Mary Whalen riding in model truck at the city’s Silver Jubilee celebration at Grand Central Palace in June, 1923.
(Radio News/WNYC Archive Collections)
The first ‘WNYC truck’ actually appeared a year before the station went on air during the City’s Silver Jubilee exposition in June 1923. Held at Grand Central Palace, the expo marked 25 years of borough unification which made New York City geographically as we know it. Here, Commissioner Grover A. Whalen, among his many duties, promoted the nascent city radio station. Meanwhile, his daughter Mary drove about the expo in her own miniature mobile radio truck advertising the city’s plans for the station that would become WNYC. A booth at the show demonstrated the need for a city radio station and what it would provide. For more details, see New York City’s Silver Jubilee: The Plan and Promise of WNYC in 1923.
A view inside WNYC’s first public address radio truck in 1924. (Eugene de Salignac/NYC Municipal Archives
WNYC’s first real truck is featured above. It held no broadcast equipment and was used solely as a mobile public address system at locations around the city. By the station’s second year on the air, a newer mobile unit had replaced the ‘wagon.’ It’s seen below just two days after the Independence Day celebrations at City Hall where engineers were packing up gear.
The WNYC truck in front of City Hall, July 6, 1926.
(Eugene de Salignac/NYC Municipal Archives)
By the mid-1930s the Federal Works Progress Administration was beginning to have a significant influence over just about every aspect of WNYC. This included music and drama programming, plans for new studios decorated with Federal Art Program murals and a state-of-the-art transmitter site. I suspect that there was probably some federal money that also went into the station’s new 100-watt public address truck arriving in 1937. It was so impressive that Communication & Broadcast Engineering magazine ran a three-page feature on it. Author Aaron Nadell wrote of engineers Isaac Brimberg and William Pitkin’s design:
The WNYC truck by Leo Garel in 1939.
(WNYC Archive Collections)
Flexibility of operation, to meet the varied requirements of the municipal authorities, constituted one important feature of the design. Another is duplication of equipment to avoid any possibility of an embarrassing breakdown during some conspicuously public occasion.
The truck itself is a 1937 Chevrolet, streamlined, and finished in aluminum with fenders and wheels of ultramarine blue…two-tone lettering. The flag of the city flies from the central staff. The number 810 at the rear of the body shows the frequency of Station W.N.Y.C.”
The truck (pictured below) was used for broadcasting and reporting from park concerts, parades, and public celebrations. Its first use was in connection with the formal opening of the elevated west side highway for automobile traffic. The truck’s microphones and loudspeakers broadcast the speeches of the city officials. Afterward, it participated in the parade of vehicles that followed the cutting of the ribbon stretched across the new roadway. The truck also relayed the ceremony via shortwave to the station for general broadcast.
WNYC’s new 100-watt public address system truck in 1937.
(Photo courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives)
White police officers lead an unidentified black man past the WNYC sound truck with chain handcuff on wrist, from the scene of the Harlem riot in New York City, Aug. 2, 1943.
This vehicle was also used during the Harlem riot of August 1943. Mayor La Guardia sent the unit uptown to help quell violence and looting that followed the wounding of an African-American soldier by a white police officer. The Mayor, along with religious and civic leaders, rode in the sound truck as it drove through Harlem, addressing residents directly from the street. They sought to dispel a rumor that the soldier had been killed and called on residents to return to their homes and remain calm.
But it seems that this swanky Chevy was not the mobile unit WNYC newsman Dick Pack got for covering the celebration of Howard Hughes’ return from an around-the-world flight in 1938.
Ours was not a super-duper streamlined bus like NBC’s; the WNYC so-called mobile broadcasting unit was a small battered truck, the kind usually used by neighborhood stores for deliveries. Atop the slightly sloping roof of the truck was a tall antenna pole, and inside was the shortwave relay transmitter. The only real vantage point for announcers was atop the slanting roof. And there was nowhere to hold on except to a corner of a roof loudspeaker. You couldn’t latch on to the antenna pole, because that was charged, and you’d get a nasty shock if you did…We never expected that once the Hughes cars left City Hall, the procession’s pace would change. This time, the moment the cars started the escorting motorcycles jazzed into full speed, the official autos did the same — and our little truck had to follow. Sirens wailing, the cavalcade sped uptown at well over 50 miles per hour. And there we were on top of that blankety truck, clinging on for life. 
