On June 1, 1940, the City of New York acquired the two subway systems it didn't already own - the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Co.) and the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corp.) - and consolidated them with the city-owned IND (Independent Subway System). It was readily apparent that the city's fleet of aging subway cars was desperately in need of replacement, and immediately after World War II, management began to develop a new car that would be standard throughout the system and incorporate the latest advances in subway design. This effort was complicated by the fact that portions of the IRT had tighter clearances than the IND and BMT, so all future designs would incorporate a shorter, narrower IRT version.
Beginning with contract R-10, and IRT-sized contract R-12 delivered in 1948, the new cars featured welded steel bodies, flourescent lighting that made them considerably brighter than prewar cars, and seating made of velon, a new plastic material that replaced the rattan seating of older cars. A major improvement was a new type of brake system known as Straight Air Motor Car Electric-Pneumatic Emergency (SMEE), which combined ordinary air brakes with dynamic braking, in which a car's electric motors, by having their polarities reversed, were converted to generators in order to slow the car. This significantly reduced brake shoe wear and maintenance costs. Beginning with the R-12, the postwar IRT cars were known as the SMEE fleet.
By the mid-1950s, however, the car designs that had seemed modern after the war were showing their age, and tension had developed in the New York City Transit Authority between those who wanted to keep building the postwar designs and those, including Chairman Charles ("Choo-Choo Charlie") Patterson, who were pushing to incorporate new technologies already in widespread use elsewhere. The 110 new cars delivered by American Car and Foundry (ACF) in 1959-60 under contract R-26 were a stopgap measure, built to the outmoded postwar standards but still a great improvement on the prewar cars they replaced.
Nonetheless, the R-26 cars did introduce some firsts. They were the first cars with hard fiberglass seats to cut down on vandalism (how times had changed since the rattan seat era!). And they were the first New York cars that did not have an operating cab at both ends. The R-26s ran as "semi-permanent pairs," with operator controls at the No. 1 end only and conductor controls at the No. 2 end. To save both cost and weight, the even-numbered car in the pair carried much of the electrical equipment while the odd-numbered car held the air brake compressor. Delivered in a plain olive drab paint scheme, the R-26s were compatible other SMEE cars, and by the mid-1960s were often intermixed with R-12, R-17, and R-21 cars, which have also been offered as M.T.H. models. In the early 1970s, the R-26 cars along with other SMEE cars were repainted in the MTA's new blue and silver paint scheme. Air conditioning was installed in the early 1980s, along with a short-lived beige and orange color scheme, followed in 1982-83 by a less-than-successful white scheme that was intended to discourage taggers.
The aging R-26 cars got a new lease on life 1985-86. Shipped to Morrison-Knudsen in Hornell, New York under the General Overhaul (GOH) program, they returned to the City as completely rebuilt cars in the new Redbird paint scheme, the oldest-built cars in the Redbird fleet. They continued to serve New York's commuters for more than a decade, until the final R-26 cars were retired in 2002. Like most of the Redbird fleet, the R-26s were not scrapped, but "reefed." Up and down the east coast, their stripped bodies were dumped offshore to create artificial reefs to provide homes for marine life.