EMD hung its hat on the 567 engine

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, April 19, 2022

EMC's revolutionary 567 engine on the factory floor at La Grange. EMD photo
Hard as it is to believe for a firm once considered an upstart, this is the centennial year of Electro-Motive, the company that in so many ways put the steam locomotive out of business. 

Centennial celebrations seem a bit muted, although the Trains staff has produced a handsome one-off magazine called “EMD at 100,” now on sale, and Caterpillar’s Progress Rail, the current manufacturer of the Electro-Motive Diesel brand, honors the past with a nice historical review on its website.

It was back in 1922 that a small group of visionary engineers organized the first Electro-Motive Engineering Company in a small building in Cleveland, bent on changing the trajectory of railroading. It didn’t take long for their ideas to bear fruit, and within a few years they were a ward of General Motors, first as wholly owned subsidiary and, after 1940, as a full-blown division of GM. All of which culminated in 1940 with the introduction of the revolutionary FT.

The centennial has been on my mind recently as my colleague Martha Abbey Miller and I put the finishing touches on her father Wallace W. Abbey’s last book, “The Diesel that Did It,” coming later this year from Indiana University Press. Abbey spent much of the 1990s writing and researching this history of the FT, and although health problems caused him to cut short his work after 2000, we’ve done our best to complete the project as closely as possible to how he envisioned it.

Charles Kettering (left) and Harold Hamilton with the original Zephyr. Classic Trains collection
The book is full of the kind of drama only a writer of Abbey’s caliber can muster. It’s a story of visionaries like Harold L. Hamilton and Charles W. “Boss” Kettering, who pushed theories of simplified mass production taken directly from the automobile business. It’s a story about style, in which the elegant compound curves of the FT came to symbolize railroading itself. And it’s a story about performance, wherein a series of grueling field trials showed the FT had muscle. 

It’s also the story of something much more essential: the 567-model engine, the prime mover that ultimately made everything possible. In his book, Abbey offers an elegant description:

“The 567 was a two-stroke-cycle compression-ignition engine, each piston of which displaced 567-1/2 cubic inches of air, hence the engine’s model number. The cylinders were 8-1/2 inches in diameter; the pistons had a 10-inch stroke. The pistons compressed the air in the cylinders in a 16:1 ratio. Per horsepower, the 567 engine weighed a mere 17.9 pounds. Under standard conditions — temperature 60 degrees Fahrenheit, altitude 1,000 feet — the 567 would produce 106 horsepower per cylinder. Every minute, the explosions in the cylinders would drop on the pistons a load equal to the weight of a Navy heavy cruiser. The 567 engine would doom the steam locomotive.”

The 567 wasn’t the engine that launched EMD. Credit for that goes mostly to the 201 and 201A engines built by EMC partner Winton Engine Co. These two-cycle, 8-cylinder inline diesels powered the early Budd-built streamliners, notably Burlington’s first Zephyr, three siblings that followed, plus Boston & Maine’s Flying Yankee

Improved versions of the 1,200-h.p. 201A went into the boxy diesels that represented EMC’s first stab at road power, simply numbered 511 and 512, along with later iterations of passenger power. But, as Abbey writes, the Winton engines “were far from bug-free. Their design didn’t lend itself to mass production.” The biggest problems were related to inefficient cooling, to the point where traction motors failed and impurities fouled engine bearings. 

Electro-Motive's original headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. EMD photo
The 567 pretty much solved all that, and best of all, it was a pure EMC and EMD product, designed and manufactured right there in the company’s famed La Grange plant outside Chicago. Initially it came in three sizes, a 600 h.p. V-6, a 1,000-h.p. V-12, and, ultimately at its most influential, a 1,350-h.p. V-16, with higher horsepower ratings to come later. And it was known as much for its durability as its horsepower.

Relatively easy maintenance helped make the case for the 567, especially when considering the steam locomotive’s Achilles heel: the vast shops and forces necessary to support it. Abbey explains: “The 567 was easy to work on. Take off the top deck covers and most everything that might need to be unbolted or adjusted was right in front of you. Power assemblies — cylinder liners, pistons, connecting rods, cylinder heads, injectors — could be removed with a small block and tackle.”

Beyond the obvious mechanical and economic impacts of the 567, there was another less tangible but no less memorable aspect to its performance: the way it sounded. Longtime Trains Editor David P. Morgan said the 567 “chanted,” and it was an apt description. 

Morgan expanded on that in September 1972 issue of Trains, which celebrated EMD’s 50th anniversary. He was talking about the sound of “original” 567s, “not so much the sound of 1972, when engine exhaust is muffled by all that strange-sounding electrical gear, but rather the sound of straight, unadulterated 567-series V-16s winding their 8 ½ x 10-inch cylinders from 275 up to 800 rpm — easy on the ear, a right sound if there ever was one in all of internal combustion.”

That sound — and that performance — powered virtually all of EMD’s locomotives between 1938 and the introduction of the 645 engine on production models in 1966. It’s a remarkable record for something so basic as an engine. So, this year, as you contemplate EMD’s centennial, save some huzzahs for the sturdy, reliable 567.

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