Encyclopedia of Trains, Rail and Locomotives: EMD, the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors

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The company that grew to be the largest diesel locomotive builder in the world evolved from three separate endeavors. The first was the tiny Electro-Motive Company (EMC), founded in Cleveland by H. L. Hamilton to produce gasoline-powered railcars for passenger service. The second was the Winton Engine Company, originally an automotive company turned successful manufacturer of four-cycle diesel engines for marine applications, whose engines were considered to be heavy, cumbersome, and sluggish. The key to the combine was Charles Kettering, who directed a project in the research facilities of General Motors that was experimenting with two-cycle diesels, and by 1930, had achieved the same horsepower in an engine 25 percent smaller and with a 20 percent weight reduction.


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The low-cost, dependable, gasoline-powered railcars of EMC were popular with the railroads as they tried to stem the financial losses caused by passenger service on lightly traveled lines. Hamilton did not manufacture his own cars, but contracted to have them assembled from purchased components. Winton supplied the engines, other components came from the standard industry sources, and the parts were assembled by a car builder, such as St. Louis Car Company, at its own plant.

In the late 1920s, the rising price of gasoline and the demand for higher horse power indicated the need for an improved diesel power plant, but the Winton Company, although profitable, was not big enough to commit the resources necessary for the development of a low-cost, light weight, and efficient two-cycle power plant. GM needed a significant application for Kettering’s new engine, so Winton, already a supplier to Electro-Motive, was acquired by GM. When the world slid into the Great Depression, EMC’s business collapsed.


The Union Pacific M-10000 was a joint effort between Pullman Standard and General Motors and was the first “streamliner,” completed in February 1934. Because of the brown and yellow unit’s spark-ignition distillate engine, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Zephyr, completed two months later, was credited as the first diesel-electric streamliner in the world.

As Winton’s biggest customer and with experience in the application of internal- combustion engines to railroad products, EMC also became a target for acquisition by GM, and was purchased through a $1.2 million exchange of stock. The transformation of railroading in North America had begun.

The 1930s found GM establishing itself in the railroad industry. A Winton four- cycle power plant was installed in the Union Pacific’s M-10000, the 1934 pioneer. As was typical of Burlington’s Zephyr, Illinois Central’s Green Diamond, and the other early attempts at Winton diesel-powered streamliners, the M-10000 was built as a fixed train set, with the power unit and individual cars articulated on shared trucks. This meant shop maintenance to any unit removed the entire train from operation, and these early power cars were not classified as locomotives.

This lack of flexibility, as well as the need to utilize the existing railroad passenger car fleets, encouraged GM to develop a pair of independent passenger road units, which were demonstrated in 1935. Producing 1,800 hp from their Winton engines and riding on four-wheel trucks with each axle powered, the locomotives impressed both the Santa Fe and Baltimore & Ohio enough for them to order some. These homely box cabs became the first high-speed, diesel-powered locomotives that could operate with any train.

While this example proved that the GM/Winton/EMC combination could deliver a functional product, many problems remained to be solved: the engines were still being built at the Winton plant for assembly by the supplier of the car bodies; the box cab packaging was inappropriate in the context of the streamlining mania of the 1930s; and no standardization had yet evolved.


The rakishly slanting boat-like nose of the Electro-Motive Division’s early E Unit passenger diesel inspired a number of elegant “bow wave “paint schemes. Atlantic Coast Line’s West Coast Champion roars across the St. John’s River behind E3 No. 501, just a few minutes out off Jacksonville.

General Motors moved to solve these problems in 1935, giving stature (and the ability to raise expansion capital) to their locomotive business by establishing it as their Electro-Motive Division, or EMD, with consequences unanticipated by other builders. Manufacturing efficiency was improved with the establishment of a new plant, for both engines and car bodies, in La Grange, Illinois, a dozen miles (19 km) west of downtown Chicago; its first unit was completed in 1936. Early business at La Grange consisted primarily of switch engines powered by eight- and twelve-cylinder Winton engines. The passenger locomotive designated TA, with its rakishly slanted nose, was built for the Rock Island in 1937; it was the first locomotive with the car body built by GM. Later in 1937, the stylish E Unit, although still Winton-powered, introduced GM’s twin trademarks of distinctive styling and rigorous production standards to an industry that had previously relied on custom building.

