Union Pacific Motor Cars

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McKeen Motor Car Co.

by Ed Keilty

(published in 1979 as part of Keilty's book "Interurbans Without Wires") (PDF; 10 pages; 5.4MB)

The remarkable McKeen motor car was at once the most publicized, most controversial and most innovative self-propelled railcar in the early period of the mode. The McKeen has often been called a glorious failure. But in many respects it was a success, and it certainly was a pioneer.

With its knife-nose front, porthole windows and rounded rear end, the torpedo-shaped McKeen seemed in the immediate post-Victorian era to be as unusual as its creator, the flamboyant William R. McKeen. The dapper, redhaired and red-bearded McKeen became something of a legend in railroad mechanical circles, not only because of his zealous promotion of the rail motorcar when the industry was still geared 100 percent to steam,. but because of his close association with railroad titan Edward H. Harriman.

Viewed in the total context of railroad technology, the McKeen car was indeed a failure. The steel body was sturdy and well-built, but the power plant was the car's undoing. Like his fellow railroad mechanical officers, McKeen was unfamiliar with internal combustion engines and he was unable to substantially improve on the crude designs of the early 1900 period--even as others were doing so.

The huge weight dictated by that crude technology and the difficulty of properly springing such a weight led to severe maintenance problems, given the light rails and rough track of the branch lines that the cars were designed to run on. The mechanical transmission which McKeen employed was especially troublesome, and the fact that McKeen stubbornly clung to this type of transmission after the advent of the General Electric gas-electric car with its electric drive was a major reason contributing to the demise of the McKeen car on the eve of World War I.

Commercially, the McKeen car was not quite a failure. Some 152 were built between 1905 and 1917, a figure which certainly placed McKeen up with the major builders. But, of that number, 89 sales were accounted for by the Harriman lines which were closely affiliated with the McKeen works, and the Harriman group (chiefly Union Pacific and Southern Pacific) later purchased used McKeens from independent roads as well.

The McKeen legend starts with the windsplitter front. McKeen's idea was that the air-flow design would lessen wind resistance and enable the car to cut travel times and attract new business to the railroad branch lines. In practice, of course, the condition of branch line tracks seldom permitted more than the most moderate speeds. The design later added to the controversy surrounding the car: many claimed the rounded rear end should have been on the front and the pointed end to the rear. Wind-tunnel tests conducted in connection with the early streamlined train experiments of the early 1930s lent some credence to the theory that McKeen had streamlined his car backwards. Still later experiments done on airfoils have somewhat vindicated McKeen's theory but, unfortunately for McKeen the whole argument was academic since 50 mph was about the top speed any McKeen car could attain even on good, level track!

The legend was further enhanced by McKeen the man: stubborn, strongwilled and very forceful when going after what he wanted, McKeen aggressively promoted the manufacture and sale of his car in many ways not generally adopted until decades later. Though well educated and solidly backgrounded in the railroad mechanical technology of the day, McKeen was a born showman who wore flashy clothes, smoked big cigars and sometimes appeared at society affairs at home in Omaha (and in New York City, too) with a beautiful woman on his arm. McKeen was a hard-sell artist in an industry more accustomed to polite suggestion. He painted his name in 20-foothigh letters on the roof of his Omaha works. He painted his demonstration cars bright red, and reproduced the same red car on his flowery letterheads. He unhesitatingly bombarded railroad presidents, big and small, with volley after volley of rapid-fire sales letters and telegrams, often following them up with personal visits. The industry knew he had Harriman behind him, and invariably McKeen was treated with deference by the railroad brass. But, except for a scattering of short line sales and token purchases by a few big lines, McKeen had to be content with building cars for the Harriman roads.

Son of a wealthy Indiana banker, McKeen was graduated from Rose Polytechnic Institute and the University of Berlin. By June 1902 he had attained the position of UP Superintendent of Motive Power and Machinery. Sometime in 1904 he was summoned to Harriman's office in New York City to discuss Harriman's concern about the high cost and low productivity of carrying branch line passengers.

