The New York Transit Museum is celebrating the 60th anniversary of New York City’s iconic R-26 subway cars, the first of nine types of subway cars that become known for its distinctive red color. A new exhibit, Reign of the Redbirds, reflects on nearly half-century of service of these beloved subway cars that ran in the New York City subway system between 1959 and 2003. Exhibition curator Jodi Shapiro at the New York Transit Museum says that the Redbirds are such a poignant part of New York City subway lore because of the length of their service and their role in the cultural history of the city. “They come into the system at a time of prosperity. They’re there when the system declines. And they are how the system comes back from decline…There were a lot of cultural events that happened within them,” says Shapiro including the introduction of a certain model for the World’s Fair. Now, inside a decommissioned subway station at 99 Schermerhorn Street, where the museum is located, visitors can learn about the Redbirds that were the precursor to the cars we ride in today and see actual vintage Redbirds on display on the lower level of the museum.

Redbirds hit the subway tracks between 1959 and 1964 and are a collection of numerous models that were uniformly designed but not identical. There were nearly 2,000 Redbirds over their nearly five decade reign and they ran on all the numbered lines, and some lettered lines. Shapiro tells us on a recent walkthrough that the Redbirds “were introduced at a time when a lot of the subway cars were approaching fifty years [old].” An infographic at the beginning of the exhibition shows “the magnitude of the replacement that these cars were part of,” says Shapiro.

Beyond the 60th anniversary, the exhibition Reign of the Redbirds is also timely because the New York City subway system is “on the cusp of having a huge car fleet replacement,” says Shapiro, “It seemed like a great time to do this because it’s already happened before. The newest subway cars are filtering into our system very slowly, like the Redbirds did in the very beginning…It’s always fun to do a show like this, to give people the secret life of the vehicles that take them from work or on trips around the city. There’s so much to talk about.”

The Redbirds garnered their nickname from the color they were painted between 1984 and 2003, when they were retired. The bold color choice was made in an effort to combat subway car graffiti, and part of a series of color experiments over the years. Large display posters show the different colors over the years, including forest green, white, and light blue and a section showcases the graffiti-bombed subway cars of the 1970s. “That’s a part of this story, too, says Shapiro, “talking about the cost of graffiti. How much it costs to clean it, how much it costs to try to deter it. It’s all part of the continuum. You know, how do you find a paint that keeps the train clean, not just from graffiti but from regular steel dust and weather; that is easy to clean but will also stay on the subway car. So there’s a little bit about paint chemistry [in the exhibition].”

Reign of the Redbirds also addresses how the city maintained the subway cars during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when there was a brain drain in the city, and it shows the experiments that were done to keep the cars in service longer. Some of those innovations, like the General Overhaul, where the cars are stripped down to their shell and their systems get rebuilt, and Scheduled Maintenance Service, still exist today. These programs were later applied to the R-32 subway cars, the oldest cars still in regular service in New York City (and anywhere in the world for that matter). They were introduced in 1964 and are still running on the A/C/E lines today.

In the 1990s, Redbirds started to be phased out and replaced by New Technology Trains (NTT). 1,300 of the Redbird cars were turned into artificial reefs in the Atlantic Ocean, and others remain as work cars in the current subway system. There are three located on the lower level of the New York Transit Museum, where you can see and enter a veritable parade of vintage subway cars.

Shapiro reflects, “It’s a story about a system and how it is a cycle. Things happened thirty years ago, and they happen again, but they [also] happened sixty years ago…It also shows how our fleet is pretty resilient. Our subway cars are built to withstand being in our system. New York is not an easy transit environment. Trains go many many miles, they’re running in weird weather conditions…All of our transit vehicles, not just subway cars, but buses and commuter rail, also have to withstand these extremes so it’s kind of a testament to car design that these cars stayed in our system so long.”

Though you won’t be able to ride a Redbird normally anymore (apart from one of the Nostalgia Rides the Transit Museum runs for the holidays and on select weekends every year), you can check out the exhibition Reign of the Redbirds through September 13, 2020 at the New York Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn.

Next, check out The Top 20 Secrets of the NYC Subway