Springbok Bus Roots

1950s Motor Buses & Trackless Trams of Cape Town, South Africa



In Cape Town trolley buses were always referred to as trackless trams; even the stops were marked "Trackless Tram Stop" or in Afrikaans "Trembus Halte".  Legally Cape Town's trolley buses were quite literally trackless trams with the emphasis on the "tram" bit. Externally this was evidenced by an absence of registration plates. 

City Tramways Co Ltd replaced trams with trackless trams on condition that the annual omnibus permit was waived – something the City Council agreed to in order to rid the city of railed trams but subsequently regretted for the next 30 years! This waiver cost the City Council in the order of 1200 pounds sterling per annum – a not inconsiderable sum during the 1940s and 50s.

The trackless tram system replaced the electric tramway system between 1935 and 1939.  It lasted until 1964, conversion to diesel buses not beginning until 1962.  The initial fleet consisted of thirty, two axle double-deckers - Nos. 1-30 - and twenty, two axle single-deckers - Nos. 31-50.  All were delivered during 1935 with Ransomes Sims & Jeffries chassis and Weymann bodies.  The Ransomes were obtained to replace trams on routes 1-8.  Single deckers were used initially all over the system however after 1950 they were limited to Kloof Nek and Gardens services.  Route 1 Tamboers Kloof terminated in the only reversing "Y" on the system. 

In 1938 - 39 the Ransomes were followed by seventy one, three axle Sunbeam MS2s with Weymann bodywork - Nos. 51-121.  The Sunbeams were obtained to convert the remainder of the system, notably the long mainline route 12 from Wynberg through the city to Sea Point, a distance of about 13 miles. Short workings along this route were numbered 10 and 11. On the Sea Point side 10 was Rocklands Road; while on the Wynberg side there was 10 Durham Avenue, 10 Observatory, 11 Rondebosch Fountain and 11 Claremont. A turning circle - 11 Newlands - was installed in 1961 to cater for football and cricket patrons. During World War II trackless trams were  used to convert motorbus operations on services to 14 Vredehoek Estate, 15 & 16 Devils Peak as well as 17 Groote Schuur Hospital where Dr Christian Barnard carried out the world's first heart transplants. I once saw a single-decker Ransomes in service on this route - a most unusual working by the late 1950s.

After the war a further 25 three axle Sunbeams with Bus Bodies bodies - Nos. 122-146 - were acquired to handle proposed extensions to the network that did not eventuate.  Instead they were used to rationalise fleet utilisation by placing Sunbeams in service on Hanover Street, Vredehoek Estate and Devil's Peak services.  Most of the single-deckers were then mothballed in the old Wynberg tram shed with approximately seven left in service on Kloof Nek and Gardens.  Four or five were converted into motor buses. 

The Ransomes were all "depoted" at route 9 Ebenezer Road Depot and the Sunbeams at route 13 Toll Gate Depot with some Sunbeams at Ebenezer Road after about 1950 when over half of the single decker Ransomes were withdrawn. Photographs from the 1950s show a single row of single deckers and a single row of Sunbeams.  Ebenezer Road Depot was built to house the Ransomes fleet and consisted of two large portal-framed sheds open across the road frontage. Across the gable fronts was the legend CAPETOWN TRAMWAYS. A single entry road entered the center of the left hand shed and turned right inside at the far end with seven exit roads for storage in the right hand shed.  Motor buses were stored on either side of the trackless tram entry road in the left hand shed.

Toll Gate Depot was converted from a tram depot and was totally enclosed with a relatively small entry/exit door at the southwestern corner giving access to Sir Lowry Road. There were two overhead lines passing through this door – an entry and an exit road. Access was from both directions on Sir Lowry Road as well as from Searle Street and exit was to Sir Lowry Road westbound and Searle Street. Sir Lowry Road eastbound was through a door at the eastern end of the building. Storage inside Toll Gate Depot was tight to say the least resulting in Cape Town Sunbeams being fitted with doors on both sides of the cab. A unique arrangement on conventionally styled British double decker trolleybuses of that era.

Motorbuses stabled at these sites bore the legends Ebenezer Road "Garage" and Toll Gate "Garage" on their destination blinds.  The dedication of trackless types to certain routes varied slightly during peak periods although to the best of my knowledge double-deckers were not used on Kloof Nek until conversion got under way in 1962 when Sunbeams were used briefly prior to conversion. This is evidenced by photographs of single deckers "poles up" ready for service at Ebenezer Road Depot in 1962.  Our home in Rosmead Avenue had a view of the upper reaches of the Kloof Nek route and I cannot remember ever seeing a Sunbeam on Kloof Nek because if I had, it would have made a lasting impression. 