McKeen thought that a self-propelled railcar might be the answer. A practical propulsion system was a big question mark, but McKeen and associates at the Omaha shops began designing a mechanical drive car. Electric drive, which would have been more practical in the long run, was apparently ruled out simply because nobody in the UP shops knew anything about it. McKeen's agile mind turned at once to the body design. He wanted something revolutionary and he certainly got it. He was an early devotee of integral construction--the side members assisting the floor beams in bearing weight. The cars were to be low-slung (one to two feet lower than standard) and (although the word had not yet been invented) streamlined.

McKeen's first car, UP's M-1, was assembled in the north end of the Omaha erecting shop and was significantly smaller than all later models. Only 31 feet long and having but a single truck, the M -1 lacked the round windows adopted only a few months later. Other distinctive touches included a rear streetcar-type door, operated by a foot treadle, forced air ventilation and indirect interior lighting, at first fueled by acetylene gas.

The power plant was purchased and proved to be a 100-hp engine made by Standard Motor Construction Co. of New Jersey, selected because of its relative compactness. It was basically a marine engine and adapting it to the shake-rattle-and-roll railway environment proved to be a major frustration. The mechanical transmission employed an Octoroon sliding gear and friction clutch which gave two forward speeds and an intermediate position. The car was started by air on the first three of the six cylinders. Control levers were mounted vertically, and sideways to the operator.

The M-1 made its debut on the morning of March 7, 1905, on the UP's line from Omaha to Valley, Nebraska. To operate the car McKeen hired Clarence Beard who had run the Burlington's internal combustion inspection car; Beard became a longtime McKeen associate. Trial runs in the area consumed a month, then the car was sent to Colorado and Oregon for further trials which included pulling a standard mail car and coach up a one-third percent grade. Its first revenue service began on August 21, 1905, between Kearney and Callaway, Nebraska; this may well have been the first revenue passenger service by a rail motorcar anywhere in North America.

Troubles began immediately. Valve box gaskets blew out, motor stanchions snapped in two, the cooling and heating system clogged easily, the clutch slipped badly. The carburetor would not stay in adjustment, intake valves slipped, the gearshift would foul. It was a preview of things to come: McKeen cars early developed a reputation for unreliability. At first, this was simply a case of the primitive state of the art but, as other manufacturers later made improvements which McKeen stubbornly refused to copy, the McKeen car lost all appeal. After the relatively brisk sales years of 1910 and 1911, orders fell off drastically and McKeen began spending much of his time answering bitter complaints from his railroad mechanical colleagues.

But in 1905 the future looked bright. The M-1 was quickly followed by the much larger M-2, dubbed "the battleship." It was double truck, 55 feet long, weighed 55,000 pounds and seated 57. Outshopped in September 1905, the M-2 had an improved air-operated clutch for its 100-hp engine; the old hand-operated clutch had broken more than one motorman's arm! Speed on test runs reached 53 mph, partly credited to McKeen's improved rear truck design which employed elliptical springs. But the trucks frequently developed hot bearings.

Cars M-3 to M-6 were similar to M-2 and some were tested on other roads such as Southern Pacific and the Alton. By this time McKeen was getting bigger ideas. He published impressive claims about the economic (and mechanical) superiority of his car and personally penned the superlatives: the McKeen was "airtight, watertight and dustproof" due to its porthole windows; it was capable of high speeds due to its body design; it was simple to operate because "all the motorman has to do is look at the indicator to know which lever to move," and above all, it was an economic godsend to the hard-pressed railroads because "a locomotive requires 14 tons of fuel and 7,000 gallons of water while the McKeen car, to run the same distance, needs only 50 gallons of gasoline."

A major design change came in 1906 with introduction of the center-door car. The M-7 was also the first to sport porthole windows which, McKeen explained, strengthened the lightweight steel body. Also, the car design had been lengthened to 70 feet to provide space for baggage and mail. (One of the shorter cars had been given a small four-wheel trailer of McKeen design to haul baggage and express.) The M-7 was used on the Erie Railroad before being returned to the UP.

