(first posted 5/23/2013) My fascination with trains has a particular focus on the birth and early years of what became the utterly dominant GM EMD two-stroke diesel-electric locomotives. My story of EMD’s early streamlined locomotives through the final “classic” E-9 is here. But I recently cracked open Alfread Sloan’s excellent “My Years With General Motors”, and found perhaps the best documentation yet of just how exactly GM came to be involved in this business, created the first successful high-power American diesel locomotive engine, and turned it into a near monopoly. Kettering’s breakthrough two-stroke diesel engine was of course also scaled down by him to create the equally dominant Detroit Diesel engine, which too came to dominate the bus market, and be highly competitive in the truck market, as well as the mid-sized “Cleveland” engines, equally predominant in submarine and other marine applications.
Rather than try to re-write the story myself, it’s really best heard in Sloan’s lucid writing. It’s a bit long. and maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure is mine.
The first Winton 201 diesel engines – 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Fair
A story about deco diesel dreamliners, written in stately BS-free old-school prose. It’s like this post is made just for me – even before I got the banner ad of women who assure me that “We don’t like young men! We want YOU!” Geez, even the googlebots think I’m old!
When I was a young merchant mariner I spent a lot of time studying how these engines worked. I knew about normal four stroke engines and also about 2 stroke motorcycle engines, but a supercharged diesel like this was a new and fascinating beast. What blew my mind, however, were the Fairbanks-Morse Dual Opposed Piston Engines.
There was a lot of innovation taking place in the enging industry in the first half of the twentieth century and there were some amazing results.
I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing a Fairbanks-Morse opposed piston engine running a couple of years ago. Still very much in service keeping Illinois lowlands tillable by pumping Mississippi river groundwater over the dike.
If I recall correctly, it had been in service since at least the 1940s. It was about ten feet tall, fifteen feet long, and extremely loud, as you would expect.
I’ll never forget it.
Are they like the Doxford Engines??
Sort of. I’m not familiar enough with the Doxford-style engine to say for sure.
US Fleet-type submarines were engined with the F-M opposed piston engines (also with GE engines) – my Dad kept the forward pair in good order on the SSR-312 Burrfish. When we toured the SSBN-742 Wyoming a few years ago, Dad and the other Veterans with us were tickled to see a ‘Rock Crusher’ in use for backup power when the reactor was scrammed. The seaman giving the tour said it would be replaced with a Cat engine at the next major refit, though.
That was a great ‘cuppa,’ Paul. Thanks!
I like. A lot. Very nice article and as it’s about railroads mostly, I like it even more!
Wouldn’t it be nice if industries would actually design beautiful machinery again? As to freight engines, the GP-30 was the 1957 Chevy of its time.
Nowadays, General Electric builds arguably the best locomotives – and, in my opinion, the best-looking.
Actually the GP30, or “Tunnel Motor”, is not as common as the GP40 and its six axle big brother, the SD40; those are considered the Tri-Fives of the railroad industry. Specifically those made prior to what are known as dash two (-2) electronics. It is mind numbing how many of the 40 series are still in line-haul service though mostly on short line railroads.
I have been in and out of the railroad industry for years and I used to work for Florida Central in Orlando. We had a small locomotive shop that could do some pretty major work like traction motor and main generator change outs. I received a real education in motive power during those years.
Where are you Alfred? to see what Roger did to your beloved company, you had the chance to kick the bucket early and not see the sky fall on GM.
I still remember Sloan’s book on the shelves of the library when I was a kid, in the car section (Dewey Decimal call number 629.2 is still seared in my brain). And I always skipped past it to read the latest Automobile Quarterly, or some erudite treatise on Grand Prix cars by Laurence Pomeroy or LJK Setright, or even a picture book of dry lakes roadsters. But 45 years later this makes very interesting reading. Thanks Paul.
Thanks for this article. Curiously enough, although the LaGrange plant was a full assembly plant, in later years it was reduced to components only. All locomotive assembly was done at London ON and in Mexico. Now, EMD is part of Caterpillar and makes locomotives in Muncie IN.
