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General Motors' Diesel History - Baselines

Long Before The 6.2L And Duramax...

Photography by Jim Rees, Courtesy of General Motors

In the late-'20s, Charles Kettering of General Motors embarked on a program to develop a two-cycle lightweight diesel engine for possible usage in automobiles. To cut development time, the faster route was to search for, and purchase, a successful diesel manufacturer. Mr. Kettering, always a step ahead, felt a combination of new GM subsidiary organizations, talent, along with GM capital and existing R&D facilities would surely produce a winner.

Narrowing his corporate search to three successful players, the company purchased the Winton Engine Company of Cleveland, Ohio. This established and highly profitable organization was the last owned venture of Alexander Winton, one of America's least known automotive pioneers.

The Winton Connection
Like others at the turn of the last century, Winton's initial claim to fame came from the bicycle business. Winton, a Scottish immigrant, came through Ellis Island in 1878. Upon arrival, the 19-year-old began a marine engineering program on steamships making the Atlantic crossings. Having his fill of continued saltwater vapors, he settled in Midwestern Cleveland, living with his sister and brother in law. Using his engineering background, he found employment in the city's iron ore processing industry. Steel was rapidly becoming the substance of choice in consumer products.

Bicycles, being the current rage, quickly drew his attention. And with his brother-in-law's modest financial support and assistance founded the Winton Bicycle Company. The horse and carriage was still the primary mode of travel, so the bicycle was a best-seller among the rich and well-to-do, for both its convenience and reinforcement of personal freedom.

Winton's rapid manufacturing success generated the cash flow necessary to enter his next area of interest, the fledgling horseless carriage market. In October of 1896, he introduced his first motorized platform, a motor-powered wagon. It is important to note that this was only a short three years after the Duryea brothers unveiled their gasoline-powered automobile, and the same year in which Ransom Olds and Henry Ford unveiled their automobiles in Lansing and Detroit , Michigan.

One year later, the new Winton Motor Carriage Company was in full production, establishing itself as one of the pioneers in the new automotive marketplace. Of the early automotive brands, the Winton was considered the most powerful and most technologically advanced. In addition, the company was one of the first American firms to sell automobiles through dealers on a retail basis.

Winton Loses to Ford
Winton automobiles were the first to cross America, coast to coast, and also one of the first to enter organized racing. A twist of fate enters here, as today Winton is more famous for the races he lost to Henry Ford. On October 10, 1901, an unknown Henry Ford, using a homemade platform, forced Winton to drop out of a 10-mile race, due to mechanical problems in front of 8,000 people. Ford turned his win into an investment opportunity and formed the Henry Ford Company.

Just a year and 15 days later, Ford again raced Winton for his first company was broke and in disarray. This time, Ford had a superior platform, the "999" with Barney Oldfield now as his driver. Ford wins the repeat event and immediately forms the Ford Motor Company. Winton, the loser, continues to build and successfully sell automobiles of superior engineering and advanced design. He went on to use his profits to form the Winton Engine and Manufacturing Company to build marine and diesel powerplants. Though his automotive production ceased in 1924, his successful marine and diesel business was sold to Mr. Kettering and General Motors in 1930. Winton's largest customer Electro-motive was also purchased by GM six months later.

The First Winton-GM Two-Stroke Diesels
Initially, both Winton in Cleveland and the General in Detroit worked in parallel on new powerplants. The companies decided that they could produce larger amounts of horsepower using a radical two-cycle diesel design. There were some problems with the new concept, however. The two-cycle units ran hotter, experienced more stress, and had a lower power to stroke ratio than the established four-cycle configuration. At this point in time, the other diesel builders were using four-cycle versions. In the four-cycle engines, each cylinder fired once for every two rotations of the crankshaft. The new Winton-GM design had the crankshaft making a single revolution between each expansion stroke, thus twice as many expansion strokes for each revolution of the crankshaft. Fuel consumption and longevity were not issues during this timeframe. The goal was to match the power output of the steam engines available in that same tile period.

