Birney Standard Safetycar
Lightweight One Man Cars


Click on picture for a full size image

Due to private autos and jitneys cutting into street railway revenues and ridership, something had to be done. A lightweight one man car was the answer between 1911 and 1916. Several lightweight cars were built but no general solution to the problem came until 1916.

Stone and Webster Engineering Company commissioned their engineer in charge of car design & construction, a Mr. Charles O. Birney, to develop a one man lightweight car. This was the first approach to the overall problem of providing a small lightweight one-man car capable of frequent service.

Major changes in air braking and traction motor technology were taking place due to the combined engineering efforts of the following companies. As a result, the Stone and Webster Safety Car was developed:

  • Westinghouse Air Brake and Illinois Traction who developed a combination air brake, sander and door operating mechanism with dead man control.
  • J. G. Brill whose 21E truck was modified with small diameter wheels and roller bearing journals. This was followed by the 78M truck and then superseded by the 79E truck. (ref Bulletin #220 21E truck, Bulletin #234 78M truck and Bulletins #242, 263, 268, 281 79E truck).
  • Westinghouse Electric Co. who had developed the 800lb traction motor #505, which produced 17.5 HP at 600 volts. Subsequent improvements raised the horsepower to 25-35 HP.

Production of the car began in 1916 and lasted through 1930. Prices ranged from $3,500 apiece in 1916 to $7,000 apiece in 1921. By the mid 1920's, Birney Car production had peaked. Over 6000 cars were made by the following companies:

          American Car Co.               Osgood Bradley Co.           Cincinnati Car Co.  
          J. G. Brill                             St. Louis Car Co.                Preston Car Co. (Canada)
          McGuire-Cummings Co.    Ottawa Car Co. (Canada)

The Stone and Webster Company basic body design remained unchanged until 1920 when Brill introduced the wide front door. Other body modifications were made on a smaller scale such as: doors - type and location, corner posts  - with or without windows, towers for trolley poles, roof vents - kind and number, life guards, retriever location, marker lights and/or dash lights. Some being one of a kind. Every conceivable variety of Birney car had been produced or modified except for a center entrance. Body types were based on major dimensions and door arrangements.

The car's main problem was the quality of its ride. All single truck cars tended to nose and pitch on less than perfect track. Additionally, the ride tended to be noisy and these characteristics proved unsatisfactory to the riding public.

The depression wiped out thousands of Birney cars. Marginal properties who used these cars either went out of business or tried to save themselves by converting to buses.