Outstanding post. A good companion piece, if you can find it, is Franklin M. Reck’s 1948 book “On Time: the History of Electro-Motive Division of General Motors”. It goes into additional detail about the early histories of Winton and E-M (which was on a fairly precarious financial footing during most of its existence prior to the GM acquisition), a rather gripping account of the Pioneer Zephyr’s famous Denver-Chicago dash (which nearly ended in failure at several points), and the trials and tribulations of convincing the railroads that standardized mutliple unit diesel locomotives could effectively replace highly customized steam power in heavy freight and switching service.
Dry as a saltine cracker, and yet endlessly fascinating, as most of Mr. Sloan’s book is. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested not only in the automotive business, but business in general. No “six sigma black belt” malarkey, just Sloan laying out principles in an understandable fashion.
Very enjoyable. Thanks for the excerpt, Paul.
I had the same reaction to the lost art of writing about business in a voice that’s, well, businesslike!
A much more detailed account of the development of the Burlington Zephyr can be found in the “The Lost Promise of the American Railroad” by Mark Reutter in the 1994 Winter issue of the Wilson Quartery. In this article Reutter does a masterful job of describing the synthesis of EMD’s diesel engine with the stainless steel car bodies built by Edward Budd’s Budd Company (no relation to Ralph Budd, CEO of the Burlington), and the first application of modern rail car air conditioning using Freon. Edward Budd was the savant that developed a method of welding stainless steel to stainless steel, a technique previously unknown. Budd called it “shot welding” and this was The Budd Company’s intro building passenger rail cars, something it reluctantly entered. It’s main line of business then was automotive bodies, an endeavor it is still involved with today. It is no longer in the passenger railcar business.
Diesel Subs Forever. The successful prosecution of the war in the Pacific owes a lot to Diesel Subs and, therefore, to this man. It took several months to get the smell of diesel oil out of my clothes when I went to shore duty but I doubt I’ll ever get it out of my blood.
Highly enjoyable, and one of the books that remains on my to-read list. Industrial history from that era is absolutely fascinating to me.
As some others have said, it was on the backs of old-timers like Sloan and Kettering that GM was built. It is a shame that the system that they formed could not withstand some of the dolts who later ruined the company. Those old guys were smart, inquisitive, hard-working and honorable men who built quite a company.
One of the things that made Sloan an institution at GM was that was CEO for so long from the 20’s until 1956, he died ten years later in 1966,when he was around 90 or so, so he was still in charge well into his 70’s at GM, no CEO after him at GM ever was around that long, after he left, the position became a brass hat for anyone who had managed to survive through all the levels of GM’s fiefdoms.
A very enjoyable article. The distinctive throb of those big EMDs is a sound I will always remember. I’m not sure what’s in the monster locomotives of today that I see pulling coal trains to the coast or potash to the states, but somehow they don’t have the same presence. GM really was king of the transportation world back when.
Alco, the venerable steam- & Diesel-builder, was toast, not only after their 244-series debacle, but as implied above, in failing to provide sufficient parts & support compared to EMD. EMD also got a great boost when the War Production Board approved continued production of their revolutionary FT, but, except for the Alco RS-1, not types from most other builders.
GE kept a relatively low profile for years, selling only parts & industrial switchers, then breaking in big-time with the U-25, & now dominating the loco biz with about 70% of the market. They’re 4-stroke, BTW.
Which is funny that GE became what it now is, because the U25 series were actually turkeys. Slippery, unreliable, the U25C’s magical ability to destroy track, etc. The only thing they had going for them was the nearly indestructible 752 traction motor which was (is) markedly better than the old D67 (and even the later D77) traction motor built by EMD. Still, not much sounded cooler (an Alco 251 may be the only one that sounded better) than listening to a brace of U-Boats struggling upgrade with a coal train…
Thanks for the inside info; I rarely hear about user experience here. There’s probably a whole science to this I’ve never heard of.
I recall the SDP40F had trouble leaping tracks; Wikipedias says harmonics with light baggage cars played a part, along with substandard tracks.
