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H.O. McGee Mfg Co.
H.O. McGee Mfg Co., 1917-1930s; Indianapolis, Indiana
Associated Builders


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M-G-M continued to use the train into late 1936 during the Tribune-Orpheum-M-G-M quest for new motion picture talent, the July 6, 1936 issue of the Oakland Tribune (Ca.)reporting:

“’Studio on Wheels’ Welcomed At City Hall – Semi-Finals in Hunt for New Faces for Screen Set for Tonight

“Opportunity – for some youthful aspirant to movie honors, or possibly for a group of them – drove the streets of Oakland this morning.

“It was opportunity in a metal dress of fire-engine red, the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer glove trotter studio on wheels, brought here to climax the Tribune-Orpheum-M-G-M quest for new motion picture talent.

“The mighty trackless train, its chromium plate and plate glass shining in the sun, paid its respect to Oakland with a swing around Lake Merritt behind police escort, then pulled up in front of the City Hall, where City Manager John M. Hassler and officials of city and county were waiting to greet Test Director C. Edward Carrier and his assistants.

“But tonight ‘Hollywood on Wheels’ will surrender the limelight to 71 Eastbay young people – 35 young women and 36 children – who have been chosen from 2000 contestants in the talent quest by showing sufficient talent to merit entrance into the semi-final round.”

By 1937 McGee’s circa 1924 trackless train had vanished from the nation’s headlines, never to resurface. Like its predecessor 1917 McGee locomotive, it likely ended up seeing limited service at the M-G-M studios after which the locomotive portion of the vehicle was sold for scrap in the buildup to World War II.

However, pictures exist of a totally different vehicle, labeled as a McKee Trackless Train, that appear to be taken in the late 1930s, pictured in front of an office building, which is presumed to be the Indianapolis Board of Trade building. Unfortunately no mention of a second 'all-new' McGee Trackless Train can be found, and it's entirely possible it was the product of an entirely unrelated firm.

Although the whereabouts of McGee’s first (1917) and second 1924) ‘trackless trains’ remain unknown, the whereabouts of a second type of McGee-built vehicle are well-known today.

In 1927 McGee formed the H.O. McGee Manufacturing Company and set about getting clients interested in his novel advertising and promotional vehicles which he marketed as ‘McGill Trackless Trains’. The firm was headquartered at 143 North Meridian Street, Indianapolis, which was more popularly known as the Indianapolis’ Board of Trade Building. The location of McGee’s actual factory is currently unknown.

Period articles included statements to the effect that the McGee Co. were ‘designers and builders of custom automobiles and portable sound equipment’ and ‘originators of the world’s first trackless trains’.

The last claim is easily disputed as a Frenchmen named Colonel Renaud debuted the first recorded ‘trackless train’ in late December of 1903. A 50 hp. Darracq drew five cars carrying 60 passengers around the streets of Paris, the December 30, 1903 New York Times reported:

“TRACKLESS TRAIN IN PARIS; One with Automobile -- Like Motor and Five Cars Tested Successfully.


“Paris, Dec. 30.—Paris witnessed the successful operation of a trackless train. Upon the conclusion of the test the train stopped at the Palace Elyseeand the inventors received the felicitations of President Loubet. The train was composed of a motor carriage, similar to an ordinary automobile, and five cars. The discovery consists in the transmission of sufficient motive power from the carriage to move each car. It was found that all the cars tracked exactly with the motor.”

Dr. L.C. Harvey of Upland, California introduced a Ford Model T powered ‘touring train’ in 1913, and two years later Fageol created a well-known and documented ‘trackless train’ in order to shuttle tourists around the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition.

At that time Paramount-Publix’s chief executive Sam Katz (former owner of the Balaban & Katz theater chain) and A.M. Botsford, his chief of advertising, were considered to be the whiz-kids of the exploitation game, and they were eager to exploit the possibilities of talking pictures, regardless of the cost.

They had seen photograph's of McGee's ‘locomotivized’ Dagmar limousine and figured a fleet of similar-looking vehicles would serve their purposes and in early 1929 ordered a fleet of 15 similarly styled vehicles at a reported cost of $550,000.

Once completed, the 15 Graham-Paige chassised McGee faux locomotives would be housed in 15 different cities for use in parades and for transporting visiting movie stars and VIPs to local premieres. They were christened ‘Publix Sound Trains’ and were used to alert the public to the fact that their local Publix theater was now offering pictures with synchronized sound, something that we take for granted today, but in 1929 it was a brand-new novelty. The debut of the 'Sound Trains' was to coincide with the release of their biggest star's first talking picture, 'Welcome Danger'.

Originally filmed as a silent picture, Lloyd had reservations about releasing a silent movie concurrent with the release of competing 'talking pictures' so he reshot half of the film with sound, and dubbed his voice in the other half. 'Welcome Danger' premiered on October 12, 1929 - just a few weeks before the market crash - and became a huge financial success, making the sutdio a reported $2 million profit.

