The original cable car line on Clay Street employed a "dummy" car containing the gripping and braking mechanisms and a passenger trailer. This arrangement was used on several cable car lines including the Pacific Avenue line of the Sutter Street Railroad, which operated until 1929. The trailers were enclosed at first, but San Franciscans desirous of sitting in the open air began to invade the gripman's dummy and soon seats were added to that car as well.

Henry Root developed a so-called "combination car" for the Market Street Cable Railway in 1883 that integrated the trailer and dummy into one car with enclosed and open-air sections. These cars ran on two pivoted trucks akin to railroad carriages, where previously the trailers and dummies had only one truck each. These are the same cars that run on the present Powell and Mason lines of the Municipal Railway.

California Cable Railroad followed suit in 1888, but changed the design into a double-ended car, with an enclosed section in the middle. These "California cars" also designed by Root, had duplicate levers on either end. Only one was directly attached to the grip, the other had a connecting rod, which linked it to the gripping mechanism. This enabled California cars to change direction using only switches at its terminals, instead of turntables needed to reverse the single ended combination cars. These double-ended combination cars are still used at present on the California Street line of the Municipal Railway.

Originally cable cars were built by local firms on both side of San Francisco bay and as far away as Stockton, California. The work was done by skilled wagon makers and shipwrights as well as traditional carpenters and joiners. For example Mahoney Brothers, after being awarded the contract to construct ten cars for the Ferries & Cliff House Railway in 1887 subcontracted the actual construction to the Burham-Standeford Co. operators of a large planning mill in Oakland who constructed the car bodies. Specialized items were in turn sub-contracted out; the trucks for example would be given to a heavy blacksmith and the lighting fixtures would be awarded to a quality tinsmith, a local ornamental painter would paint the cars prior to shipment. Other companies such as Thomas and Martin Carter doing business as Carter Brothers operating a large car building facility in Newark, California built a number of cars for the Market Street Railway of 1893. The Carter Brothers however having a large facility probably did most of the work in-house.

Car 3, a Carter Brothers car passes car 28, built by Mahoney Brothers with a "bombay" roof.

Many cars still running on the Municipal Railway cable system date back, at least in part, to the turn of the century. After the 1982 restoration, Muni workers repaired ten California cars and twenty-six Powell cars for use on the three lines. On new California car was completely rebuilt. Using many of the same techniques and tools originally employed, two new cable cars have entered service in recent years. California car No. 60 replaced a 1906 car built by John Hammond & Co., in 2003, while Powell car No. 28 began service in 2004, replacing a Mahoney Bros. car from 1887.

In June of 2005, a former O’Farrell-Jones-Hyde Street car, No. 42, was restored by the Market Street Railway, an historic-preservation group, and recommenced service after spending almost forty years on a cattle feedlot in the Santa Maria Valley on California’s central coast. This car had been built by W.L. Holman Co. after the 1906 Earthquake.

More facts & figures on cable cars