They've been used in weddings and the Mummers Parade, raced by local crooners and driven by movie stars halfway across the county.
But the Sightseer Tram Cars, dolled-up in deep coats of "happy blue" and "sunburst yellow," are more famous at home in the Wildwoods, where they've taken tourists and locals down a memory lane of concrete and rickety planks for more than 60 years. The tram cars' ubiquitous warning, "Watch the tram car, please," has been seared into the minds of anyone who's ever spent a night strolling the boards there.
"I might be a little biased, but I think the tram is the defining icon of the Wildwoods," said Patrick Rosenello, executive director of the Boardwalk Special Improvement District, which operates the trams. "It is our San Francisco trolley."
Jack Morey, executive vice president of Morey's Piers, was inspired almost to poetry when asked to comment on the subject: "While much of what we consider 'amusement' is designed to be temporal and purposely quick to change, every now and then an object of fantasy can be so timeless that to eliminate it would be almost criminal, or at least a crime against culture. Great wood roller coasters, carousels, NYC taxis - and yes, the Wildwood tram car - are all in that category."
The trams were originally a product of New York, created by Greyhound to transport visitors at the 1939 World's Fair. The trams were purchased by Wildwood entrepreneur S.B. Ramagosa in 1949, and he switched out orange for yellow in the paint scheme and swapped the diesel engines for electric, going green a half-century before it was anything but a color.
Ramagosa also hired 18 young women to drive the trams and collect fares. Nowadays, Rosenello said, the drivers and fare collectors are often retired police officers and firefighters along with foreign students. Entertainers Al Alberts and Cozy Morley used to race one another in the trams.
It's hard to estimate just how many people the trams have carried, how many miles they've slowly racked up, or how many times the driver has played Floss Stingel's "watch the tram car, please" warning over the decades. Longtime Sightseer driver John "Gigi" Gigliotti said the warning is a tram driver's best friend when approaching masses of preoccupied people on the 1.8-mile boardwalk.
"We play it constantly. It's the only defense we have," said Gigliotti, a former passenger conductor for the Reading and Conrail railroads.
What few people know, Rosenello said, is that the tram cars were on the market before the improvement district purchased the company for $500,000 in 2004, becoming its third owner. A longtime icon of the Jersey Shore could have gone to an amusement park in Ohio or a zoo in Texas, he said. The thought of it is horrifying for locals.
"Thank God it didn't happen. It just wouldn't be the same up there without them," said Ralph Grassi, a Wildwood historian who runs the website www.funchase.
com. "The tram is one steady, that's for sure, one staple that you expect to be there."
The trams have made occasional ventures beyond the Wildwoods, including a trip to Atlantic City to tape a "Sex and the City" episode. In 2009, both Gigliotti and a tram car were sent to South Haven, Mich., for the movie "What's Wrong with Virginia" starring Jennifer Connelly. Gigi said he taught Connelly to drive the tram.
"She was a nice girl, a real sweetheart," he said.
Rosenello estimated that the trams, which run from Easter to the end of September, carry about 600,000 people per year. The trams, he said, are a sightseeing tour of one of New Jersey's most famous landmarks.
While the boardwalk has changed, with beloved amusements, eateries and doo-wop-themed hotels being unveiled and torn down during its lifetime, the tram cars have remained the same. Pay your $2.50, sit back and enjoy.
"The boardwalk is such a living animal. It's 36 blocks of public space that's alive every night in the summer," Rosenello said. "People view it as a ride. It's the best way to take in the boardwalk."