Then came the M-8 which boasted the first gasoline engine designed and built by McKeen. The 200-hp power plant was patterned closely after the usual marine engine but had a McKeen-designed carburetor. The new 4.1 ratio drive had specially cast steel gears instead of bronze; straight air brakes operated on all wheels.

By late 1907 McKeen had convinced Harriman to set him up as an independent manufacturer. The rail magnate was most generous: he turned over UP's north shop complex to McKeen, arranged to buy half the stock of the new corporation and turn over the rest to McKeen, arranged interviews with railroad bigwigs the country over and even threw a swank industry reception and banquet for McKeen in New York City. Trial runs on Harriman and other lines continued apace and interest in McKeen's new product indeed ran high among railroad men in 1908. The McKeen Motor Car Co. was officially launched on July 1, 1908, with Fred Jumper, of the UP, as sales manager and 50 employees on the payroll.

Not unexpectedly, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific quickly became McKeen's best customers. The two roads purchased 33 of the first 38 cars produced in the 1905-1908 period. The first "outside" order apparently comprised two cars for the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach in 1907, a short line serving the San Diego northern suburbs which later gave way to an electric interurban. The Chicago & Northwestern ordered one car in 1909 and the Santa Fe sampled a couple of McKeens in 1910. Also that year came purchases from Rock Island (four cars) and Chicago Great Western (three).

McKeen entered the foreign market in 1911 with sale of two 5'3" gauge cars to Victorian Railways of Australia. This was followed in 1912 by an order of five 3'6" cars by the Queensland Government Railway also from Down Under. Later McKeen sold a single car to the Norte de Cuba, and some second-hand cars wound up in Mexico.

By 1912, McKeen was having trouble marketing his product. Orders from outside railroads were slow, and the parent lines, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, weren't ordering at all; they had overbought in the first place and many of their McKeen cars were sitting idle. The arguments over high maintenance cost and low reliability were raging again, and a defensive McKeen hurled reams of tailored statistics at his critics (e.g., only 161 motor car failures in 21,456 trips up to August 10, 1910) in a vain attempt to rebut the complaints. Even letters to the Harriman Lines' New York offices begging for routine maintenance contracts went unacknowledged. Harriman was now dead, and McKeen's name was no longer magic in high places.

After unsuccessful attempts to build and market an industrial 0-4-0 switcher and a weedburner, McKeen built a few new cars until 1917 when the last unit was outshopped for the Army Air Service. A photo of this unit survives but its intended use is not known. One noteworthy accomplishment was production of the biggest McKeen car ever built--for the Southern Utah Railway in 1916. This car had two driving axles coupled by outside rods, and a 300-hp engine with chain drive to the axles. It replaced steam trains between Price and Hiawatha, Utah--18 miles of sharp curves and 4.92 percent grades. The 58- foot car weighed 91,000 pounds.

The move to heavier cars had started around 1913 and included the construction of a sample 50-foot trailer so that rail motorcar trains could be operated with McKeen equipment. This approach was also taken by some individual railroads, notably the Chicago Great Western which had its three McKeens rebuilt (by EMC) into the stylish "Blue Bird" pre-streamliner. The motor and two trailers included sleeper, lounge, buffet and coach sections. McKeen also employed factory-installed ball bearings on some units after 1913.

The World War I year of 1917 marked the last output by McKeen of complete cars and the firm was dissolved in 1920. The UP bought out McKeen's interest and paid his debts; McKeen reportedly came out of it a fairly wealthy man and retired to California, where he died in 1946.

After McKeen's plant closed down, the UP, in 1927, built two additional cars (M-29 and M-30) with unused McKeen bodies. In the lore of the rail motorcar, the McKeen legend lives on quite larger than life, thanks to the striking personality of one man and his torpedo-shaped vehicle.