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The “Birney Safety Car” was designed and patented by engineers Charles Birney and Joseph Bosenbury.  Birney was affiliated with engineering services company Stone & Webster, who operated several streetcar companies in the United States. The ‘Birney’ was the first successful standardized trolley used by the industry with over 6000 built. Several companies manufactured the cars, with a majority by the J.G. Brill Company and subsidiary American Car Company. The cars were designed to be mass produced and inexpensive to the consumer. Lightweight with steel frames, wooden car bodies, and compact with a length of 28 feet, the cars ride on a single two axle truck and powered by two motors. The cars accelerate quickly and are rated for a top speed of 25 miles-per-hour. Compared to larger double trucked cars, Birneys consume less power and reduce wear to the track.  Birneys are also designed for one person operation, thus saving operating costs. New safety features were introduced including automatic ‘Dead Man” braking if the operator became incapacitated the inability to open the automatic doors without the brakes applied. While the economics of the cars was appreciated by streetcar companies, riders did not care for the cars as single truck cars offer a bouncy ride.

The Pacific Electric Railway ordered twenty Birneys from the J.G. Brill Company, Philadelphia, numbering them 350-369. These cars entered service on low revenue local lines. PE was very impressed by the low operating cost compared to older and larger eight wheeled city cars. Fifteen more cars were ordered in early 1920, with an additional twenty ordered later in the year. The original twenty cars were renumbered to 320-339, with the newer cars numbered 340-388.

The Birneys saw local service in cities across the PE system, replacing older and larger city cars. Some of the cities included Pasadena, Pomona, San Bernardino, Riverside, Redlands, Santa Monica, Long Beach, and San Pedro. There is not doubt that the Birneys prolonged rail service on local routes. Ultimately, bus service replaced local lines as maintenance on the track and overhead wire was expensive.

Pacific Electric 331 spent most of its career in Redlands, California making its last trip to Smiley Heights in 1936. The Car house where it operated out of at 746 East Olive Avenue in Redlands, currently used as an auto repair shop, still stands. The car was later assigned to the local lines in Pasadena and retired in 1941 when the local lines were replaced bus service. Fortunately, MGM Studios bought four of them where they starred in such movies as “Singin’
in the Rain”. A famous scene in the movie has Gene Kelly running across the roof of a Birney Car and jumping into convertible driven by Debbie Reynolds. Cars 331 and 332 were purchased from MGM in the 1960’s and brought to the museum in Perris, California for restoration and operation.


Pacific Electric 331 posed in front of the Torrance General Shops in 1934.  Pacific Electric Railway Photo.

Pacific Electric Birney Safety Cars 331 and 332 in operation at the Southern California Railway Museum.  John Smatlak Photo.

Pacific Electric 331 Media Gallery