GM was adamant that the standardization practiced in the automobile industry was the key to mass production and there fore the key to success with locomotives. A major railroad that had expressed an interest in a single locomotive of the new untried design arrived at the plant with a large roll of drawings detailing desired design changes. While this had been common in the old steam-loco tradition, the acceptance of any changes would legitimize the practice and make future standardization impossible. The order was canceled until GM offered to take the loco back if it failed.

This insistence on mass production efficiency through standardization (with add-on options) successfully initiated the concept for both EMD and the rest of the industry. Customizing an identifiable image for a railroad was accomplished with strong graphics and colorful paint schemes developed by GM’s styling department. While steam locomotives had evolved to the point of being black with occasional color, and diesels of all manufacturers were multicolored with occasional black accents, the rail roads of the coal regions often stood by tradition, opting for units in basic black.


Conrail has retained three EMD E8 A Units for use on official trains. The 2,250-hp units built by General Motors in 1951 represent the classic image of the diesel- electric passenger locomotive.

By 1938, after years of exhaustive testing, La Grange was ready to produce GM’s own two-cycle engine. GM was aware that road failures, particularly in highly publicized premium service, would destroy the image and acceptability of their new diesel engine Corporate concern was strong enough that beds were installed in the engine rooms of early diesels so EMD mechanics could ride around the clock to ensure proper maintenance and handle emergency repairs.

Designated model 567 for the cubic-inch displacement of each cylinder, the sixteen-cylinder version of this engine, developing 1,650 hp, was installed in the first road freight prototype, model FT The FTs differed from the F Units in that they were powered by a single engine and rode on four-wheel power trucks, while the earlier passenger loco had dual engines on six- wheel trucks.

GM readied the FT demonstrator for in-service testing in late 1939. The prototype was composed of two cab units semi-permanently coupled to two cabless booster units (producing a total of 5,400 hp) dressed in dark green with buff trim and designated as a single locomotive, No. 103. The two cabs were blessed with the famous “bulldog” nose that was to become the La Grange image for the next twenty years, and both cabs and boosters carried four round portholes on their sides. The demonstration tour was a magnificent success for GM. The FT hauled freight under all conditions on twenty railroads in 35 states. Santa Fe placed the first order and assigned their FTs to the “bad water” areas of the arid Southwest, while the Southern purchased the reconditioned demonstrator. The flexibility of the building- block approach that added horsepower by coupling on another booster made these new locomotives as useful for racing across the prairies as for struggling up mountain passes, which wasn’t possible with specific- purpose steam locomotives.

The United States’ entry into World War II helped solidify GM’s position as the leader in the diesel locomotive field, as no other manufacturer built over-the-road freight diesels. Alco and Baldwin built only yard switchers; only Alco had gone so far as to design a road unit, but none was yet built. When the War Production Board assigned priorities, only GM was in a position to produce road diesels, but they were prohibited from building switchers. The wartime restrictions helped EMD’s techno logical lead, which it maintained for almost forty years.

Following the war, all the builders scrambled to supply the railroads with new power. The extreme demands placed on both rolling stock and physical plants, already weakened by the depression, had hastened the further decline of the rail roads. Baldwin, Lima, and Alco, still professing the superiority of steam, were introducing new models as late as 1946, badly misjudging the market. While there was little call for steam power, there were plenty of sales to be made in all categories of diesels—GM had booked F Unit orders with thirty railroads by the end of 1946.

GM promised increased horsepower, optional high-speed gearing for passenger service, and an improved electrical system. The interim successor to the FT was the F2, which was made for only five months before the F 3 went into production at the rate of seventy units per month.

