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Union Pacific Motor Cars

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Electro-Motive Corp.

by Ed Keilty

(published in 1979 as part of Keilty's book "Interurbans Without Wires") (PDF; 11 pages; 6MB)

The remarkable success story of Electro-Motive in the rail motorcar saga begins precisely where the earlier triumphs of General Electric came to an abrupt end on the eve of World War I. There were some important new ingredients, first and foremost a former bus and truck salesman named Harold L. Hamilton.

General Electric built 89 motorcars, most of them in a brief six-year period beginning in 1910. The company solved many of the vexing engineering problems inherent in the wedding of internal combustion propulsion to the steel rail, but the solution to others--particularly in the control area--eluded GE until it was too late. Declining sales and the need to commit company resources elsewhere induced GE to exit the field completely in 1917.

Hamilton, who had once been a railway mechanic, thought the giant electrical firm was making a big mistake. In surveying the railroad industry in the midst of its struggle to regain profitability after the 1917-1918 war, he detected an unmet need for a really workable rail motorcar. He also knew that earlier troubles of prime mover, control and durability would have to be mastered before the motorcar could be revived. This, he set out to do.

Organizing the Electro-Motive Corporation in Cleveland, Hamilton in 1922 began talking with GE engineers, particularly Hermann Lemp, the Swissborn engineering genius who had been a consultant to GE's gas car project starting from 1910. Ironically, the decrease in railcar activity had stimulated GE's research into the modern diesel engine, and the gas-electric control problem had been tackled anew by 1918.

Simplified, Lemp's new system substituted one single control for the two previously used: the throttle of the gas engine and the field strength selector for the generator. The old combination had been tricky: too much excitation stalled the engine; too much throttle wasted fuel. The system was confusing, and easy to abuse. A given speed could be obtained by a combination of control settings--e.g., 5 mph could be realized with the engine screaming and the excitation cut down to a minimum, or with the engine lugging away at low rpms with heavy excitation. It took an extremely capable motorman to master these mysteries and keep everything running.

Lemp finally came up with a control which regulated the traction motors and the gas engine through a mechanical governor. Variables were kept in compensation by an air cylinder control.

Still, the system was basically mechanical and quite complicated. It was at this point that Hamilton entered the picture, demanding a further refinement so that his fledgling company could capitalize on the demand for large rail motorcars which he felt could be stimulated with just the right machine.

GE agreed to new tests. Hamilton supplied a Sterling "Dolphin" marine gas engine; working with this on a converted early diesel switcher and later an Ingersoll-Rand unit, Lemp produced some important refinements. A true single-handle control was perfected, operating only the engine throttle. The rest was done automatically, and by 1923 the system was ready for revenue application.

The early 1920s were rough times for the American railroad industry, struggling to cope with recession, inflation and a physical plant all but worn out by record war trafncs and government mismanagement. Hardly the time to start a new company and attempt to set the conservative railroad industry on its ear with a new product many managers didn't even know they needed. But Hamilton was a born salesman, and combined a double measure of selfconfidence with careful business management.

As his chief engineer he selected Richard Dilworth, a former GE gas-electric technician who would later play a major role in the development of the diesel electric locomotive--the product destined to make Electro-Motive the dominant North American supplier of railroad motive power.

EMC itself began as simply a letterhead, a few desks in rented office space near downtown Cleveland, and a hired stenographer who worked half a day for the fledgling firm, left for lunch and said: "I'm not coming back as I have seen these blue sky companies start and fizzle out in no time."

And blue sky is just about what Harold Hamilton had for starters. Unable to afford a manufacturing plant and an army of craftsmen, Hamilton subcontracted nearly everything. GE, of course, supplied the motors, controls and electrical gear. He contracted with the Winton Engine Co. for prime movers, and had the cars fabricated at the St. Louis Car Co., one of the country's most versatile carbuilders specializing in everything from four-wheel Birney streetcars to mainline passenger coaches, and which once tried to market a steam-powered rail motorcar on its own.

