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History on display Susan Walter | Sat, Jul 28 2012 12:00 PM

You have a wonderful chance on Aug. 5 (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) to see lots of really cool vehicles in National City at the 21st Automobile Heritage Day show, held in Kimball Park.

You should make time for this event. Besides the fabulous cars, motorcycles and trucks, there is food and other entertainment.  Bring the kids and your camera because you will regret it if you don’t. Best of all, the event is free!

To me, the star of this event is an odd little vehicle nicknamed Herbie. Bob Publicover of Tucson, Ariz., constructed it in 1979. Now called SDERy #1031, it sports the beautiful spanking new cream and green paint scheme (which originated in the 1930s) of the San Diego Electric Railway Company.

I’ve sat with the vehicle for a couple of years at the auto show, and the most common comment I hear from the public not in the know is, “People were so much smaller then!”


It was deliberately built kid-sized. This unique little vehicle never was an actual public transport. Mr. Publicover built it, as a replica of the Boston streetcars he had loved riding on, for his children who hadn’t had that experience.

A consummate adaptor, Bob constructed a perfect 3/5 replica of a class seven trolley.  Get this: He took a 1973 Volkswagen bus and stretched the frame to triple length. He rebuilt the exterior using upholstery tacks – for instance – to replicate the rivets on the originals. He even counted them for authenticity!

Bob designated his vehicle Tucson MTA #5227, and painted it the appropriate colors of orange with black trim. The perfect 3/5 interior was also carefully constructed, with the neat rollover seatbacks that can be switched to the correct direction, depending on which way the vehicle is traveling.

It cost him $20,000 to build MTA #5227. Later, he put it up for sale.

Seeing an opportunity, the San Diego Electric Railway Association (SDERA) purchased it circa 2000, and transported it to their National City museum located at the old depot.

So, you say, what’s the deal with the name Herbie? The SDERA board at the time named this stretched out Volkswagen bus after a VW beetle named Herbie in the 1997 Disney film “The Love Bug” and the convenient anthropomorphized name stuck.

It cost SDERA $5,000 and 1,500 man hours to restore Herbie to its present condition. A more appropriate designation was desired, so the vehicle is now SDERy #1031.

Now, understand that #1031, unlike our modern red trolleys which are electrically powered, is a gasoline powered vehicle.  This is an advantage because gallant little #1031 is able to be driven to any site, and is a real crowd pleaser in parades!

But, remember this: MTA #5227 / Herbie / SDERy #1031 was never a real streetcar.

However, you can experience real ones. Number 1031 is just one of a magnificent collection of real antique streetcars that SDERA and their affiliated group, San Diego Vintage Trolley, have restored and/or are still working on.

At the National City Train Depot Museum there are four other real streetcars. The oldest one is a 1917 Birney street car. Did you ever eat in the Spaghetti Factory’s trolley? Ever wonder what happened to it when the restaurant shut down? SDERA to the rescue! Now flaunting its correct 1917 colors of yellow with a brown roof, #336 stands proudly in the SDERA museum’s yard. Repairs to it to date top $2,500, and more funds are needed for its completion. This gorgeous car is available for you to rent for parties and meetings.

Also located at the SDERA museum are three trams from Austria built in 1925. Advertisements in German were in them when they were acquired. Their cosmetic restoration is still under way, with approximately $8,000 spent to date.

More is needed.

The SDERA museum is located at 922 West 23rd St. in  National City. For more information check out their website: www.sdera.org.

The opportunity to experience interurban rail history keeps getting better and better, because these energetic and devoted restoration mechanics and artists have literally put historic streetcars back on track!

Called the Silver Line, six of these gloriously restored and running President’s Conference Committee cars travel a three- mile loop on Thursday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Sunday (11 a.m. through 3:30 p.m.).

The downtown loop begins at 12th Street and Imperial Avenue. To take this trip, just buy a Compass Card from the vending machine. Cost is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors and disabled.

Want to see more?  Go to www.sdvintagetrolley.com, select “In The News” and scroll down to see a movie all about the street car.

So, hey, you can experience interurban rail history close up and personal: You can see ’em, smell ’em, touch ’em and ride  ’em!

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