While the other builders emulated EMD, even producing comparable units and, it could be argued, superior features, in most cases it was too late. EMD’s established service organization with years of experience, and a system of factory branches and parts warehouses, meant that ordering from a different manufacturer was far riskier for both the executives involved and the railroad. Old alliances and offerings that filled particular market niches meant those risks were taken and business kept trickling in to Alco, Baldwin, Fairbanks-Morse, and Lima. But, in the early l950s, the F7 swept the market.

GM ultimately sold approximately 7,100 freight-hauling F Units of all variations, 2,900 of them boosters (B Units) and 455 of the four-foot-longer passenger- hauling FPs (79 of them B Units). Additionally, the New Haven ordered sixty dual-power units, designated FL9, convertible between internally generated power and outside third rail. The final Fs were turned out of La Grange in 1960.

The F Units were so dominant that the established builders were mortally wounded. Congress was called upon to investigate whether GM had used illegal restraint of trade and unfair practices to create a monopoly. Hearings began in 1955, and testimony developed the theory that GM had used its position as the nation’s largest shipper to force the rail roads to buy EMD locomotives. It was alleged that GM was given an unfair advantage during World War II when it was the only builder allocated materials to construct road freight diesels, and there fore had been provided an insurmountable lead in the postwar marketplace.


The New Georgia Railroad operates two restored FF7 A Units obtained from the Southern Railway. The 1,500-hp locomotives were built in 1950 by EMD.


A trio of Pennsylvania Railroad F3s, in the classic A-B-A arrangement, bigbballs out of Enola Yard and along the Susquehanna River, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in May 1950. What appear to be band-rails on the roofs are actually induction train phone antennae.

The testimony against GM had been largely circumstantial and was refuted by somewhat vague statistics and equally circumstantial testimony, but the steam builders’ postwar insistence on the superiority of steam combined with the inability of the other diesel builders to capitalize on their early lead in road-switcher sales was damning evidence. As the hearings droned on to the inevitable conclusion favoring GM, the F Unit was already obsolete, having been replaced by the road switcher.

To compete in the road-switcher niche, without obviously copying the competition, EMD introduced the lovable oddball BL1 (Branch Line) in February 1948. Offered in both freight and passenger versions, the production model was designated BL2, and was an F3 dressed up in a semi- streamlined car body for way freight use. The design provided front and rear-end platforms, a tapered engine compartment for rear visibility, and sloping notches in the sides so the engineer could easily see the brakemen working on the ground. Despite its heavy-shouldered, bulldog-like appearance, the BLs were thought to be attractive enough to serve on suburban and local passenger runs, as well as way freights, but only fifty-nine models were sold before production ended in May 1949.

After its competitors had pioneered the road-switcher concept, GM first dipped in a toe with the BL and then jumped into the market in 1949 with the GP7 (General Purpose), which shared the 1,500-hp 567 engine and other components with the F7. The Fs outsold the GPs until 1954, when the F9 and GP9 were introduced. The GP design featured a narrow hood over the engine compartment with an outside walk way and a wide cab, so that visibility to the rear was greatly improved over the F, thus being more useful for switching cars at industries along the main line. The GP models, nicknamed “Geeps” became the universal loco the railroads were looking for. They pulled everything in sight—way freights, branch-line passenger, transfer drags, main-line passenger, commuter, main-line freight—whatever was needed.

In 1952, the SD7 (Special Duty), resembling a lengthened GP7 but with six-wheel C-C trucks, was introduced. The extra wheels provided lighter axle loading on branch lines, and the two extra-traction motors offered greater starting tractive effort as well as continuous tractive effort up to 12 mph (19 kph), an advantage in low-speed, heavy-drag, and transfer operations.

The GP and SD models were steadily improved with horsepower increases and such options as turbo-charging, steam generators, oversize fuel tanks, and dynamic brakes. The SD4O of 1966 produced 3,000 hp from sixteen cylinders, and the SD45’s twenty-cylinder prime movers turned out 3,600 hp. Both designs were produced in passenger hauling versions, and with the F45 (and passenger FP45) EMD returned to the cowl design—a sort of squared-off version of the bulldog nose.


