplier by the late 1930s.

British focus remained very firmly on the double deck version and relatively traditional trucks and bogies - but with improved controllers and certainly interior design and styling. Remarkably perhaps Huddersfield was the first UK municipal tram operator to launch on to its proud citizenry a notably different and far more appealing tram design in 1931 - with a batch of square ended two axle cars. London of course was already taking delivery of the famous 'Felthams' financed by the private sector this time - whilst the LCC in catch up mode rushed through a prototype successor to the antiquated standard design (mostly built by Hurst Nelson in Scotland) which dominated the capital. Fortunately 'Bluebell' as LCC 1 became known, is in the final throes of total restoration to that 1931 condition at the National Tramway Museum, whilst a prototype 'Feltham' known as 'Cissie' - of the previous year is already an operating exhibit at Crich. Many other tram designs would emerge through that decade - all of which were distinctively associated with their town or city. Glasgow, Belfast, Leeds, Edinburgh, Sheffield and of course not forgetting Liverpool immediately come to mind. Sunderland, Rotherham, Aberdeen, Dublin (Eire), and even Swansea and Mumbles were all able to 'show off' their own modern trams of the time. The diminutive Darwen system running in to Blackburn on its solitary trunk route managed two very dramatic modern trams (courtesy of English Electric which was also developing radically different single deck trams for Calcutta from the early 1930s).

A quick run through an amazing decade - one which will never be repeated in styling and diversity, even with the mish mash of modular low floor products endlessly appearing from a handful of conglomerates supplying a global market. 'They don't build 'em like they used to' being a fitting epitaph for today's offers.

British tram design excellence (for southern Africa at least). Johannesburg 36 one of fifty examples exported from the UK with Metro Cammell bodywork. Photo : John Woodman Archive

Featured Posts
bottom of page