DESIGN: Those Were The Times No. 3 – The Red Car Diaries

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times, Disney History

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Published on January 23, 2013 at 4:03 am with 22 Comments

The Wheel of Years will be sent spinning and when the clicking stops, the red arrow will point to a year – that’s where we’ll start. The tale can flow forward or backward, flow into any subject depending on where my 81 year old hard drive decides to go. We’ll both be off to whatever we find. – Bob Gurr

 

 

Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 1943,
so off we roll.

The spring of 1943 was full of disruptions; my father had just died, WWII was going into it’s second year, and I was getting used to public school again after a stint in a Military academy. Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank, not far from the Disney Studios, was a hub of warplane manufacturing. Burbank Military Academy was a short distance away, and the U.S. Army had commandeered the whole place and filled it with anti-aircraft guns to protect the war plane factories. So, kicked out of the place, I had to reluctantly return to an “ordinary” school. No more uniforms, no more marching, and no more small classes with real cool projects assigned to all us boys.

 

I’d been spoiled at the Academy – free private pick up and delivery in a brand new 1941 black Ford Station Wagon (being seen in a woody every day!). With dad gone, my mom sold our nice ’37 Plymouth because of gas rationing, as we did need the money to live on. (Awful economic tale coming in a future Wheel spin). My younger sister and I were now stuck at home. Sure, we did have an old 1931 Model A Ford as a backup car, but we’re not going anywhere with 3 to 4 gallons of rationed gasoline every week. What to do…

 

 

The Red Car, my new wheels! The Southern Pacific Electric Railway had these real cool big red cars that ran all over Southern California. Cheap too – downtown Los Angeles from way out in North Hollywood where we lived for 25¢. Before I was expelled from the third grade at grammar school, I got to ride the Yellow Bus, locally built by Crown Coach. (Spoiler – I just know this is leading to the Disneyland Omnibus in a future Wheel spin). Actually, I’d been expelled months earlier from the school bus for infuriating the driver with my pranks, so I then had to walk the daily four mile round trip.

 

 

Thankfully my new school was near the red car station in downtown North Hollywood where I could get there for 5¢ each way from the Whitsett stop a few miles west. I loved trains and trolleys. They both ran on the same Chandler Avenue line. Electric cars by day, steam trains by night. The sounds of steam chuffing and that mournful wail in the night was so clear, the tracks passed by barely a quarter mile from our house. Sometimes the big steam locomotive would stop at the North Hollywood Station to allow red cars to pass by. That deep rumble of the firebox and the heat of the boiler certainly gave a nice warmth on the cold nights I loved to hang out there after a movie.

The red car was my ticket to adventure all over Los Angeles and especially hollywood by myself when I was 11 years old. It took me to Hollywood on Sundays to the free radio shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Blondie, Fibber McGee and Molly. While it was a 1920s suburban design by St. Louis Car, to me it was very modern. I loved to sit on the left front bench seat so I could watch the motorman operate the controls. I knew exactly how to drive it if I ever got the chance. Of course, we kids would cause a big commotion by reaching out the back window to yank the electrical power arm off the overhead wire on crowded Hollywood Blvd, then escape while the conductor had to put it back up.

 

In summer 2012 Disney’s California Adventure opened the new Buena Vista Street, which transported me authentically back to my pre-teen years and the Red Car all over again. Riding the New Red Car gave me a tear for sure.

Well, did you learn something today folks? Ready for that wheel to be set spinning again? Inspire me!

 

(Updated 1/23/13 9pm)

DESIGN: Those Were The Times – Comment Responses from Bob Gurr

You asked for it – Red Car article reader comments asked about how the DCA tribute compares to the original. While the original was a large and heavy full sized 600 volt DC trolley, the tribute is a much scaled down lightweight battery powered car with design details and colors as exact as can be. That’s what gave me the nostalgic tears.

Several readers wanted to know about the pranks that got me into trouble. Realizing that quite a few will forever remain classified to protect the innocent, most pranks were humorous and harmless while the recipients certainly did not agree. Examples: Smuggle my bantam rooster onto the school bus hidden in a covered canary cage. A loud cackle got us both dumped by the side of the road. I got even; I placed a fake painted metal ink spill on the bus driver’s seat. Not funny – I was physically taken to the school principal, shortly thereafter to be expelled and sent to military school.