GE is still suspect, in the view of many. They’re far and away the major player in the locomotive biz; but they got there on PRICE.
Quality, not so much.
Two issues have plagued GEs, from the U-series through the Dash-7 and Dash-8 years and beyond: First, they tend to be unreliable in their peripheral systems. Electronics, including in later years, electrically-driven and engaged air compressors. Power surges, when done with electronic engine controls, digital screens, and digitally-controlled air brakes, would cause a crash and bring everything to a screeching halt. Especially the WABCO or Knorr electronic trainline brake, which would go into a “penalty” application, not to be reset until power was cut and restarted.
Then, there’s the fact that GE Rail does not especially like to keep parts for older models available. There are, today, EMDs from the 1960s still going strong in active service – and supported with parts. But the U-Boats and C series GEs are all returned to the Earth…with judicious aid of the scrapper’s torch.
Up until the mid-1990s, EMD was hands-down a better machine; even if they did drop the ball with the SD-50.
I have a 2 stroke Detroit Diesel 8V92 engine in my motorhome and is a real treat to hear it roar. Nothing else sounds quite like it. I’ve also been next to 16V92’s running wide open In Euclid haul trucks and it sounds like the gates of Hell are opening…in a good way.
Great, rock solid, and simple motors. GM knew how to do it right once upon a time.
I have never read Sloan’s memoirs. I’m glad he saw fit to give credit where it was due; and identify the EMD diesel program as something bought in Winton’s acquisition.
Up until just a few years ago, when EMD was sold away from GM and purchased first by Greenbriar (venture capital) and finally Caterpillar…the EMD diesel was a far cry from anything designed by Cummins or other diesel makers. A two-stroke, sure. Roots blower, at first and in lower-performance forms; later turbocharged. But…a welded, not cast, block. Mechanical governor, up until the SD60 – the throttle position ordered an engine speed, and the mechanical-hydraulic Woodward governor delivered it via a pushrod. Said rod works a linkage on the cylinder heads…in railroad parlance, the manual lever, used to start it, is a “lay shaft.”
Oil is a hybrid of a wet-sump and dry sump; there’s an oil tank but also a dipstick on the crankcase. Oil capacity is, depending on model, is upwards of a hundred gallons.
The engines were never designed for use with ethylene glycol antifreeze. In the earlier years of dieselization, the units were used as much as possible, only shut down for repairs. So they never cooled off; and adding methanol antifreeze wouldn’t have been practical. When ethylene glycol came into common truck use, railroads didn’t see a need; and a changeover involved a number of modifications. I understand that nobody was concerned about the myriad internal water leaks, but glycol would attack various surfaces and finishes.
To this day, an EMD diesel needs extensive reworking to satisfactorially use glycol antifreeze. Most of the CSX and shortline units I’ve used, don’t have that…if a diesel engine quits en route in freezing weather and cannot be restarted, the crew is to drain the water.
Since I moved into short-line work, EMD was sold to Caterpillar and the Winton-based two-stroke engine is, I understand, history. Not sure what they’re using today; I’m sure it’s either a Caterpillar design or that of an affiliate. But these days, it’s culture shock…to find a diesel engine is fitted with antifreeze, do not dump; or to have one that starts from the control panel inside the cab; or the electronic, not mechanical, governor and oil-pressure and engine overspeed controls.
The EMD 2 stroke diesel is still the heart beating away in the latest SD70ACE. Punched out to 710 cubic inches per cylinder, it still claims roots to the 567.
In the final years of GM ownership, EMD designed, built and sold a 4 stroke engine, the 265H. Reliability problems forced buyers Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific to abandon them outright. I understand the 265 is still the motive power in EMD built locomotives for China. But here, in this country, the 710 is the choice for EMD, thanks to a design that is able to meet the EPA ‘s emission standards for locomotive diesels.
Trains Magazine publish’s a year in review of locomotive production, titled Locomotive. This magazine has devoted much print space to EMD, it’s takeover by Cat/Progress Rail and rival GE.
Great read, this article by Paul. It makes you realize how much we lost in leadership over the years, reading the words from Sloan….
