New Cable Car Rolls Into Spotlight

Car known as "No. 15" unveiled Monday

A flock of tourists stood in the street outside Muni's cable car barn this morning.

Many had no idea why they were there, why loads of press were jostling for limited space, why city officials darted back and forth -- Blackberries waving like light sabers. All they knew is there was a buzz. Something about to happen -- something down those tracks that lead beyond the great doorway.

Suddenly there was yelling, the rhythmic pinging of a cable car bell -- then a great yellow beast rumbling toward a predetermined spot on the track. A cheer went up from the crowd as a modern version of an old San Francisco icon claimed its rightful place at center stage. 

Cable cars are to San Francisco what the Hollywood sign is to L.A., the Brooklyn Bridge to New York. They are at once recognizable, uniting a glorious past with a nostalgic present. But cable cars are different than signs and bridges. They are part amusement park ride, public transportation, and a rolling icon rolled into one. 

This car is simply known as Number 15. It's the fifteenth car hand built by Muni workmen since the 1960s.

It is old and new at once. Over the last four years, Muni's team of craftsmen built it from scratch, using blueprints that are over a hundred years old. The only difference, says carpenter Bob Harris, is they now have the luxury of modern tools.

Number 15 is painted a bright yellow. "Sponge Bob Yellow" one painter answered when asked if the paint had a name, referring to the popular yellow cartoon character. No one seemed to know what they called it back in 1890, when the same yellow paint scheme adorned original cable cars.

As politicians pined over the new car Harris stood nearby, beaming like a proud new papa.

"There are only nine carpenters that work on these cable cars and I happen to be one of them," Harris said. "It's a glorious job."

With the speeches done, the fawning over, the politicians, city leaders and builders piled on board. Number 15 lurched, heaved and at once began its thunderous roll to its new home on the Powell-Mason line. The tourists scattered like dry leaves, cameras flashing, straining to get a picture of Mayor Gavin Newsom clinging to the side.

And with that, Number 15 rolled off into the distance to assume its place in history.

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