We’d wedge nickels under the red car wheels thinking it would stall the electric motion – it didn’t – all it did was make a bump and a bang and converted real money into flattened junk. On foggy nights, we’d set off wartime emergency rescue smoke bombs between the rails. When the motorman plowed into the colorful smoke, the red cars would stop with the second car over the bomb – the conductor opening the doors between stations thinking the train was on fire. Our loud giggles as we fled the scene gave the gag away.

The best pranks were to ride at the back of the the rear car and bang the bell in chorus with the front car motorman’s bell clang. Not funny! But the passengers loved the confusing jangle. The hot ticket was to yank down the trolley arm, thus shutting down all power to the cars. But we made sure we only did that when the car was jammed with standing passengers so the conductor could not catch us in the crowd as we made our escape to the loud ringing of the trouble alarm.

Of course, you kids out there probably don’t want to use my pranks as an example. I did get sent to military school after all.

 

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

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22 Comments

Comments for DESIGN: Those Were The Times No. 3 – The Red Car Diaries are now closed.

  1. Excellent story, Bob! Makes me even more excited to ride the Red Cars at DCA next week!

  2. I want to hear some more about those pranks that got you expelled from a school bus…and grammar school…and…! LOL

  3. I remember riding the electric street car from Highland Park to downtown L.A. It was a trip my Grandfather took me on.

  4. I was surprised at how much I LOVED riding and just seeing the RED CARS at DCA this year. They really did help transport me in time. Now, about those pranks…give! Please?

  5. Sad to think that Los Angeles had one of the finest trolly fleets in the U.S. and now it all sits at the bottom of the ocean as a break water for the Hermosa/Manhattan Beach area. I never had the chance to ride the Red Cars (I was born in 1968) but I look forward to riding the DCA tribute all this year as we just purchased AP’s. I’m a big fan of the original Red Cars and I’d be interested to hear from Bob how the tribute compares to the original.

  6. Too bad they don’t still have the Red Cars.

  7. great article Bob! I wish LA would of kept the red cars it would of helped with the transportation and traffic mess we are in today.!

  8. Bob, thank you so much for opening your heart and experiences for your fans like this. Hearing about your youth and how it ties in to the Disney of today was really quite touching.

    Like so many others, I just think it is a shame that LA sold out on the Red Cars. We had a world class transportation system and let it slip away. It’s almost too sad to think about.

    WONDERFUL first hand account of the time. Can’t wait to see where that wheel will take us next. Though, I do hope it comes back to tell us about those pranks which got you thrown out of school. ;-)

  9. Do you know about the Orange Empire Railway Museum? It is in Perris. They run electric trolleys on Saturday and Sundays. They have a collection of Red Car trolleys.
    Their link is http://www.oerm.org/

    • Yep! They have Ward Kimball’s Emma Nevada there! Its worth the trip just to visit her!

  10. Spin, spin, spin :) great memories. I love yah Bob and I love your stories. I am really excited to hear about your interactions with Walt. I love your interviews in the Walt bio that’s why I am star struck when I see you. I can’t wait to hear about the roarin 50′s, and what you and Walt did or the conversations you had. things that have been put in the back of your mind.

  11. Great memories, Mr. Gurr! I never got to experience the LA Red Cars, but I do love the Red Car Trolley on Buena Vista Street! Thanks for sharing with us — can’t wait to see where you and the Wheel of Years take us next!

  12. I would love to see the red car extended all the way to Napa Rose. I feel like the ride is just a little short and these wonderful Red Cars add a great energy when they go by.

  13. Just a thought about design. Obviously, people have to move from one point to another. But Walt understood that the experience can be fun at the same time. Bob Gurr is a great designer who is responsible for many fun ways to move at Disneyland, including the Monorail. I only wish that DCA had more such fun innovative “moving” experiences as the Red Car. I feel that is one of the big element that the original designers did not understand.

  14. Thanks for the Red Car story, Bob. My mom has many fond memories of commuting to school and work on the Red Cars in the 40′s. Ironically, some of the original Red Cars are in use on Market Street in San Francisco! I made it a point to take a ride on a Red Car in SF just so I could relive a little of my mom’s history.

    http://articles.latimes.com/1998/aug/02/news/mn-9475

  15. Another wonderful story Bob. Thank you. I spent many a time driving up and down Chandler and find it fitting that its become a right of way for the special tandem car bus system… a weak shadow of the former glory days you lived in, but fitting nonetheless.