McGee's Paramount-Publix sound trains were based on a Graham-Paige Model 837 long wheelbase limousine (8 being the # of cylinders and 37 denoting a 137-inch wheelbase), the hood of the ‘sound train’ was modified to resemble the boiler of a railway locomotive and the vehicle was outfitted front-to back with locomotive-themed accessories. A large headlight was mounted up front along with a smoke stack, bell, steam dome, and whistle. All of the accessories could be activated by the driver if more attention was called for. The vehicle was finished off with huge bi-lateral spotlights fitted to the vehicle’s running-boards just behind the side-mounted spare tires.

The passengers’ compartment was trimmed like a luxurious parlor car and modified with an observation platform at the back, complete with overhanging roof, elaborate railing and upholstered bench seat. They were all equipped with an ancillary seat on each front fender, where the stars could rest while travelling in parades or posing for photos. The cars were also equipped with a radio receiver, record player, microphone and sound system that were connected to built-in front and rear-mounted loudspeakers. Also included were built-in poster frames that advertised Paramount’s latest releases.

The best period description of McGee’s Graham-Paige 'sound trains' comes from an early 1930 issue of the British trade magazine Motor Transport (keep in mind that in 1929 £6,000 equaled $36,600, and £90,000 equaled $550,000):

“One of fifteen publicity cars which have been constructed to the order of Paramount Pictures at a cost of some £90,000.

“£6,000 Stunt Cars for Paramount Films

“Good taste and engineering ingenuity are at once apparent, either to a casual observer or to the investigator of detail, in the remarkable publicity cars which have been built to popularise the productions of Paramount Pictures.

“Fifteen of these cars – all on Graham-Paige chassis – have been built at a cost of some £90,000, and serve to demonstrated the length to which film publicity organizations will go in order to achieve original publicity.

“One of the cars was, for a short time, on view in the showrooms of C.R. Andrews’ Motors, Ltd., Berkeley Street, Piccadilly, London, where we inspected it. The whole front aspect of the car is camouflaged to present a replica in miniature of a popular type of American railway express locomotive. A funnel, dome, whistle, safety valve, and a warning bell under the driver’s control are all beautifully proportioned and mounted in their usual places on top of the locomotive boiler. Two striking details in the latter are the inclusion of mud-hole doors and a most business-like smoke-box door. Conventional hand rails and a footplate surround the boiler, whilst brackets, ostensibly for the purpose of holding various fire-box rakes, pokers, and, such-like are fitted. Low down at the front a massive-looking cowcatcher surmounted  by a bumper serves to hide and support the radiator, which has been displaced on account of the air flow being prevented by the smoke box door.

“The art of deception is carried a step further in that smoke is caused to puff from the funnel in a realistic manner. This is made possible by a device in which oil drops on the exhaust manifold, where by the heat it is converted into smoke which is conveyed to the funnel by a pipe. The erratic action of a set of turbo or fan blades causes the smoke to be emitted in gusts and not in an uninterrupted stream. A searchlight in front of the funnel completes the locomotive illusion.

“Electrical Equipment

“Lavish is the only word that can describe the electrical equipment, for, in addition to the usual head, side and tail lamps, two flashing searchlights are carried on pillars levels with the drivers windshield, and two old-fashioned carriage lamps decorate the rear quarters of the limousine body.  Electric current is also available for operating a wireless receiving set) an electrical Panatrope loud-speaking gramophone outfit, and a microphone for broadcasting announcements.

“Wireless signals are picked up by a frame aerial mounted on the body roof whilst the tuning dials of the wireless sets are carried in the instrument panel before the driving seat. A small loud-speaker in the driver’s compartment enables tuning-in top be carried out in spite of outside noises.

“At the rear of the car surrounded by open chromium-plated framework, in which are tow gates, is an observation platform such as is to be found on American and Continental railway trains. In the centre of this are the Panatrope and wireless loud-speakers, whilst on each side is provided a single seat facing rearwards. An attractive canopy affords some protection from the weather.

“In the two panels flanking the observation platform are oval frames, in which announcements calling attention to Paramount productions are displayed. Others appear at the windows of the car. On each front wing is mounted a figure representing Harold Lloyd carrying a bag of cordite to give spice to the film title “Welcome Danger,” in which this popular artist is appearing.

“The finishing touch of the stunt car is the only incongruous feature of an otherwise pleasing creation — that is a repulsive effigy of the head and shoulders of the cinema star mentioned.”

The February 1930 issue of Modern Mechanics included a picture of one of the Graham-Paige-based ‘trackless locomotives’:

“Novel Limousine-train Resembling Locomotive Travels the Highways

“A THEATER corporation has placed on the highways a “trackless locomotive,” which is also called a limousine train. The car is equipped with radio receiving sets and microphone for speaking. It was especially designed and built at a cost of $25,000. It has a special four-speed transmission, a special clutch and a straight-eight motor.”

