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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
Oct 2022
History, Pictorial, Transport, Rail Travel
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2022
    List Price

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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

Excerpt: 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)


In their day, the FTs were a mighty advancement in the state of the locomotive art. Today we'd regard them as primitive, and from where we sit now, we'd be right. But we wouldn't have called them primitive in the years just before and during World War II. Then, they were the newest and fanciest kids on the block. The Model F changed the course of railroading for the better and for all time. Together, the Santa Fe and its first freight diesel-electrics introduced an operational renaissance the railroad industry had long needed. They did so in remarkably difficult times. The renaissance might not have happened had the times not been so strenuous. It could have happened more rapidly, and doubtless would have, had the nation not been at war.

Here, we'll get to know the designer and manufacturer of Santa Fe's FTs, the outfit we've known down through time as the Electro-Motive Corporation, or the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, or just plain Electro-Motive, or EMC, or most often EMD. The company is no longer a member of the General Motors family; today it's called Electro-Motive Diesel, a brand of Progress Rail, a Caterpillar subsidiary. EMD for years supplied most of the diesel-electrics for the railroad industry. Ultimately, two dozen railroads would acquire the FT.

Famous in its day—among locomotive fanciers, anyway—the FT probably is forgotten now except by the fatally dedicated. No one at today's EMD nor on today's railroads were around that far back in history. Were the FT somehow to come back, it wouldn't fit the patterns and practices of contemporary Santa Fe operations. Nor would it fit anywhere else.

The FT won't come back, of course, although even at this writing it's not altogether gone. The carbody of one section of the first FT built has been in a museum in St. Louis since 1961. It's memorialized as a national historical engineering landmark. Another unit that belonged originally to the Northern Pacific may still be around in Mexico.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway is anything but forgotten. What was long known simply as the Santa Fe, and then became part of the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe, remains readily identifiable by tradition. The manner in which the former Santa Fe serves the nation's commerce has changed greatly over the years, as one might expect—and hope. After all, our story begins a long time ago.

We will look at freight dieselization from many vantage points, observing how, simultaneously, the FT was regarded as an engineering marvel, a balance sheet boon, an operational challenge, an employee threat, a wartime workhorse, and a new battleground for the labor unions.

Editorial Reviews

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

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, <em>Classic Trains magazine</em>

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 <em>Trains</em> magazine columnist

Other titles by Greg McDonnell