The Winton 201A Diesel Engine

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By Preston Cook

(mirrored with permission, from Railway Preservation News)

This page last updated on January 17, 2012.

The Winton Engine Company was a prominent early developer of gasoline and diesel engines for marine, industrial, and railroad applications. Formed by Alexander Winton in 1912 as an offshoot of his Winton Motor Carriage Works, the engine builder grew by the late 1920s into one of the most successful firms designing and building engines in the US. From their factory in Cleveland, Winton shipped gasoline and diesel power plants to shipyards, power companies, pipeline operators, and builders of railroad equipment. One of their regular customers was the Electro Motive Engineering Company, formed by Harold Hamilton and Paul Turner in 1922 and also located in Cleveland.

Beginning with a series of gasoline engine designs, some of which were also applied to marine and stationary applications, the Winton Engine Company provided Electro-Motive with power plants which were (for their time period) quite reliable and economical. Some of the Winton gasoline engines remained in service in EMC gas-electrics converted for use as Sperry Rail cars for many decades. Following several early accidents involving fires on gas-electric railcars, Winton turned their attention to the use of oil engines rather than gasoline engines for future applications. As diesel engines of the 1920s were quite heavy for their power output, they developed spark ignition engines using distillate, a light oil mix, as a fuel. These provided some relief from the risks of gasoline, but had the significant disadvantage of requiring tremendous ignition system voltage and multiple spark plugs to be able to ignite the fuel. The spark plugs fouled rapidly running on oil fuel, and the engines required frequent maintenance.

Winton's engine development attracted the notice of Charles Kettering of Delco, later the head of the GM Research Labs, who was seeking engines for his new yacht. This association led to the acquisition of Winton and Electro-Motive by General Motors in 1930. Following this ownership change Electro-Motive was initially a subsidiary of Winton Engine, and was primarily an agency designing, selling, and coordinating the construction of railroad equipment using Winton engines.

The engine builder pursued the development of larger and more capable engines. The massive Winton Model 194 distillate engine featured a 9 inch bore and 12 inch stroke, and was a close predecessor to the Winton 201A diesel. There was only one railroad application of the engine, in the Santa Fe M-190 railcar. Distillate engines used spark ignition and had a number of problems including fouling of the cylinders and spark plugs. The success of the 201A put a halt to distillate engine use in railroad applications.

By the early 1930s a dual incentive had arrived for the development of lighter high speed two-stroke cycle diesel engines, as the US Navy sought new diesel engines for fleet submarines, with power and weight requirements that were a close parallel of those needed for railroad service. The two-stroke cycle operating principle offered significant advantages in increased power output and reduction of weight with the metallurgy and construction techniques available in this time period. This led to the Winton Model 201 development project, which began with one, two, and six cylinder test engines and progressed to the assembly of a pair of eight cylinder prototypes that were used to power the GM exhibit at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, and a twelve cylinder prototype that was provided to the US Navy for submarine power plant evaluation.

These early 201 models featured the use of unit fuel injectors and advanced welded steel construction techniques, and were used to evaluate various features and systems under consideration for production units. They also were quick to demonstrate some of the shortcomings of the design, particularly the fluid leakage problems in the complex cylinder head retainer system, which was revised in the following 201A models, and cylinder head and piston design problems which continued to plague the early two-stroke cycle engines.

The Winton Model 201A achieved production status in 1934, with the construction of eight cylinder units for the Budd streamlined Zephyr-type trains and sixteen cylinder engines for US Navy fleet submarines. Subsequently the sixteen cylinder engines would also be applied to railroad service in several streamlined train sets and the Rock Island TA units. The twelve cylinder version of the 201A was applied to several prototype boxcab passenger locomotives, as well as nine hundred horsepower switching locomotives and the early twin engined passenger E-series locomotives.

The production of Winton Model 201A engines eventually totaled several hundred units, and in addition to the production for railroad and submarine applications, there were a few power generating engines and at least one engine that spent all its life as a Navy training aid. The 201A engines in submarines had enough operating problems to cause the Navy to retire them during World War Two, replacing them with the later Cleveland Diesel 278A engines that had proved much more suitable for submarine service. The 201 and 201A development incorporated a progressive series of design changes to pistons, cylinder liners, connecting rods, and bearings. Eugene Kettering (Charles Kettering's son) later commented that he did not recall any problems with the oil dipstick, but most everything else got redesigned. Following the rapid rise in popularity of the excellent Electro-Motive 567 series engines, the Winton 201A engines were the odd units in the equipment fleets and most of them owned by the Class One roads were retired by the 1950s.

Today only a very small number of these historically significant diesel engines survive, most of them in locomotives on static display, where they are not the primary focus of attention. The most accessible Winton Model 201A diesel engines presently in the protection of the preservation community are the eight cylinder engines at the Smithsonian, the Illinois Railroad Museum, and the B&O Museum. The California State Railroad Museum and the Illinois Railroad Museum each have a 12-201A engine stored, not presently on display. I am not aware of any of the sixteen cylinder engines being preserved for display. The preserved Winton engines are all important artifacts, as there are relatively few museum exhibits in the US that highlight the development of the diesel engine, despite the very significant role this technology has played in industry. The National Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood, Missouri just west of St. Louis, has one of the largest collections of Winton engined railroad equipment. The collection includes Sabine River & Northern #408, an Electro-Motive Model NC switcher built in 1937.

