Builders of Wooden Railway Cars ... and some of other stuff

Perley A. Thomas Car Company

Often mistakenly called Perley-Thomas as if it were a partnership of Perley and Thomas, the Perley A. Thomas Car Company was organized in 1916 at High Point, North Carolina by Perley A. Thomas, originally to renovate streetcars for the Southern Public Utilities Company in Charlotte.

Thomas advertisement from 1924.

That summer, the Southern Public Utilities Company in Charlotte approached Thomas with a proposal to rebuild a number of open summer cars into year-round cars. He seemed a natural for the job, having designed the cars while working for the Southern Car Company, supervised their building, and having contacts with workmen familiar with their construction.

Within 30 days Thomas had organized his own company, recalled many of his former associates, and taken over the former Southern Car Company property. [The Thomas corporate history, which one would expect to be the more accurate, says he “purchased his old employers manufacturing equipment at a bankruptcy auction and bought the closed Sunnyside Ice Company building for a new factory.” {485}] He not only enclosed the cars for the Charlotte utility, but soon had orders for nine more from the Navy shipyard in Mobile, Alabama.

The Thomas company prospered throughout the glory days of street railways, producing more than 400 streetcars for cities all over the United States as well as in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South America. Thomas cars were both substantial and stylish, and were very well-respected.

One authority {486} estimates that by 1924, at the peak of its business, the Thomas firm was the fourth largest street car manufacturer in the U.S., with only the J.G. Brill Company, St. Louis Car Company, and Cincinnati Car Company having a larger market share.

In 1924, at its peak of production, the Thomas works consisted of three parallel tracks, each of which was long enough to hold three cars. Apparently there were three work stations on each track, so that any particular car was moved twice down the track where it originated. Thus as many as nine cars could be under construction at any one time, keeping busy 125 workmen. It took about six days to build one streetcar, and the factory produced an average of seven per week. {486}

In these days of mass production, we would probably judge this an inefficient set-up. But we must remember that large orders, even those for as many as 25-30 cars, were few and far between. And almost every order differed in some respects from every other, even when from the same line. Every line had its own ideas of what a car should be like, and even the same line differed from year to year. The ability to adjust to customers’ wants and wishes was one of the strengths of an ace car designer like Perley A. Thomas.

Among the best-known Perley Thomas cars are those built for New Orleans Public Service Inc. These cars are known and recognized far and wide as characteristic of that city. Before 2005’s hurricane Katrina, there were 35 cars of the 900-series built in 1922/23 still running on the St. Charles line.

New Orleans Public Service #818
New Orleans Public Service #818. Green car with two man operation. (Car Plans of the Perley A Thomas Car Company)

Yet the New Orleans cars almost didn’t get built. After delivering 25 cars on the order, fire struck the Thomas works destroying, among other things, 14 cars under construction. Perley Thomas reportedly took his advance payment on the cars, bought electric motors, and somehow produced the remainder of the 55-car order. Over a period of 12 years, New Orleans bought more than 100 streetcars from the Thomas works, roughly ¼ of its total production. {487}

But the street car era was drawing to a close, and orders were getting scarce. Two factors were bringing it to a close. First, the independence offered by the automobile was rapidly winning the battle between private and public transportation. And second, the Great Depression was beginning. As it deepened, power companies, the primary owners of electric street railways, would begin to retrench to their core business of producing electricity, and leave public transportation to the cities.

In 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, the Thomas firm was incorporated as Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc. In 1934, Thomas filled an order for 10 transit buses for Duke Power in Anderson, South Carolina. Then in 1936 it built 200 wooden-bodied school buses for the state of North Carolina. Then it built some travel trailers. Then some bakery trucks. And some dairy trucks. It would build no more vehicles with steel wheels.

The saga of the Perley A. Thomas Car Works continues to this day in the form of Thomas Built Buses, Inc., incorporated in 1972. But to follow that fascinating story, you’ll have to read the book!

Cast of Characters

Perley A. Thomas (1874-1958) was born on a farm near Chatham, Ontario, Canada. He learned about machinery from his father, who was an itinerant millwright. But he also had a lifelong interest in woodworking. In 1901, he moved his family to Detroit, where his interest in woodworking led him to a job designing yacht hulls.  He did not pursue that field very long before taking a job as a design engineer for the streetcar division of the Detroit United Railroad, where he could put his mechanical aptitude to work. {485}

By 1906, Thomas had moved to Cleveland, where he worked for the G.C. Kuhlman Car Company, which by then was a subsidiary of J.G. Brill & Company. To further himself, the grade-school drop-out undertook night school courses in structural engineering at Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University). About 1910, he received offers from two different car companies, the Cincinnati Car Company (of Cincinnati, naturally) and the Southern Car Company (of High Point, North Carolina). He accepted the latter, reportedly because his wife had had her fill of cold weather! {485}

The Southern Car Company was by that time a well-known builder of street cars. It had been started in 1904 by executives of the Briggs Car Company of Amesbury, Massachusetts, who apparently felt that the street car business would be better in the south. Thomas became chief engineer, draftsman and designer for the company, using both his mechanical skills and his experience as a skilled woodworker. When the market began to turn from wooden cars to steel ones, Thomas was able to make the switch. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

Southern Car wasn’t able to keep up with its larger competitors, and in early 1916 went out of business. Thomas set himself up in business doing fine finish woodworking all the way from furniture to mantelpieces and staircases. Then, in midsummer 1916, the Southern Public Utilities Company in Charlotte, North Carolina, needed someone to rejuvenate its streetcars, and the rest is history.

For More Information

Johnson, Clint. From Rails to Roads; The History of Perley A. Thomas Car Works and Thomas Built Buses. Raleigh, NC: Lifescapes Corporation, 1996.

Fascinating and well-told story of “Mr. P.A.” as he was known to family and associates, the company he built, and how his family followed in his footsteps, keeping the company alive through the Great Depression and World War II. Long-since having given up building street cars in favor of buses, Thomas Built Buses, Inc. is now one of North America’s largest full-line bus manufacturers.

Thomas, Perley A. Car Plans of the Perley A. Thomas Car Company, High Point, North Carolina, 1926.  Bulletin #9. The Electric Railway Historical Society, Chicago, IL.

14 typical plans selected from 41 blueprints in a Perley A. Thomas catalogue of 1926. The selected 14 are identical to the other 27 except for variations in the number of windows and whether they were single or double end. All are well-dimensioned scale drawings.

“Thomas Built Cars.” Electric Railway Historical Society Bulletin No. 31, 1959.

A reproduction of the Perley A. Thomas Car Works catalog for 1930.

Video/DVD —

New Orleans’ Streetcars. Tustin, CA: Valhalla Video Productions, n.d. Available on VHS or DVD.

Spend 90 minutes aboard 1923 Perley Thomas streetcars of New Orleans on the St. Charles line in this look at pre-Katrina operations.

11 April 2006

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