Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 22, 2011

Mr. Toad’s Antique Car Tour – San Francisco

Today was my sixth day in the City By the Bay, and as of yesterday, I had completed my professional obligations. As it was my first day free in the city,  I decided I wanted to do the actual tourist thing, and take a guided tour.  Earlier I’d noticed these fascinating antique cars rolling around downtown, so I hit the internet and looked them up:  Mr. Toad’s Tours of San Francisco.  It’s pretty much your standard bus tour, with a twist:  your bus is a restored antique car.  Mr. Toad’s is a small business, with a working fleet of four antique cars, plus a 1974 “Stretch” Checker Cab, that’s available for charters only.

Not having a preference, we drew the 1929 Ford Model ‘A’.  It seated 12, was open air, and had really, really good brakes.  You don’t want to skimp on brakes in San Francisco.  You know all those car chase scenes in the movies?  They’re not exaggerated.  It really is that steep on Nob Hill.  In fact, at one point coming down Lombard Street (below the famous zig-zag), I couldn’t help but think, “The brakes on this car are over seventy years old.”  (They are, in fact, not. That was about the time that our driver made it clear that the brakes were modern, frequently re-shoed truck brakes.)

To begin with, finding Mr. Toad’s was a bit of a challenge.  I couldn’t find a street address anywhere in the documentation and I only later figured out why.  But first, the dramatic build-up. Normally I have pretty good luck with internet bookings, but this one was stressful.  At 9:00 in the morning, I booked my seats online, and only then did I notice the part where the booking company said that they’d get me my e-ticket within 72 hours.  My tour was in five hours.  And no matter where I looked to find out where my tour began, I got referenced to my e-ticket.  You know, the one that hadn’t arrived?    So we went out for brunch.  We ate at a local chain, Lois’.   And waited.  No e-ticket.  We finished brunch and called the ticket office.  No answer.  Walk to the streetcar (NOT the cable car.  And that’s a subject for another post.) Still no e-ticket.  Ride the streetcar to the Wharf.  Still no e-ticket.  Check with a couple of different ticket kiosks.  They’ve seen the cars around, but aren’t affiliated with them.  Wharf security can’t help.  Still no e-ticket.  Call the number again.  Leave a message.  Still no e-ticket.  I’m clearly going to have to print this ticket out.  And I left my hotel and it’s business center behind three hours ago.

Before I continue, please let me enlighten you to a characteristic of Mrs. Will, the partner whom I have chosen to share my life.  Understand that she is generally a genial traveling companion.  Cold beaches in the winter?   No complaints.  Broken air conditioning in a Mississippi summer?  No complaints.  Tiny rooms, cheap alcohol, smelly airports?  They slide off her like water off of a duck’s back.  But she has this one little quirk.  She doesn’t like to be late.  I mean, she really, really, REALLY doesn’t like to be late.  7:30 flight?  Your butt is awake at FOUR.  Dinner reservations at eight?  You’re walking in the door at 7:30.  Theater curtain at eight?  You’d better be done with your dinner by 6:30.  So please imagine the stress level in my traveling companion as the minutes keep falling off the clock and we are not only not where we need to be, but have no idea where that is.  Mind you, she didn’t complain once.  But you could just feel the tension.

To continue: I finally got hold of the booking company, who said that my e-ticket would go out in five minutes.  Since it was clear that I would have to print out this ticket somewhere, I checked Google Maps for a nearby Kinko’s, which would let me get on line and print.  Having internet on your cell phone only gets you so far.  Sooner or later you have to print.  There was a Kinko’s about a mile away, so we grabbed a cab and ran out there.  We got there pretty quick, but immediately discovered that they didn’t have internet access there.  Who ever heard of a Kinko’s that doesn’t have internet access?  But they had another office, only four blocks away.  Away we go . . .  walking with a purpose.

When we got to the second Kinko’s the day kinda turned around.  Our e-ticket finally arrived, and we had no problem printing it.  The clerk there let us have the service for free.  I wanted a picture there, and he pointed out that the Trans-America building was “out back.”  Sure enough, we got a great picture with the T-A building in the background.  No, I’m not posting it  there’s a fat guy standing next to my wife in that picture.  Now to catch a cab back . . .

I didn’t flag many cabs myself, but I managed it this time.  After ten minutes of nothing looking familiar, I checked the meter.  It’s more than ten bucks.  It only cost me five bucks to get here.

“Excuse me – are we going the right way?  We need to get to the 2200 block of Mason Street.  It’s only a couple of blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf.”

“You say MASON street?  I thought you say MISSION street.”

To his credit, he immediately turned off the meter, did a one-eighty in the middle of Mission Street, and went tearing across the city to make our tour time.  And we made it with fifteen minutes to spare.  As I mentioned earlier, we had a little trouble finding Mr. Toad’s.  The taxi driver dropped us off at exactly the right place according to our ticket voucher, but there was no sign of the business.  Again, the clock was ticking and my bride was . . . tense.  We eventually found a sandwich board on the sidewalk, announcing the tour, so we waited.

When the car arrived, precisely on time, we asked about it, and our driver explained.  If you’ve been in the city for 15 minutes, you know that real estate costs a fortune in the city, and rents are sky-high.  Mr. Toad’s, an all outdoor business didn’t need much in the way of office space, and so had rented the display case in a nearby antique shop for their office.  They literally worked in a store window.  There was enough space for one person to sit at a tiny desk.  Then the rent in the window went up.  They’ve worked out an alternate location, but it’s not available yet.  They’re very excited, as they anticipate being able to fit two human beings in the office at the same time.  In the meantime, they are working completely by smartphone and PO box.

Eric of Mr. Toads Tours of San Francisco


The car was exactly as pictured, and the driver, Eric was charming and entertaining.  He knows the city well, and has good comic timing.  An entertaining fact about the Model A bus rig:  there is no access to the third row seat except through a fold out compartment in the second row. So once you’re in, you’re in.  The seats are three butts wide, so my bride and I did not get to sit together.  Also, the bus being open air, Eric made sure everybody had their own blanket before we began.  I was a little skeptical, down there on Fisherman’s Wharf,  but by the time we got to Fort Point I was bundled in mine.

In any case, the car was comfy, the guide entertaining, and the city fascinating. We headed to the North Beach area (where there is no beach) and the “Little Italy” area.  We got pointed to an authentic tuskan restaurant as well some really interesting 19th century buildings.  This city is gorgeous.   Well, parts of it, anyway.  My hotel is two blocks from the Tenderloin district and, um, you could drop chunks of it into New Orleans and they’d blend RIGHT in.  We also hit Jackson Square, where you will find antique shops that have furniture in them that have furniture that costs more than my house.

I learned a new joke.  Well, new to me.  It goes like this: “Lombard Street is the crookedest street in the world.  Except Wall Street.”  I learned that one in the financial district.

Some more tidbits: Chinatown San Francisco is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.  I learned that if you want to get your foot in the door to live in Pacific Heights, you can buy a mansion today for only 45 million dollars. The place went on the market two years ago for 60, but the owner has come down hoping to move the place.  The Presidio is the only national park you can live it.  (Old officer’s quarters are for rent.)  There are no cows in Cow Hollow.  It’s now a boutique shopping district.

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  1. Wait – I must have missed it – you said ” To begin with, finding Mr. Toad’s was a bit of a challenge. I only later figured out why – But I couldn’t find a street address anywhere. ”

    So why?

    • I fixed that, if you want to re-check.

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