I’d never seen those. I’d come across a few SD70ACe models but always in relays on the main line – didn’t have cause to get in the engine bay. But they sounded and acted different – much different. The peripherals were far different – air compressor, in a section of the hood screened off by mesh, instead of fully enclosed. Carbody seemingly made of stamped steel, instead of plate. Many, many differences.
I had been told the EMD/Winton engine died of Tier II non-compliance.
Given GM’s longstanding fear of trust-busting, not entirely groundless, I have to wonder if that was a backdoor way of cutting them down to size. If so, it worked.
Fascinating article, Paul!
My late step-father worked at EMD through the ’70s before taking an early medical retirement. The radar domes around the plant perimeter were distinctive–I assume the plant was considered strategically important enough to warrent anti-aircraft protection (Chicago had Nike AA missiles into the ’60s.)
Got a plant tour once. The process where they shrunk the steel wheels on the axle was impressive.
Thank you,I never got into trains the same way I did cars,bikes and piston engined war planes,still an interesting read though and what a streamlined beauty
You can still ride the Burlington Zephyr today! The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry had a Zephyr in an outside display for many years that you could not visit. Ten years ago, they made it a part of an interactive exhibit celebrating the Zephyr. You get to sit in the seats on the train and listen to a narrative from the perspective of passengers from its heyday. They have even simulated the rocking motion and sounds of the train.
One of my favorite memories from the past… standing at the fence in the little park at Horseshoe Curve just west of Altoona PA… listening to a pair of 20 cylinder EMD 645s in a pair of former Erie Lackawanna SD45-2s roaring at Run 8 pushing a heavy coal train up the east slope of Allegheny Mountains… maybe doing all of 10 mph… sand clouds billowing from the trucks… flanges squealing… THAT is railroading at its finest. The 45 Series… the muscle car of diesel locomotives…
Roger, I’m happy to report that traffic on the Norfolk Southern mainline up to and around historic Horseshoe Curve is as busy as ever. In 2008 I made a week trip out to Altoona for the express purpose of watching the trains climb to the summit of the Allegheny Mountains.
As fine as it is around the Curve; at Cassandra, on the West Slope, loaded coal trains and other freight trains often put on quite a show. When I was out there in late 2008, I caught on tape a fully loaded coal train running about 20 mph, with 6 engines on the lead and 2 helpers on the rear, all in Run 8. It was late October and the air was cold and crisp but the sound of those engines passing by was earth shaking. Literally. After the last of the helpers passed by the footbridge at Cassandra, it took a good 15-20 minutes for the roar of that train now miles east of me to disappear into the approaching night air.
For a rail fan and just a fan of brute horsepower, a visit to Horseshoe Curve and the other landmark locations on the fabled Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Main Line is a must see. The west ward expansion from the east to Chicago and points west had to be conquered first HERE, in the Eastern Continental Divide known as the Alleghenies. It’s quite the story…..
I grew up (and still live) 10 minutes from “La Grange”, the home of the diesel locomotive. I remember driving by the place with my parents on our weekly drive to a shopping center and seeing the massive blue and white “Electro-Motive Division, General Motors Corporation” sign on the front lawn of the factory. The plant was huge and had multiple buildings covering about a square mile. Now the facility is half the size as many of the locomotive assembly buildings were torn down 10-15 years ago. Now a smaller sign has replaced the old one, it’s still blue and white but simply states “Electro-Motive Diesel”.
Growing up in Chicago I’ve always lived in a mecca of sorts for rail roads. I’ve lived near the Belt Railway Company yards my entire life and the BNSF (former Burlington Route) “Race Track” is a ten minute drive to the north. I’ve been listening to two stroke EMD 645s for most of my life. I can still fall asleep on a summer night to a pair of Belt Railway Company SD40-2s moving a load of empties into the yard. The chant of dual 645s shoving tonnage is amazing. I used to love going to the Burlington “Race Track” in Berwyn or La Grange, IL but most of the trains have newer GE Dash 9s or EMD SD70s on the point. The 710 in the SD70s doesn’t have the classic chant of a 567 or 645. They seem more muffled, probably due to emission controls. The GEs never sound good, at least to me. The local commuter line, Metra, still runs F40s with 645s but they are always on run 8 to keep the HEP generators powered for the passenger car lights. It’s a rare treat to find a string of SD40-2s on the point of a train leaving Chicago. The howl of 645s moving from run 6 to 8 as they move out of Chicago is unworldly.