The trackless tram system always appeared to be efficient and very reliable and the fleet was always well turned out.  City Tramways had an overall advertising policy of one advertiser per bus but applied in such a way as to allow the green and cream company livery to show through.  Apart from single-decker motor buses, it was very rare in my experience to see a bus or trackless tram without advertising.  On such occasions the paintwork was pristine and the vehicle had clearly been pressed into service before the advertisements had been applied.  Photographs taken towards the end of the trackless era show numbers of vehicles without advertising.  Presumably this was in anticipation that the life of the vehicle would be shorter than the contract for advertising. 


In addition motorbuses never, but never, operated on trackless tram routes.  Cape Town's main street, Adderley Street, was closed for parades from time to time.  Both route 8 and main line route 12 traversed this street, however on these occasions route 12 was simply operated as two routes turning short either side of Adderley Street.  For the occasion of the 1947 Royal Tour additional turn back loops were installed via Harrington, Longmarket and Canterbury Streets eastbound and Dock Road and Bree Streets westbound and city bowl routes.


De-wirements seemed to be rare and most of those that I noticed seemed to involve single-deckers.  As you can see from the drawing, an attempt to overcome the problem had been made by placing the trolley bases on pedestals.  This suggests that double-deckers may be less prone to de-wirement’s due to the lesser angle of the trolley in relation to the roof of the bus and the fact that this would also allow further travel from the center line of the overhead.  Retrievers were never used; instead a long bamboo pole was carried under the Sunbeams and in the waist rail of the Ransomes. 


The overhead had very few sweeps.  Curves were all strung with pull-offs, and this factor may also be pertinent to reducing de-wirements.  As all buses were conductor operated, switches were a mixture of manual and electric.  Manual switches were fitted with rope pulls hanging down the adjacent lamp post and tended to be on seldom used left hand short or depot workings where the course of the bus naturally took it close to the kerb.  My little fingers used to itch to operate a manual switch and watch the resulting mayhem but daylight and inevitable capture was an adequate deterrent. 


During the course of that decade I had cause to travel regularly on both Sunbeams and Ransomes, single and double deck.  By far the most impressive of Cape Town's trackless trams were Sunbeam MS2s Nos. 51 - 111 - appearance wise they had the edge on their postwar sisters.  The swept guards which wrapped around the front of the vehicle, greater depth of green below the windows, distinctive Weymann 'Ashanco' vents above the top deck front window and four wheel rear bogie just gave them that little extra something coupled with the importance of their mainline duties.  These buses were built to more opulent dimensions than those allowed in the United Kingdom in the 1930s - they were 7' 9" wide.  


The single-deckers, used to climb to Kloof Nek, the saddle between Table Mountain and Lion's Head, replaced single-decker trams on a steep and winding route.  My grandparents’ home was the second to last house on the mountain side of Kloof Nek Road - and still is - before the trackless tram carried on through the pines to its turning circle at the Nek.  Here passengers intending to use the aerial cableway to the top of Table Mountain trans-shipped to a normal control Dodge bus for the final couple of kilometres to the cable station.   I can well remember my father running for one of these little buses as it accelerated away downhill - grabbing the handles and dragging himself aboard in almost horizontal fashion - like the Dagwood cartoon character of the times.  I can also recall making crude cardboard models of these buses out of toothpaste tube boxes and pushing them around the carpet at my grandparent’s home. 

I liked using these buses as they had a longitudinal seat that extended alongside the driver right up to the left hand windscreen.  Friendly drivers would chat to the punters from their little cabin and from these gentleman I learnt much about how a trolleybus works – power on, power off switching, de-wirement lights and breakers, those things that go bang and result in an expletive and a quick grab by the driver above his head as he reset the offending switch.  I think acceleration was non-automatic, unlike New Zealand's postwar trolleybuses, and therefore blowing the breakers was more common if a driver was inadvertently heavy footed.   


Trackless trams were fast, but then all things are relevant and motoring in the fifties was still dominated by side valve engines underpowered for the tank sized bodies they were expected to push around.  A fully laden 66 seat Sunbeam had no trouble leaving my father’s Morris 8 Series E in its slipstream at the traffic lights!  I can also remember those wet days when it did not pay to linger in hauling yourself a board a trackless as wet shoes and a metal grab tended to be a tingling experience.


The Ransomes double-deckers that worked routes 4 and 5 were about midway from our home.  We always caught the 5 home and walked down hill to the house and took the 4 to town still walking downhill!  On the way home on route 5, school kids used to practise what we referred to as "bailing out" of the bus.  Halfway between two stops the trackless had to negotiate a very tight bend from Montrose Avenue into Forest Road on a steep grade.  Speed was down to walking pace as the vehicle rounded the bend enabling us to jump off into the roadway.  Not very safe you might say, but this was South Africa in the fifties, life was cheap but lots of fun.  As a sop to the killjoys in whatever Ministry was responsible for killing Joy, each bus was labelled in English and Afrikaans “Passengers entering or leaving this vehicle whilst in motion do so at their own risk".  As the trackless approached the bend we would line up on the stairs school satchels tightly gripped, adrenalin flowing rather like paratroopers preparing for a drop.  Last in line could take a bit of a tumble as the trackless accelerated away from the corner.  Not to bail out would have been unthinkable and a slight on one's manhood.