Winton tried a number of design features on the Vee configuration 201A engines, for example some engines had rectangular crankcase access covers, some had round covers. Several designs of cylinder heads were also tried during the production period, and there were also a series of changes to engine cylinder assembly components. The production of Winton Model 201A engines eventually totaled several hundred units, and in addition to the production for railroad and submarine applications, there were a few power generating engines and at least one engine that spent all its life as a Navy training aid.

In addition to the engines mentioned above, there is also the disassembled eight cylinder Winton 201A from the Flying Yankee streamlined train, which was partially reconditioned before a decision was reached not to pursue the use of the engine in the restoration project. The Flying Yankee Restoration Group has indicated that this engine will eventually be reassembled and used as an educational exhibit. Depending on how they choose to proceed, this could be an excellent opportunity for one of these historically significant diesel engines to be displayed in a much more accessible way.

Probably the most frequently asked question I get about Winton engines is whether they can be restored to operation. Anyone contemplating this should consult the technical paper Gene Kettering did back in the 1950s on the development of the EMD 567, which described the long string of problems with the 201A engine. Some of the components in the 201A were redesigned several times and even then were still not quite satisfactory. If you had all the correct parts available today to restore one perfectly, you would still have an engine of somewhat questionable long term durability.

Although some parts are still available for the later Cleveland Diesel (the Winton successor) 278A and 268A engines, replacement parts for the Winton 201A are almost impossible to find in good condition. These engines have been gone from the Class 1 railroads for about fifty years, and the few examples that remained in operation after the 1950s were being maintained on leftovers and salvaged pieces from other engines. Among the items that are no longer available are all the engine reciprocating components, the cylinder liners, and the cylinder heads. There is also no industry source for most of the bearings and the fuel injection equipment. The lack of suitable replacement gaskets for the head to liner junction is also a major problem for anyone trying to restore one of these engines, due to the complex design of those components.

But is there any point in operating one of these engines? There are so few of them remaining that their value as a historical artifact is on a par with the locomotives that carried them. One hydraulic lock could result in a thrown connecting rod and ruin and irreparably damage a rare engine. In this situation it becomes a value judgment for the equipment owner whether operation is worth the risk. Anyone contemplating operation of one of these should also expect that it will be a bottomless pit that consumes money.

It is often overlooked that several early Winton diesels, predecessors to the 201A, are still around, including two very early Model 129 engines on the preserved tugboat LUNA in Boston, a pair of Model 158 diesels on one of the Circle Line tour vessels in New York City, and another Model 158 at a quarry. The designs of these engines predate the 201A by several years.

Winton Engine subsequently became the Cleveland Diesel Engine Division of General Motors in 1937. The introduction of the Electro-Motive 567 displaced the 201A from railroad applications, and its place in Navy submarines was taken by the much improved Winton Model 248 marine engine, which progressed to the Model 248A, and subsequently generated the Model 278 and Model 278A engines. These engines were applied to about half of the US Navy fleet submarines built during World War Two, and to a wide variety of military and commercial vessels, and were also used in power generating and industrial applications.

Cleveland Diesel also built the smaller Model 268 and Model 268A high speed two stroke cycle diesel engines for marine and industrial use. They were widely used in naval and commercial applications during and after the war. Cleveland also constructed several types of large four stroke cycle diesel engines in parallel with their two stroke designs. These large four stroke cycle engines included the Models 258, 258S, and 288, all of which had been developed in the late 1930s and early 1940s for the commercial marine and industrial market.

Cleveland Diesel supplied engines for more than 12,000 military and commercial vessels during World War Two. This total includes the production of EMD 567s used in Navy LST vessels, EMD 184A engines used in subchasers, and Detroit Diesel 6-71 "quads" assembled by EMD, all on contracts handled by Cleveland Diesel, as well as the various Cleveland Diesel engine models built at their own facilities.

Cleveland Diesel's postwar market was impacted severely by the sale of surplus wartime engines by the government and used engines by scrap dealers who were cutting up military vessels. They managed to generate some new engine sales into the mid-1950s, including engines for several orders of railroad tugboats, but by the late 1950s Cleveland Diesel was primarily a replacement parts business. General Motors folded the remaining assets of Cleveland Diesel into the Electro-Motive Division in 1962, and the rights to the Winton and Cleveland Diesel designs and the parts business were sold to the Hatch & Kirk Company of Seattle Washington in the 1970s.

Today a number of engines built by Cleveland Diesel (the former Winton Engine Company) survive in commercial service on tugboats and on preserved museum ships including fleet submarines. the best examples are on the destroyer escort USS SLATER, berthed in the Port of Albany, New York. The SLATER is one of two surviving World War Two destroyer escorts and is unique in having engines restored for operation. The escort has two 3-cylinder and two 8-cylinder 268A engines and four 16-cylinder 278A engines.

This article is an excerpt from the PowerPoint slide-lecture program "WHAT HAPPENED TO WINTON?" by the author, who thanks Carl Byron for additional information, both for the presentation program and the article.

Preston Cook has worked in the locomotive building industry for 35 years, serving in a variety of technical jobs for two locomotive manufacturers, and has done historic and technical presentations at museums and historical societies.