Model T Ford Railcar

Pleasant Point’s railcar, RM4, is a replica of one of two built by railways.

In 1925 New Zealand Railways decided to build two lightweight railcars, placed on a one-ton Model T Ford truck chassis, in Wellington’s railway workshops.

Their construction was part of a national drive by railways to reduce the costs of operating on light traffic lines where there was only a limited number of passengers. The railcars only needed one person to run them, but a train needed at least three.

After trials in the North Island, both vehicles were sent to the South Island to run in the Southland area. Rumour has it they were deliberately sent as far away from Wellington as possible.

Their launch came with a blaze of publicity in the Southland newspapers. The Southland Times had a play on words in its headlines of May 29, 1926. "Come to Stay, The Rail Motor Trial Run On Glenham Line – A Signal Success."

It was only a matter of weeks later when the Superintendent of railways in Christchurch wrote to the railway board with a number of comments about the railcars including, "in my opinion it is very doubtful if they will meet the requirements satisfactorily".

They were not particularly popular with the travelling public either. Various nicknames were coined, such as "glass houses", "pie carts" and "tea" or "coffee pots". The latter two were due to the motor often boiling due to the large pannier bags placed across the bonnet for luggage.

Aside from stopping ventilation around the motor, these bags were also used to store children in when there was a crowd on board. At least one visitor to Pleasant Point said he could still remember such a journey during his childhood.

A New Zealand Railways file held in National Archives included information about derailments involving the two Model T railcars.

One file reports how rabbits during the winter scraped ballast up over the railway line, which then froze. As the Model T came merrily along it ran over the frozen ballast and promptly derailed. As a result railways fitted small brushes just forward of the front wheels to clear any or most obstructions. Staff promptly nicknamed them toothbrushes.

After running for nearly five years, the two railcars were withdrawn from service in 1931 and dissapeared. In the early 2000s, the society came across the original body of RM 5, however, the original body of RM 4 still remains unfound.

In 1981, the society agreed to rebuild RM4 using information from the New Zealand Railways’ file, and also photographs, plans and information from people who could remember the railcars in operation.

For a start, an original Model T Ford one-ton truck chassis and running gear was obtained. As with the original Railcar, there had to be some modifications to the axles. The rear axle had to be shortened to allow wheels to be fitted to fit New Zealand Railway track gauge of 3ft 6in and a new front axle was made. The body was built with framing of Southland beech.

The finishing touches were finally made in March, 1999, and on the 14th of that month it was commissioned with a massive street party.

In 1925, when the railcars were built, painted in Midland Red. They were the first passenger vehicles to be painted such a colour, which is the same as you will see on RM4.

It remains as distinctive today as it was almost 90 years ago and is kept running by a dedicated team of volunteers.