The August 2, 1930 Lowell (Mass.) Sun included a small picture and accompanying article titled "The Paramount-Publix Sound Train Special":

“The Paramount -Publix Sound Train Special, the miniature locomotive and train which is mounted on an auto-chassis giving an appearance of small engine and observation Pullman, was officially welcomed on its return to Lowell by Assistant Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce Michael Quinn, who accompanied the current attractions at the Publix of the Strand and Clarence A. Cunningham of the Rialto in a tour of the city.

“The Paramount-Publix Train Special has attracted a great deal of attention on the streets and in the surrounding towns. It paid a visit to Mayor Sullivan of Nashua and has been exhibited in Dracut, the Chelmsfords, the Billericas, and at all the mills and playgrounds in Lowell.

“The train is equipped with a complete radio receiving outfit and microphones which have a wide amplification as well as electrical Victrola and its public addressing features have been used in the promotion of the current attractions at the Publix theatre ‘Our Blushing Brides’ at the Strand and ‘Hold Everything,’ at the Rialto.”

The vehicles were sometimes referred to as Paramount’s Coast-to-Coast Sound Train. They were used by the studio into the early 1930s, and were one of the first items to be liquidated when the studio entered into financial difficulty as the Depression wore on.

Numerous outfits purchased the vehicles in the used-car marketplace, notable among them, the Oklahoma Cowboy Band, a famous Western musical act that enjoyed a period of popularity in the late 1920s and 1930s. Under the direction of Otto Gray, the group toured the nation's vaudevill circuit, appearing on numerous radio broacasts, and in a handful of short subject motion pictures.

For a number of years Gray and company travelled the country using two McGee-modified Graham-Paiges. The first, a circa 1929 coupe equipped with a Glenn Curtiss-designed 'fifth wheel', was connected to a streamlined Curtiss Aerocar travel trailer which the band used for carrying their equipment and occasional overnight stays. The second, a seemingly undmodified long-wheelbase ex-Paramount-Publix Model 837 sound train was used to transport the majority of the band from show to show.

In March of 1929 the Curtiss Aerocar Coproration brought out a trailer utilizing airplane-type construction which was designed to be pulled by a modified Graham-Paige. The vehicles were connected by a pneumatic coupling designed by pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss who had recently formed the Curtiss Aerocar Corporation to exploit his invention. In addition to self-contained family travel, the special units were also utilized at airports as people movers. Later a Blue-Streak model would also be used by Curtiss in conjunction with an updated trailer.

From exisiting photographs it appears that the Cowboy band's Graham-Paige Coupe, a standard Model 837, was customized using parts salvaged from their genuine McGee/ex-Paramount sound car. Photographs of the Cowboy Band's ex-sound car reveal the original McGee-built hood is missing, having been replaced by a standard Graham-Paige Model 837 unit.

The Cowboy Band's ex-sound train Graham-Paige 837 limousine also sports a pair of cats-eye Woodlite headlights not found on any other of the Sound Cars. Another unusual feature is a massive chrome-plated grill, again not found on any other ex-Paramount-Publix sound trains. Designed to look like a severly streamlined cow catcher, it appears to be made from either a single aluminum casting or carefully constructed pieces of steel, and along with the Woodlites give the Oklahoma Cowboy Band's ex-sound train a totally different look from the rest of its McGee-built cousins.

As to who modified the Cowboy Band's vehicles, the logical choice would be the H.O. McGee Mfg. Co., who were still thought to be in business at the time. The Cowboy Band's biographer states both vehicles were custom built expressly for the band by McGee, and as the Curtis Aerocar Trailer wasn't available until after 1932, it's probable the limousine was purchased used by the band, then returned to McGee for modification. Despite their astronomical original cost ($36,000), during the Depression the ex- Paramount-Publix McGee Sound Train was considered to be just another 'used car' and could be purchased for pennies on the dollar.

Thankfully a handful survive (4 or 5 - sources differ in the count), three of which are fully restored, one of which was displayed at the 2009 Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance where it drew as much attention as any of the other vehicles present. They occasionally show up at collector car auctions and St Louis-based collector car dealer Paul Hyman offered an unrestored sound train for sale as recently as 2011.

McGee was not the only manufacturer of early ‘trackless trains’, other known builders include A.F. Sternad’s Rutenber-powered locomotive automobile (built in 1917), and the Owens Motor Sales Ford Special of the 1920s. Existing photographs reveal there were a handful of others, whose builders remain unknown at this time – one well-known promotional locomotive was used by the Norfolk and Western Railway as rolling billboard during the late twenties.

The desire to turn trucks and automobiles into replica locomotives remains today, and a number of manufacturers continue to produce locomotive-themed trolleys and promotional vehicles. One popular model was sold to numerous VFW’s during the 1960s and a handful of European manufacturers, namely Dotto and Tschu-Tschu continued the century-old McGee tradition today.

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Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark - Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942

Hayden R. Shelpley  - The Trackless Trains of Harry O McGee, September-October 1976 issue of Antique Automobile

Michael E. Keller - The Graham Legacy: Graham-Paige to 1932, pub. 1988

Carla Chlouber - The Oklahoma Cowboy Band, pub. 2008

Mike McCormick - Terre Haute: Queen City of the Wabash, pub. 2005

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