Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Transportation History

The Diesel That Did It

General Motors' FT Locomotive

by (author) Wallace W. Abbey

edited by Kevin P. Keefe & Martha A. Miller

contributions by Greg McDonnell

Indiana University Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2022
History, Rail Travel, Pictorial
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2022
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


The Diesel That Did It tells the story of the legendary diesel-electric locomotive, the FT.

As war loomed in 1939, American railroads were on the precipice of railroad transformation. In an obscure factory in La Grange, Illinois, a group of gifted engineers and designers were planning a revolution that would shake railroading to its foundations and eventually put the steam locomotive out of business. Their creation, the FT, was a diesel-electric, semi-streamlined freight engine. The FT would establish a new standard for reliability, flexibility, and cost, but its arrival unsettled many railroad employees and gave fresh ammunition to their labor unions, who believed that it threatened a century-old culture.

Wallace W. Abbey's The Diesel That Did It is the story of a revolution. He explores how EMC (and its successor Electro-Motive Division of General Motors) conceived the FT, and how it ultimately emerged as the dominant locomotive power plant for 20 years. However, for Abbey, the history of the Santa Fe Railway and the FT go hand in hand. The Diesel That Did It also offers a penetrating look at how the great American railroad, at the height of its Super Chief glamor, threw its conservative mechanical traditions aside to bet big on the diesel.

Showcasing more than 140 exquisite photographs by Abbey and other noted photographers, The Diesel That Did It is a captivating story not to be missed by railroaders and railfans.

About the authors

Wallace W. Abbey's profile page

Kevin P. Keefe's profile page

Martha A. Miller's profile page

Greg McDonnell is the author of 10 books on a wide range of transportation subjects and a professional photojournalist for railroad publications in the United States and Canada. He received the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society's Fred A. and Jane R. Stindt Photography Award for significant contribution to the photographic interpretation of North America's railroading history. He lives in Cambridge, Ontario.

Greg McDonnell's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"Wallace W. Abbey had already embarked on a long career as a participant in and observer of the rail industry when in 1945 he witnessed the arrival of the first Santa Fe FT diesel in Chicago. The teenaged Abbey knew he was seeing the future. Gifted as both a writer and photographer — with an insatiable curiosity about railroading — Abbey spent decades gathering material about the Santa Fe's landmark FT fleet, and this marvelous book is the result."?Robert S. McGonigal, Editor, Classic Trains magazine

"Abbey's book is a must-read for serious students of dieselization and the constructive disruption it brought to North American railroads. Electro-Motive's FT was a radical new locomotive created by engineers who dreamt a future. Santa Fe was the first railway to grasp the FT's significance: a fleet of 320 units engaged in an industrial duel in the wartime American southwest. Steam was convincingly shoved ingloriously offstage into history's shadows and a permanent past."?Michael Iden, P.E., retired Union Pacific motive chief

"Yes, this is the story of a locomotive, the FT diesel. But it is also the story of a company, the glorious Santa Fe Railway, that clasped the FT to its bosom and demonstrated during World War II that here was a mighty workhorse. With that, the steam locomotive was doomed. Who but Wally Abbey could spin this tale so well? After all, he grew up with the FT and alongside the Santa Fe and knew and understood both. So sit back and be seduced by Wally's relaxing narrative about a time long ago and a revolutionary locomotive long gone (but not forgotten)."?Fred W. Frailey, author and longtime Trains magazine columnist

"For five decades wordsmith Wallace W. Abbey wrote informative and insightful articles about the American railroad industry, its trials, tribulations, and occasional triumphs. Long fascinated by the revolution wrought by dieselization, Abbey uses the Electro-Motive Corporation's FT diesels as employed on the Santa Fe Railway to demonstrate the extraordinary impact these locomotives had on railroad management, operations, labor and regulatory agencies. Beautifully illustrated and a great read."?Keith L. Bryant, Jr., co-author (with Fred W. Frailey) History of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, revised and expanded edition

"The Diesel That Did It will appeal to anyone who is interested in the steam-to-diesel transition era and its impact on the photogenic AT&SF railway. Contemporary photographers documenting BNSF's operations will enjoy this look at how the railroad appeared in the first half of the last century."?Bill Hough, NRHS Bulletin

Other titles by Greg McDonnell