Two words: Gulf Oil. (Thank you, Bowser!)

Philadelphia PCC car 2168 in "Gulf Oil" livery at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, June 6, 2010.

In the 1970s, the relatively new Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority tried out numerous color combinations in an effort to create a corporate paint scheme to succeed the liveries used by its predecessors, including the sedate green-and-cream hues seen on the city’s streets for decades under the Philadelphia Transportation Co. and Philadelphia Rapid Transit.

Tan, baby blue, banana yellow and metallic gold were among the more memorable presentations. Then, the transit agency seemed to find some success with an orange, white and blue concoction. Calling it “Gulf Oil” made perfect sense to 1970s railfans who cynically drew parallels between the new SEPTA livery — which mirrored the famous petro company’s corporate colors — and the transportation agency’s perceived attitude toward rail transit.

Many observers justifiably say the 1970s and early ’80s saw SEPTA’s trolley operations almost at their nadir. Nevertheless, those final days of widespread PCC operation left their emotional mark, and many fans took a lasting liking to the scheme. That ongoing fondness was reflected in two interesting developments of recent years. It was among those reproduced by Corgi for its line of large-scale die-cast PCC cars (full listing here, Gulf Oil here) and was chosen as the restoration livery applied to PCC car 2168 for preservation at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.  

Long gone from the streets of Philadelphia, this vaunted paint scheme has scored two more victories:  Bowser Trains (read about my N Scale expedition to their shop last month here) plans to release an all-electric Philadelphia PCC in Gulf Oil colors as part of the latest crop of its excellent HO PCCs, while it is also scheduled to appear in the second batch of Con-Cor’s HO prewar “air-electric” PCCs.

While I do not own any of the first-run cars from either company, I admit to being far more excited about the Bowser news. Why? First, the workmanship — details, engineering, operation — on Bowser’s F-Line PCC cars is said to be some of the best ever seen in plastic-bodied HO model traction (certainly for PCCs, anyway), and from everything I’ve seen I would have to agree.

That standard of super-detailing looks set to increase a notch with the latest cars, which in the case of SEPTA will include two other key details: The roof-mounted “gumball” and subway lights so characteristic of Philadelphia’s PCC cars in those years (and used on the Kawasaki light rail vehicles which replaced them). 

Then, too, the latest Bowser batch will include a Toronto 4300-series car. This will bring a quality off-the-shelf, factory-painted HO PCC from my favourite system to market at affordable prices, bridging the quality and cost gap between Bachmann’s lovable but crude version and hard-to-find brass models which are insanely expensive even in an unpainted state. Bowser’s cars will have the distinctive Toronto Transit roof-mounted “advance lights,” but not the cowl-covered dash advertising panel lights; I think that’s an acceptable tradeoff.

According to its website, other paint schemes will be Johnstown, Los Angeles MTA and — a bit of an oddball — Pittsburgh “Queen Mary” car 1600 (though that probably represented less of a departure from the general outline of this shell than Pittsburgh’s production series 1700 cars would have been). All of these cars will be welcome additions to the field of HO traction modeling. But the Philadelphia and Toronto versions also represent vehicles and paint schemes used into the 1980s, and thus will be a boon for those of us looking to model North America’s largest surviving streetcar systems in this key period of transition between PCCs and LRVs.  

Bowser says the cars, with a suggested retail price of $139.95, are set to begin arriving in January 2011, though the November issue of The Trolleyville Times suggests a broader (and probably more realistic) target of the first quarter.

Either way, a happy new year indeed for traction modelers.

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