Sunset District

Sunset Resident a San Francisco Classic

By Michael Durand

For most people in the Sunset District, to see a classic Rolls Royce or a  Bentley parked on the street is as rare as seeing a snow storm in San Francisco. But Carl Payne’s Parkside neighbors see the cars all the time.

Payne owns five beauties: three Rolls Royces (1932, 1947 and 1954)  and two Bentleys (a 1949 Mark 6 and a  1952 R-type).

He has lived in his home on 30th Avenue, between Taraval and Ulloa streets, for 30 years. Beyond his collection of five classic cars, Payne has a very interesting life story.

Payne’s name should ring a bell with long-time San Francisco residents. He won the cable car bell ringing championship a record 10 times.

Carl Payne with his 1954 Rolls Royce in front of his Parkside home. The car is one of five classic automobiles owned by Payne. He gained worldwide fame as the cable car bell ringing champion, a title he held a record 10 times. Photo by Michael Durand.

Born 80 years ago near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was always an outgoing person. That trait has come in handy throughout his life.

Payne’s father worked in a Pennsylvania steel mills for four decades. His mother not only took care of her family’s household, but she cleaned other people’s homes.

As a kid, Payne was interested in sports.

“And I like doing things with my hands,” he said. “In high school, we had a shop class and built a replica of a house – a mini house,” Payne remembered. “We put in rooms, lights, doors and windows, and that was your project for two years. Everybody got to take their little house home.”

After Payne graduated high school, he served for six years in the U.S. Marines Corps as a private first class.

“From bootcamp, I learned to have no fear in nobody,” he said.

Payne was stationed in Japan for two years as a military policeman. He was discharged from the Marines at a Naval base on Treasure Island and has been in the Bay Area ever since.

“The roaring ’60s was just getting started, so I said: ‘Let me stick around for a little while and see what this was all about,’” Payne said. “And I’m still here. San Francisco will grab you and you won’t want to go. This is a fantastic town, and I have traveled around the world.” 

After his time in the Marine Corps, Payne took general education courses at City College of San Francisco for a year.

“Then I just lost interest in it,” Payne said. “I couldn’t make up my mind what I was going to do.”

After working a couple of jobs – as a house mover and at a lock company – he put in an application to the U.S. Postal Service and Muni at the same time.

“The day I was supposed to go the post office and get sworn in, Muni called and said: ‘Hey, do you want to come to work? You can start tomorrow,’” Payne recalled.

“Muni was paying more than the post office, so I took the Muni job,” he said.

His career with Muni lasted 29 years, all on the cable cars, except for driving the 30-Stockton bus for a year.

A few times, as his cable car rolled past Union Square, he heard the bell-ringing competition. He decided he would enter.  

“The first six or seven times I entered the contest, I didn’t even make the finals,” Payne said. “Then I decided to get serious about it, so I jumped on it and never looked back.”

His 10 titles as the champion cable car bell ringer are a great source of pride for Payne.

“The record still stands to this day,” he said. “The boy who has the championship now has only won it eight times.”

Payne’s only musical experience was as a drummer in his high school band for two years, and his skill at clanging the bell borrows from that experience.

“What most drummers do with two hands, I try to do with one,” he said.

As the champion cable car bell ringer, he got a chance to have some unique experiences.

Among his fondest memories of that time was being part of the San Francisco 49ers entertainment from 1980 to 1986.

“I performed on the sidelines and got to go to the first three Super Bowls,” Payne said. 

“I had the opportunity to go to Australia, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and London,” he said. “I was on numerous TV shows, did some traveling with (former mayor and current U.S. senator) Dianne Feinstein when we were raising money to save the cable cars.” 

Payne said he is very appreciative of the great opportunities he had and cherishes his memories.

“I performed with the orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall when they had a competition between the bell ringers and the UC band,” he said proudly.

While operating the cable cars, Payne helped nab many pickpockets.

“The cops and the judges deemed me as an expert witness for pickpocket apprehension,” Payne said. “The cops kept asking me, ‘Why don’t you  come and join the police force? You might as well get paid for catching pickpockets.’”

He took the police test and passed. Just when he was ready to be sworn in and enter the police academy, he received a call from the department.

“They said: ‘Mr. Payne, we looked over your application and we see you just turned 36 which makes you automatically disqualified,’” Payne remembered. 

After some lawsuits, a hiring freeze and some rule changes, he finally made it into the police force.

“I was one of the oldest people ever to enter the academy – at 50 years old,” he said.

Payne loves dealing with people and takes pride in his ability to communicate with just about everyone.

“What I have learned from experience is that most people just want someone to listen to them,” he said.

Payne, who was told he was too old to be a cop at age 36, spent nearly 25 years as a patrol officer. He was close to 75 years old when he retired. 

He started collecting his classic cars about 30 years ago. He shared his treasured automobiles with other enthusiasts at car shows. 

“I’d take two or three up to Reno. I’ve been to Monterey for the car shows there,” Payne said. “I’ve been to Hillsborough, to Japantown – all the local ones.  

“I had the chance to pick up a 1952 R-type Bentley. Then I got another car, then another one. That’s why I can’t afford a wife,” Payne joked. 

He was married twice, and both are deceased. He has four children, all grown. 

“My oldest son went to Lincoln High School,  then was in the Air Force for 22 years,” Payne said. “He lives in Florida. My other son lives outside of New Orleans. He likes the slow pace, not the fast pace of the City.”

One of his daughters lives in Concord in the East Bay with a job handling payroll for several  gyms. The second daughter graduated from UC Berkeley. She is a school administrator and math teacher at a private school in Berkeley.

Payne said he started experiencing bad health 10 years ago. 

“I came down with chronic lymphoma,” he said. “I had it under control, then a year ago it developed into a different type of cancer, which I’m fighting now. So far, they don’t have a cure for it. I’ve gone through chemo three times and they won’t give me any more because my body won’t take it. I’m just hanging in here.” 

After Payne left the police department, he became a ranger in Golden Gate Park.

“I haven’t been to work for a year because of this cancer,” he said. “I lost 40 pounds. But, I’m not giving up. I have an old saying: ‘We all have a number on our backs. God is the only one who can see it.’”

Click link for YouTube videos of some of Payne’s performances. For other stories, Google “Carl Payne cable car.”


9 replies »

  1. Carl made riding his cable car very special. A wonderful San Francisco icon. Wishing him well.


  2. This is a great story. First I thank Craig Allen who is also a retired Gripman for sharing this article with me. I met Carl in the 80’s and has been a great friend ever since.


  3. What a great friend to have and cherish. It was a true honor to work with you Carl at CO E !! Thanks for all the wonderful memories for ever. I will always cherish my memories of you and the fun we have had together !!! God Bless you Fine Sir !!!!!!


  4. Dear Carl- You have always been a gentleman and a friend- I will miss your very special soul, as will anyone who has ever had the pleasure of being in your company… Blessed to have shared even a moment with you- Fondly, Jennifer de Grassi Williams, ‘Miss Cable car 1968’


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