One of my favorite memories as a child was a ride I took at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, IL. The have a Zephyr, the Nebraska Zephyr, complete with the last stainless steel clad EMD E5. I was able to ride in the cab of the E5 on a run. I’ll never forget the chant of a pair of 12 cylinder 567Bs inside a car body. For my money the best EMD designs are the F and E units. They just look so much classier than the GP and SD series that followed. Granted they were not nearly as useful off main line but they scream classic GM style.
This post inspired me to finally buy Mr. Sloan’s book. The old thing more interesting than old cars are old trains. Thanks Paul!
Extremly interesting theme for reading, couldn’t stop reading until the last post and I am getting Mr. Sloan book, hope can get it from Amazon.
I can say only outstanding. I have just travelled in train of emd loco few days back. but I am not satisfied with the debate of 2 stroke loco Vs 4 stroke loco. Thanks.
Need to put this on my reading list.
One of the earlier commenters mentioned watching trains at Horseshoe Curve in Altoona PA. Now that YouTube has streaming service, you can watch (and hear) the trains go by on the Curve 24/7. Good for hours and hours of wasted time…
The thing that strikes me is that this reads as if one is in a Pullman car with Mr. Sloan and he is explaining how GM got into the business of trains.
If he’d permit me a cigar and a few fingers of Scotch I’d quite enjoy myself.
I’d like to point out that the train station pictured on page 350 is San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot. It still looks just the same and is a remarkably beautiful station where I recently boarded the Surfliner for a trip to Los Angeles. People are all talking about high speed rail and hyperloops but how about a few incrimental improvements to the existing system? Express trains, more frequent departures, dedicated tracks where needed. I don’t think a train station has been built since the 1930’s.
What I’m sure you mean is, I don’t think a *good* train station has been built since the 1930’s. Richmond’s main Amtrak factility, Staples Mill station, dates from 1975 and is a small, wonderfully depressing 1-story box of a building far away from the downtown core. It replaced the 1901 Main Street Station downtown, which had been damaged by flooding and had declined along with the rest of the downtown area. 43 years later and we’re still stuck with this thing, in a slightly run-down suburban retail/light industrial corridor, as the “gateway” to our city:
Main Street Station, after dealing with flooding, dodging the construction of Interstate 95 and a subsequent off-ramps, and suffering two fires (one severe), somehow evaded the wrecking ball and was restored, and re-opened to Amtrak service in 2003. It’s only a few trains a day right now, but if they ever actually expand the Northeast high-speed corridor south, it’s supposed to terminate here. The original train shed was renovated as event/entertainment space last year, and as downtown Richmond has undergone a rebirth, all the pieces are in place for it to be a destination once again. This is a *real* train station:
Very nice. The DMV office pictured above is better forgotten….
I grew up with train tracks behind my house, it was the Toledo Terminal RR, which made a complete loop around Toledo. There was a little bit of everything, from Alco S-2’s that the TTRR used, to old steam engines, which I barely remember, to brand new, almost always C&O GP and SD 40’s in ’64 or so pulling grain and coal trains. The “spaceship” sound they made always got my attention and the “shifting” of transition is another strong memory.
Those tracks are long gone now, it’s a hiking trail now. Part of the TTRR is still in operation. The bridge (The Maumee Upper River bridge) near my old house is finally coming down at 115 years old. It rains rust on boats below it when it’s windy at this point, and moans and groans. It hasn’t been used since 1982 when there was a derailment on it. Oh, and it’s called a swing bridge, but there was never a gearbox or motor installed.
Was Horiba diesel emissions test equipment used in developing the Diesel Catalytic Converter of the 710 engines?