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Cable Car 53 Climbs Halfway to the Stars in Honor of Tony Bennett

Thursday, February 15, 2024

On Feb. 14, Cable Car 53 was dedicated to Tony Bennett. Valentine’s Day was a fitting day, despite overcast skies and a chill in the air. After all, Bennett famously immortalized the city and its cable cars in his rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”.  

To mark the occasion, we take a brief look back at the history of Car 53 and how it was chosen to be the Tony Bennett car. 

Cable Car 53 climbs up Nob Hill on California street; riders in business clothing hold as the car climbs. Bay bridge is seen in the backgroundCable Car 53 climbing halfway up Nob Hill on California Street in 1967. 

Cable Car 53 was originally built in 1907 by the San Francisco-based W.L. Holman Car Company for the California Street Cable Railroad Company. It initially ran on the O’Farrell, Jones and Hyde Line. 

Muni acquired the car from the Cal Cable Company in 1952. Around this time, Muni also reconfigured the entire cable car system into the three lines we have today. All but 12 of the cars from Cal Cable were auctioned off. Those that remained, including Car 53, ran along a shortened line on California Street. 

Black and white photo featuring Cable Car 53 moving on Market Street. People walk in the background, where we also see the Ferry Building.Car 53 at Market Street in 1960 before receiving a new paint job.

Tony Bennett debuted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” just under a decade later at the Fairmont Hotel. That 1961 performance and the subsequent popularity of the song forever tied Bennett to the City by the Bay.  

When the cable system was rebuilt in the early 80s, Bennett appeared at parades held before the project began in 1982 and after it was finished in 1984. Support from celebrities like him highlighted the need to save this National Historic Landmark.

Cable Car 53 paused on California Street. The car is red and gold with fresh paint. A woman walks by.Car 53 on California Street in 2023 after frame repairs and repainting.

When the call came to dedicate a car to Bennett after he passed away in 2023, Car 53 was a natural choice. It recently had returned to service after nearly a decade off the rails. During major frame repairs and a complete repaint, the ends of the car were left blank. This gave us the opportunity to place a special ribbon-like banner commemorating Bennet’s love song to our city in that space. 

Crowd gathers around Cable Car 53, holding a sign saying the car honors Tony Bennett. The front of the cable car says Halfway to the Stars.Unveiling the special ribbon design reading, ”Halfway to the Stars Since 1873” on Car 53 during dedication to Tony Bennett on February 14, 2024.

That banner was unveiled during a ceremony held next to the Tony Bennett statue at the Fairmont Hotel. The unique design commemorates both the words sung by Bennett and the 150-year legacy of the cable cars. Also on the car are plaques for Bennett and the duo who wrote the song, George Cory and Douglass Cross.