Fortunately, Pack and his crew survived the Hughes coverage unscathed, at least physically. Although he was told afterward their work north of 14th Street was never heard because of the limits of the shortwave relay at the time.
WNYC’s mobile unit at Times Square during Eisenhower Day celebrations in June 1945.
(WNYC Archive Collections)
The mobile units (shown at right and below) look similar to the kind of delivery trucks made by Mack and International Harvester at the time, but we’ve yet to confirm just what make and models these were. If you’ve got some ideas, please let us know. Nevertheless, photos and audio reveal these units were used at least through 1945 for crucial coverage of VE Day activities in May, General Eisenhower’s triumphant return from Europe in June, VJ Day celebrations in August and the Admiral Nimitz Day parade two months later.
WNYC mobile unit on 5th Avenue in front of the New York Public Library following a home front and armed forces parade, June 13, 1942.
(WNYC Archives, Henry Wei Collection)
This 1958 photo of our truck at Times Square (bottom of shot) gives a rare view of the yellow and green color scheme.
(WNYC Archive Collections)
By 1950 and into the ’60s, with the Cold War in full swing, WNYC’s civil defense role expanded –and with it, its fleet of vehicles. They were used for public address and for two-way mobile communications. Public address installations numbered more than 500 annually, ranging from the dedication of new buildings to outdoor concerts in the parks and other venues. A great many of these required engineers to load up vehicles such as those shown below with equipment for recording and remote broadcast. The 1956 station Annual Report noted the following:
The constant communication readiness of all WNYC mobile units continued to prove of inestimable value. This outstanding service was dramatically demonstrated in August when the WNYC mobile unit played a key role at the dockside in bringing together families with the returning survivors of the Andrea Doria disaster. 
Below is audio of the mobile unit reporting from the fire of the U.S.S. Constellation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on December 19, 1960. (Courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives)
WNYC civil defense sound trucks in Central Park in the 1950s.
(WNYC Archive Collections)
WNYC’s Dodge van in front of City Hall in the late 1960s.
(Alfred Tropea/WNYC Archive Collections)
By the late 1960s forward, use of WNYC’s mobile unit narrowed. There was no longer a call for civil defense applications, public address and shortwave relay back to the studio. The priority then, as now, is primarily for transporting audio equipment to and from distant locations for event and concert recording or where there is already a high-quality transmission line installed for live remotes.
The WNYC van in 2008
The vehicles used from 1924 through the 1950s were the most visually appealing and their role, under the city ownership, more diverse. Afterward, they were pretty standard, practical, and a canvas for budding graffiti artists. Today, the WNYC/WQXR mobile unit or van is well branded. And it continues in the tradition of ferrying producers, engineers, and equipment to concert venues and event sites all over the metropolitan area.
WNYC’s van today!
Two more examples of reporting from the WNYC mobile units:
1) Mike Jablons reporting from Pier 90 on the arrival of returning troops from Europe, June 20, 1945. (Note – sound quality is a bit rough). (Mike Jablon Collection/WNYC Archives)
2) An unnamed WNYC reporter at a fire on Pier 20 at the foot of Chambers Street, January 1, 1954. (Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives)
 Nadell, Aaron, “WNYC’s 100 Watt P-A Truck,” Communication and Broadcast Engineering, May 1937. pg. 5.
 Pack, Dick, “Life with WNYC,” Variety, January 4, 1950, pg. 103.
 WNYC Annual Report for 1956.
And last, but certainly not least, this truck is currently used by the NYPR engineering team to reach transmitter sites that are off the beaten path.
WNYC’s most recent truck.
(WNYC Engineering/WNYC Archive Collections)