In the end, Kettering's auto diesel program was a money drainer and yielded few results-the only direct success being the sale of several Winton Marine engines to the U.S. Navy. The General, however, displayed two of these impressive prototype two-cycle eight-cylinder 201-series powerplants at their pavilion at the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago. These units supplied the power to run the Chevrolet assembly line exhibit. While on display, they were observed in operation by Ralph Budd, then president of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad.

The Zephyr Train Connection
Budd was so impressed by the new diesels that he tracked down and convinced skeptical GM officials to provide the novel units for his revolutionary lightweight streamlined stainless-steel Zephyr passenger train. At the time American railroad companies were looking for ways to revamp and increase passenger travel.

On its inaugural run on April 17, 1934, the Zephyr, more than exceeded all expectations by proving the advantages of diesel power. On May 26, 1934, a run from Denver to Chicago, 1,015.4 miles was covered in 13 hours, 4 minutes, and 58 seconds at an average speed of 76.61 mph. On the straight portions of the trip, the train reportedly exceeded 112 mph. The futuristic streamliner ran faster, at lower cost per mile, and attracted more press and passengers.

Assembled at the Edward C. Budd plant in Philadelphia, the Zephyr was indeed something out of Buck Rogers. To begin with, the articulating four units were mounted on only five trucks. In this fashion, the 280-foot-long train immediately eliminated three trucks and 34 wheels from conventional steam-powered units, obviously a weight savings. Traditional slack action was also eliminated by mounting the front part of one car and the rear of the preceding unit on the same truck, fastened together by a flexible joint design, allowing the Zephyr to take the curves more efficiently. Roller bearings were installed on all the axles to reduce friction and maintenance.

The highlight, of course, was the V-8, two-cycle Winton 201A diesel powerplant, which produced 660 horsepower. It ran on conventional fuel oil and operated without spark plugs or an ignition system. The powerplant also operated the General Electric GT-534 main generator, which supplied current to two GE 716 traction motors mounted on the lead truck. This lead truck turned 36-inch wheels for traction, while the other unit trucks ran 30-inchers. The power truck's gear ratio was 52:25:1 for a designed maximum speed of 117 mph. The unit also carried a belt-driven GT1177A-1 back-up generator, three motor-driven air compressors, and the needed two radiator cooling fans. The lead unit also carried 600 gallons of fuel, 80 gallons of lube, 140 gallons of water (for cooling), and 12 cubic feet of sand. The new Zephyr train weighed 287,245 pounds, fully loaded, including its 92 passengers. That was less than the combined weight of two conventional coaches standing alone.

The lead unit contained the diesel engine, a 30-foot Railway Post Office and a 15-foot mail storage area. Unit two housed a 64-foot baggage and express car. Three contained the kitchen with a pantry in the front and a full service counter facing the dinette area, including 16 seats laid out in quads, that were set up for mealtimes and later removed. Twenty additional chairs rose the seating capacity of this car to 36. Unit four contained coach seating for 40 passengers in the fore section with the rear containing a solarium parlor-lounge with movable seating if needed, for 16 more.

As with all passenger service, the design and interior appointments were designer label with passenger comforts in mind. Color harmonies and hues downplayed excessive doo-dads. Stainless-steel window frame sills and trim highlighted the comfort seating, specialty drapes, and carpeting. Interior lighting was provided by diffused overhead tubular ducts. All the passenger compartments were climate controlled with thermostat-regulated steam heat, along with cabin air-conditioning.

All four of the Zephyrs shared the 18-8 stainless steel construction, a non-corrosive alloy, which had a tensile strength three times higher than conventional steel. The outer skin used the Budd electric shot-welding process, which made the whole unit unique with unibody construction and integral support. In true futuristic fashion, even the cars' underbodies were encased to eliminate undue wind resistance.

Although other railroads ordered versions of the trains equipped with GM diesels, it was not until the final months of 1934 that GM officials fully acknowledge the possible sales potential of the diesel-powered railroad locomotive. After dallying yet another year, it finally started development of GM's 567 version designed specifically for railroad operations. The company continued its trickle of investment in diesels until 1940, when military demand for all types of these powerplants skyrocketed.

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