Fringe Box



Train In The High Street That Refused To Move

Published on: 28 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 28 Feb, 2012
The MGM film company’s Trackless Train had completed 23,000 miles, travelling through the USA and Canada and then on to Britain. But after it had arrived in Guildford, it ran out of ‘steam’ and refused to move! Local historian Stanley Newman has been getting to the bottom of the story.
Advertisement for The Trackless Train’s visit to Guildford in 1926.

On June 18, 1926, a vehicle billed as ‘the world’s latest wonder’, The Trackless Train, arrived in Guildford High Street en route from Portsmouth to Oxford. It was on a tour of Great Britain, promoting the American film company Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM).

The ‘train’ created a sensation wherever it stopped, always attracting large crowds.

The Trackless Train in Guildford High Street. You can see the smoke puffing out from its smokestack or chimney.

When it arrived in Guildford, the ‘engine with observation saloon’ parked in the High Street outside the entrance to the Picture Playhouse cinema. (The cinema, and the arcade that led to it, is today the site of the Tunsgate Shopping Centre).

The observation coach was superbly fitted out to accommodate five staff, complete with beds and a toilet.

The Mayor of Guildford and officials from the local branch of the Royal British Legion, that was due to benefit financially from the tour, were there to greet the ‘train’.

A large crowd gathered on the streets to watch the ‘train’ as it went on a circuit around the town centre, finishing back in the High Street, but this time outside the Guildhall.

It was supposed to move off again, stopping in North Street outside the fire station (now the public loos opposite the library).

The plan was so that the public thronging the town centre had plenty of opportunity to look inside the observation saloon and view the engine’s controls.

Very rare picture of The Trackless Train outside the Guildhall. This is where it broke down!

Unfortunately, the vehicle refused to move from outside the Guildhall. Various accounts from the time claim that it remained there from between two weeks to two months!

It undoubtedly stayed there long enough to leave its legacy – rust marks on the High Street’s famous granite setts. It is believed that the rust marks were visible for many months after The Trackless Train was once more ‘back on the rails’, so to speak.

 History of The Trackless Train

In fact, there were a number of these articulated road vehicles (or road trains) built during the early part of the 20th century.

The first was conceived and constructed by Harry O. McGee in 1917. He was well known in the automobile industry in the USA at that time for his unique ideas for auto body construction.

His creation was known as ‘the world’s first Trackless Transcontinental Highway Train’.

It consisted of two units, a locomotive and a luxurious club car, complete with observation platform and dining compartment for up to 15 passengers.

In 1925, McGee sold the ‘train’ to MGM who used it all over the world for advertising and promotion purposes.

After a tour of the USA and Canada, the Trackless Train was shipped to Europe. The world tour continued through South America and Australia.

It is believed that the H. O. McGee Manufacturing Company built about 16 motorcar trains, all slightly different in their design.

It is likely that they were sent out on different tours around the world.

MGM’s Trackless Train in the USA.

Dropping oil into the vehicle’s exhaust manifold created the smoke that emitted from the smokestack of the ‘train’ that visited Guildford.

The smoke was conveyed via a small pipe to the smokestack. Inside it were revolving blades, which caused the smoke to come out in puffs, instead of a steady stream.

You can see the smoke in the photograph of the vehicle that was taken outside the entrance to the Picture Playhouse.

This is thought to be H. O. McGee’s first road train that came off his production line in 1917.

At least four of these vehicles were known to have survived up until 1976. Some may still be around in various states of preservation.

For the technically minded, the locomotive contained two motors, capable of developing more than 90hp, propelling the vehicle to a top speed of 35mph.

A variation on the road train theme.

Its air brakes simultaneously locked six wheels. Other special devices were fitted to ensure safe travel on Britain’s roads.

Stanley Newman is the author of the books Guildford The Changing Face, and Guildford Life Past and Present.

He thanks Guildford Institute in Ward Street, whose archives have provided useful details about The Trackless Train when it visited Guildford.


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