The Southern Pac still rostered ninety-three of the EMD SD9s in 1992, almost 20 percent of the original production. The 16-cylinder 1,750-hp prime mover supplies power to six-wheel trucks.


Chicago Rail Link, one of the spinoffs of several major North American railroads, operates this GP7, the first EMD road switcher model (built from 1949 to 1954). The unit has been remodeled with a “chopped nose” which became a standard feature of later designs. (bottom) The 16-cylinder 567-series General Motors two-cycle diesel engine (prime mover) was originally built for the F3, but was the basis for power plants installed in EMD locomotives for 15 years.

In January 1972, the Dash 2 line, which consisted of the earlier model designations with a “-2” added, was introduced. It had AC power produced by alternators, rather than the previous DC generators; modularized electrical cabinets; and a number of changes designed to enhance reliability.

While standardization as a way of life dominated thinking at La Grange, there was room for occasional diversity in the interest of experimentation and advancement. In 1956, GM produced a unique demonstrator — the turret-cabbed, light weight Aerotrain, heralded as the passenger train of the future but very much a return to the early days of integrated train sets with power cars. Only one additional unit was built—the Rock Island Talgo Jet Rocket—but it was never mass-produced.

A 1951 experimental 340-hp industrial switcher was driven directly by means of Allison torque converters, and General Motors Diesel ( Canada) produced the GMDH-1, a center-cab diesel-hydraulic industrial switcher. Thirteen of the MRS-1s were built for the U.S. Army, in 1952, with multi-gauge trucks, while the GA8 was produced for narrow-gauge lines in Mexico and Newfoundland.


Above: The merger of Southern Pacific and Denver & Rio Grande was accompanied by the adoption of a new logo, seen here on No. 7115, a 3,000-hp GP4OM built in 1991 by the Electro Motive Division of General Motors.


Above: A high-nosed SD7 with 1,500-hp exhibits the SF former standard “bloody nose” paint scheme. A 1952 product of EMD, the unit was among 28 survivors in 1992.

The Union Pacific was well known, in steam days, for its devotion to unusual, powerful, and often very large locomotives, and that reputation carried on in the diesel era. EMD designed the DD3 5, a thirty-two- cylinder, 5,000-hp, D-D trucked behemoth. More than 88 feet (26 m) long and with a rigid wheelbase exceeding 17 feet (5 m), longer by a foot (0.3 m) than the Baldwin Centipede, it was essentially two GP 3 5s on a single frame and was called “the 5,000 horsepower track straightener” by trackside wits. UP’s generous engineering standards allowed for such a monster, and management liked the idea of eliminating six- and eight-unit lash-ups on long, fast freights. UP bought forty-five of the units, and another forty-seven of the specially designed 6,600-hp DDA40X cowl units, called Centennials in honor of the one- hundredth anniversary of the golden spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah. Even these low-volume locomotives used standard components common to other high-production units, thus remaining consistent with the firm’s basic philosophy.

The GM theories of mass production of standard models, with limited options turned into solid examples of the best of the locomotive builder’s art, allowed EMD to dominate the North American locomotive market until 1983, when competitor General Electric, already well established in the worldwide market, suddenly jumped into the sales lead with their highly fuel- efficient Dash 8 models. The worldwide oil crisis drove up fuel prices.

On January 12, 1988, the unthinkable happened—GM announced that assembly of diesel locomotives at the sprawling La Grange plant would cease by 1991, and the facility that was EMD would be relegated to engine assembly, engineering, and a parts warehouse. Production of new loco motives would continue at the company’s much smaller Canadian plant in London, Ontario.

It seemed impossible that the mighty giant that once had a virtual lock on the North American locomotive business had fallen victim to a combination of a depressed market and great technological advances evidenced by the products of rival General Electric. The situation remains in flux. The reliability of the GE locomotives has become suspect and production continues at La Grange. The future of EMD, the company that dieselized North America, remains to be seen.

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