By the summer of 1924 Hamilton had persuaded the Chicago Great Western to purchase EMC's first test car, an ungainly 35-ton vehicle with a 6-cylinder, 175-hp Winton gasoline engine, and throttle levers and linkage rigged from stock Chevy and Ford auto parts. The M-300 measured 57 feet 4 inches in length, had a 16-foot 8-inch baggage compartment and seats for 44.

The skeptical CGW attached conditions to purchase of the car: it had to make schedule for 30 days of continuous service with no more than two 15-minute delays. With fingers crossed, Hamilton, Dilworth and Co. delivered the M-300 to the Grainger road and awaited the verdict.

The M-300 performed, and went on to make history, spawning some 400 doodlebugs to come later and bearing the EMC builder's plate. The Lemp-inspired single control worked, and the Winton engine proved to be a rugged and dependable machine. The car did not vibrate excessively or make too much noise, and it expended fuel at a highly respectable four miles to the gallon.

From this point, EMC was in the driver's seat, and no mistake. Although the market for rail motorcars was not especially important in the total railroad context, EMC soon began making waves felt throughout the entire rail spectrum, and somewhere along the line attracted the attention of one of the most powerful corporations in the world--General Motors.

As the railroads began pulling themselves up out of the financial morass of the early 1920s and accelerated into the big boom which preceded the Great Depression, a market for the doodlebug did open up. Upstart EMC and old-line builder Brill were the principal firms able to cash in on it, for both recognized that the economics of the conventional passenger train were going sour, and that the roads were finally looking for a way out. Every year, 26,000 miles of paved highway were being built. Every year saw the production of 3-1/2 million new automobiles. The locals and the branch line trains were losing business at an alarming rate. As David P. Morgan of Trains Magazine put it: the $1.25-a-mile steam train was a sitting duck for the 50-cent-a-mile doodlebug.

EMC's second car went to the Northern Pacific, also in 1924. Other orders came in, first a trickle, then a torrent. EMC launched a widespread advertising program, sent salesmen around, and collected testimonials from railroads genuinely surprised and pleased at the EMC product. The Colorado and Southern reported savings of $14,000 per year by substituting an EMC car for a train between Cheyenne and Wendover, Wyoming. At $50,022.32, the EMC car was expensive, but paid for itself in four years.

In 1925, EMC delivered 36 cars; in 1926, 45. Sales reached 54 in 1927 and then nearly doubled in 1928 to 105 cars--the peak year. By this time Hamilton was selling eight out of every 10 gas-electrics purchased by U.S. roads.

In contrast to Brill, EMC did not offer a standardized body design, although most EMC cars did share a certain boxy look with an absolutely flat front which lent at once a substantial and formidable look to the machines. St. Louis Car's early near-monopoly on building EMCs soon gave way to other builders, especially Pullman. Within two or three years, the cars grew in size and weight to accommodate increased railroad demands for use of the cars in maid-of-all-work duties: baggage-express, RPO, coach. Whereas the M-300 had weighed 35 tons, and produced 175 hp, ultimately the EMC cars grew to be 75 feet or more in length, weigh 80 tons, pack 550 hp in two engines, and pull trailers.

The famous Santa Fe car M-190 of 1932 boasted a 900-hp V-12 engine, was articulated with its baggage car and could haul five coaches. This car turned out, unwittingly, to be a sort of transitory vehicle between the pure doodlebug and the complete motor trains which were to help revive rail passenger traffic in the late 1930s.

The decade of the 1930s proved to be the end--and the beginning--of EMC. In 1930 General Motors Corporation purchased both EMC and its Winton engine supplier, and formed the Electro-Motive Division within GM. The market for rail motorcars was evaporating (only 92 cars were delivered in 1929 and sales plummeted to 38 in 1930) but the giant automaker could see the beginnings of the diesel revolution on the railroads, and reasoned that EMC would be the ideal vehicle for capturing this market.

GM was, of course, right. EMC built the last of the conventional doodlebugs in 1935, but hardly anyone noticed that the end of an era had occurred. The company was too busy inventing the modern diesel locomotive.

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