A by-product of bailing out was clandestine changing of the destination blinds.  While we prepared to leave the trackless the conductor would be making up his waybill facing forward and therefore unable to see yours truly furiously spinning the rear destination blind handle before bailing out as I went down the stairs.  Once out on the road I took note of where I had turned to and over a period in this way worked out the entire destination roll, always careful not to carry out this practise two days in a row in case the conductor got wise as to how his blinds were changing.  I never did get caught.


The blinds fitted to the trackless trams differed from those fitted to motorbuses and contained some intriguing destinations.  They were Pine Grove, Three Anchor Bay, Mowbray, Rosebank and Newlands.  All non-existent short workings on route 12 – apart from Newlands where a turning loop was installed in 1961 after I had left South Africa.   The prewar trackless trams were fitted with a different blind to that fitted to the postwar Sunbeams.  Prewar blinds showed “City” and “Toll Gate" while postwar blinds showed "Cape Town" and "Toll Gate Depot". 


The Sunbeams were large, silent and fast and I can still hear the sound of those six wheels at speed slapping through soft tar on a hot day - a sound that cannot be heard from a motor vehicle.  I used these to get to and from school at Newlands on route 12 and also to go swimming at the Sea Point baths - at the other end of route 12.  My main memory of these vehicles is at Toll Gate Depot situated on route 12 a mile or two from the city.  Crews often changed here, the overhead was complex and passengers got a passing glimpse into the dark interior of the depot itself.  Down an alley to the left was the paint shop situated in former tram sheds with tram track still exposed amid the cobbles.  Across the road was the main repair garage for the motorbus fleet.  An added fascination of the Sunbeams was the four wheeled rear bogie with drilled wheels and chromed hubs.  This added to the image of massiveness which these vehicles exuded making them the 'Kings of the Road'.  In the 1950s three axle road vehicles were exceedingly rare.  In Cape Town at that time I can only remember one other three axle vehicle, a Ford truck owned by Jaggers, apart from City Tramways Sunbeams and Daimler buses. 


Unlike the Sunbeams that carried a small triangular Sunbeam badge below the windscreen, the Ransomes carried no badge.  When trying to determine the make of the two axle vehicles, I noted the words "Ransomes England" under the paint on the front axle bearing cover.  Upon seeking confirmation of this from my father, he considered that Ransomes were noted for making lawnmowers not trackless trams and perhaps Ransomes were only responsible for the manufacture of some parts.  I then noted on what we would call a loading certificate, confirmation of the manufacturer as Ransomes Sims and Jefferies.  To my great surprise the bus concerned had been built in 1935, approximately twenty years prior – twice as old as I was!  This was difficult to comprehend.  In the late fifties all the rest of City Tramways bus fleet comprised half cab Leylands and Daimlers which were noisy and smelly by comparison with the smooth streamlined lines of the trackless fleet.  The exceptions were the relatively small number of underfloor engined Leyland Olympics. When we left South Africa I had no inkling that the trackless fleet was nearing the end of its days and it was a shock to learn in 1965 that Cape Town's trackless trams were no more. 



Although the demise of Cape Town’s trackless trams was not a part of my world, it is worth recording their passing.  The Golden Arrow masters of City Tramways were motor bus men who, like bus men the world over, want nothing to do with fixed infrastructure operations.  As the trackless tram system neared the end of its economic life there was to be no question of its renewal.  In May 1962 the end was announced publicly and this was followed quickly by the withdrawal of the remaining single-decker fleet and its replacement for a short period with double-decker Sunbeams on Kloof Nek services.  

Conversions to motor bus operation started in earnest late 1962 and were completed by the end of February 1964.  Early casualties were weekend trackless tram services replaced by motor buses – bus men’s tactics the world over!  It would appear that instead of individual route closures the system faded away as new motor buses arrived.  By November 1963 only Oranjezicht, Tamboers Kloof and Hanover Street were operational and by February 1964 only the No 8 Hanover Street was still working.  On 28 February 1964 No 113 left Bree Street in the city on the last service run at a little after 1 pm.  That evening No 127 decked out in lights made a last ceremonial run from the City Hall around the city to Toll Gate Depot where the poles were lowered for the last time.  

Only Ransomes No 19 has been preserved in the James Hall Museum of Transport in Johannesburg.  Although ceremonial last trackless tram No 127 was set aside for preservation, it deteriorated to the point that it was cut up for scrap.