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Rebirth of a Birney Tramcar

If you have $400.000 to spend on your next vehicle and are able to provide around 24,000 hours of paid and voluntary labour, then you, too, could be the proud owner of a magnificently restored heritage tramcar.

Those stats are basics for the Birney No.15 Tramcar soon to be let loose, splendidly, on the re-opened city tramway.

Other stats apply, including time.  The restoration project began on December 9, 2009.  Those were confident, heady, days when a tramway extension was being constructed, requiring a larger city tram fleet.

No-one considered the possibility of violent movements in the earth’s crust beneath Christchurch, causing two years of disabling seismic events.

Yet, the Birney rebuild project went on, mostly in the ramshackle tram barn at FerrymeadHeritagePark, reaching a happy conclusion about a week ago.  It was the first joint-venture project of Christchurch Tramway Limited and Ferrymead-based Heritage Tramways Trust.  Looking at the finished tramcar decked out in the livery of former Invercargill Tramways, one can only marvel at the outcome.

The Birney Tramcar has its origins in 1915 when American guys Charles Birney and Joseph Bossenbury came up with the concept of a smaller tramcar to combat the increasing use of the omnibus and private motor car.  Most Birney Tramcars, including No.15, were manufactured in America by J. G. Brill.

No.15 ran on Invercargill’s Tramways from December 20,1921 to May 31, 1952.  During its final run many components were souvenired rendering the tramcar inoperable.  As with many other redundant tramcars, No.15 became a sleep out for many years prior to being discovered by Ferrymead’s Tramway Historical Society.

I documented much of the restoration project, beginning when the derelict body was lifted from Ferrymead and transported to Andy Rowe’s workshop in Hazeldean Road for dismantling.  By some small miracle the body stayed intact during lifting.  Much of the metal bodywork could subsequently be easily crushed to rust fragments.

Graeme Richardson ably led most of the restoration project, frequently utilising techniques, such as hot riveting, familiar to early twentieth-century trades people.

Along with previous Ferrymead tramcar restorations, the quality of heritage construction and attention to detail has been world class.  Even final lettering, has been done with genuine gold leaf in 1920s style.

I have to wonder if the finished project is a restoration or replica?  Some timber has been re-used but little else.  It does, however look exactly as it would have when first rolled onto Invercargill’s tramway in 1921.

The tramcar was on display at Ferrymead for the Labour Day weekend New Zealand Railways 150th anniversary commemorations.  It will be relocated to its new home in the city within the next week or so.

B irney departs Ferrymead Birney 15 TO (2) Birney-15 (1280x821)