SEATTLE — As bus tours go, Ray Piesciuk chose a most peculiar conveyance on which to take in the sights and sounds of Seattle.
It's an antique — arthritic might be a better word — 1944 trolley coach that rumbled through Madrona on a recent Saturday night. Stalling a few times when its poles dislodged from the overhead wire. A bit bouncy in some spots.
For this, the Chicago-area resident flew to Seattle two days early for a business trip. "There's no other place I'd rather be," he said, sitting behind the bus driver.
In the annals of transportation hobbyists, it's safe to assume that trolley-coach enthusiasts don't rank up there in numbers with train buffs or antique-car collectors.
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But for trolley geeks, Seattle ranks as a must-stop destination, the only city in the country that allows antique trolleys dating back to the 1940s to ride under the wire grid for tours, according to the Illinois Railway Museum, which stakes a claim as America's largest rail museum.
"We have (antique-trolley coaches) in museums. But it's not like a real-life situation like this," said Piesciuk. "Out on the streets, with the people. With traffic. Real life, just like when it was in service" back in the '40s.
He slouched in the seat, arms folded. No other place he'd rather be.
These historic trolleys and motor buses have been touring Seattle neighborhoods, Snoqualmie, Vashon Island and rural King County since 1984, attracting mostly trolley and bus aficionados who revel not only in the mechanical details, but the role these public-transit buses played in people's daily lives.
With a cheap $5 fare, these tours can also serve as "staycations" or budget entertainment for out-of-town guests during the holiday season.
King County Metro Transit drivers and other trained drivers volunteer to lead the tours as fundraisers to maintain the antique fleet under the auspices of the Metro Employees Historic Vehicle Association, a nonprofit formed in 1981 after Metro started scrapping its old fleet of trolley coaches and diesel buses to renew its inventory.
The volunteer group of veteran and retired Metro drivers reached a deal in which Metro would store 18 old trolleys and motor buses, as long as the group maintains them and pays for fuses and rare parts.
This history needs to be preserved, said Doug Thomson, a Sound Transit light-rail driver who leads the tours. In the early 20th century, these trolleys and diesel buses played an indispensable role in the fabric of Seattle life.
So, six to eight times a year, volunteers drive the old trolleys down memory lane under the wire grid around the city. They take motor buses on longer scenic trips around rural King County.
An upcoming trip is the Santa's Lights Tour, Dec. 12.
The festive Christmas-lights tour, with Santa Claus on board, goes through downtown Seattle and neighborhoods to find decorated houses. Passengers sing Christmas carols.
"We thought about a (trolley and bus) museum," said Michael Voris, one of the group's founders. But the group figured that tours would attract more public interest.
Unlike traditional tour buses, these vehicles don't include mega-speakers blasting "YMCA." No quirky narrative. In fact, little commentary is offered during the ride, though the drivers answer questions, usually about sites along the way, or history of the bus.
For a recent after-dark tour of Seattle's nightlife neighborhoods, including downtown, Madrona, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square and the University District, the group used a 1940 Twin Coach, a 1944 Pullman Standard and a 1979 AM General bus.
Then there are the buses' billboards and ads, a hint of when they were last in service. A Smokey Bear ad. An ad encouraging Seattleites to take transit to see the 1978 King Tut exhibit. And a KIRO ad promoting the arrival of a new sportscaster, Wayne Cody. (He passed away in 2002.)
Two hours before a recent tour, Durand Johnson, 57, of Kent, Wash., checked out the trolleys and buses — the paint jobs, the engines, the feel of them.
"You sit here and you can let your imagination go. You can see the sailors and the soldiers along the waterfront. You can recall the women talking about the war, the politics of the day, the atomic bomb, the civil-rights movement. These were things that people talked about on the bus at the time. And everyone rode it back then, because buses were the main mode of transportation.
"Back then, the driver would yell out the street 'Fauntleroy! California! Holgate!' And I can still hear the change jingling from the fare box."
Retired Metro employee Wayne Hom, 61, helped start the preservation group three decades ago because the buses were a rite of passage when he was a boy growing up on Beacon Hill. "Once you learn the transit system as a kid, you are able to travel by yourself to whatever neighborhood," he said.
Passenger Piesciuk is a volunteer curator at the Illinois Railway Museum. After boarding the 1944 trolley, Piesciuk peeked around at the polished seats, with not one seat torn up. The guys took good care of this bus, he said. "And the old advertisement above the windows. It's the correct period. You are getting the whole aura of the coach. I'm just drinking in the whole experience."
IF YOU GO:
Metro Employees Historic Vehicle Association (MEHVA) offers tours around Seattle and rural King County on its vintage trolley coaches and motor buses.
COST: $5; children 5 and younger ride free. Metro Transit passes, tickets and transfers, and ORCA cards not accepted on these trips.
No advance purchase or reservations; ridership is on a first-come, space-available basis.
WHERE: All tours depart from Second Avenue South and South Main Street, Seattle.
UPCOMING TOURS: Santa's Lights Tour, Dec. 12: three hours starting at 7 p.m.
RIDER TIP: While meal or snack stops are included in most tour itineraries, no food or beverages are allowed on historical buses.
See the group's Web site, www.mehva.org, or call 206-684-1816.
For a history of public transportation in King County and Seattle, see http://transit.metrokc.gov/am/history/history.html