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McKeen Rail Motor Car the McKeen Motor Car Company

The Distinctive and Aerodynamic McKeen Rail Motor Car

* Updated * Just the other day we featured a postcard of a McKeen Rail Car in Portland, Oregon and in this post can be found a number of interesting photos and patent application drawings covering the unique machines. The McKeen Motor Car Company of Omaha, Nebraska was the builder of most these internal combustion engine-powered railroad motor cars. The photo above shows one that was operated by the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Union Pacific management started the venture in 1904 by asking William McKeen to develop a way of running small passenger trains more economically than was possible with steam by using gasoline engine power. McKeen was the Union Pacific Railroad’s Superintendent of Motive Power at the time and produced a unique design that was ahead of its time. The Railroad built the first four cars, and subsequent units were constructed by McKeen in leased space at Union Pacific’s Omaha Shops.

The McKeen Motor Car Company was founded by the designer, and around one hundred and fifty units were built between 1906 and 1917. Gasoline engines as large as 5650 CI that produced between 100 and 300 hp were used, and speeds of over eighty mph were possible under ideal conditions. Over the years, a variety of drive mechanisms – gasoline-mechanical, gasoline-electric, and diesel-electric were tried. * Update * Read more about one of these machines below in the December 31, 1909 Railway World.

Unfortunately, it appears that McKeen’s internal combustion engine designs were not up to the task. The streamlined Motor Cars performance suffered due to power plant reliability issues and a lack of sufficient power in most cases.

For further information about these unusual machines visit the McKeen Car Website. Thirty-one patents received by the McKeen Motor Car Company and the drawings can be seen here. The Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, Nevada, has a re-powered restored McKeen Rail Car that you can also view.

  • McKeen Rail Motor Car the McKeen Motor Car Company
  • An interior view – Raymond S Zeitler – Self-contained Railway Motor Cars and Locomotives, 1921.
  • McKeen Rail Motor Car the McKeen Motor Car Company
  • One of two McKeen Rail Cars in service in Australia – Photo courtesy of the Museum Victoria.
  • McKeen Rail Motor Car the McKeen Motor Car Company
  •                    An engine room photo courtesy of the McKeen Car Website.
  • McKeen Rail Motor Car the McKeen Motor Car Company
  • A power plant assembly – Raymond S Zeitler – Self-contained Railway Motor Cars and Locomotives.
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  • An interesting article in the December 31, 1909 “Railway World”.


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  • A structure and body design patent application drawing.
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  •                              A patent application drawing of the distinctive port hole windows.
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  •       A patent application drawing for a horizontally-opposed six-cylinder power plant.
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  •                              A patent application drawing for a OHV engine with an open crankcase.

11 responses to “The Distinctive and Aerodynamic McKeen Rail Motor Car

    • Thanx for those pix! They reveal more about the layout than the original photos. It’s nice to see the unit in full color livery.

      Two things struck me immediately though. One was that the noisy chattering engine was open and located just behind the motorman’s perch at the front of the car. The other was that heavy Nautilus-grade porthole window when the ceiling catch was suddenly released and gravity prevailed.

      • Those porthole windows were one of the real disadvantage to a McKean. They weighed about 70 pounds, and it took two strong men to open or close them them. Once they were open, they were held up in the car interior by the small chain in the drawing. This method failed several times and caused injury to both crew and passengers. McKean beefed up the window opener in later cars but they still had a tendency to rust out and fail. Some railroads ordered their McKeans with traditional rectangular windows to obviate this problem. Te gasoline engine was a triumph in 1905 but all the difficulties of maintaining a gasoline engine in a railroad environment later emerged. McKean refused to switch to a diesel engine, which doomed the company to bankruptcy by 1920.

  1. Not specific to this vehicle, but how would a reciprocating engine with crankshaft actually work on such an early motorized rail car? There are no gears or clutch (I assume).

    Did they use some type of early fluid drive unit?

    Tom M.

  2. A few minor details that turned out to be major shortcomings. One paragraph on page 1097 covers it.

    The engine was airstarting and reversible…Want to change direction? Stop the McKeen, stop the engine, change gear, start the engine (don’t run out of compressed air in 1909), start McKeen.

    The engine was mounted to the truck to prevent vibration in the car body. A good concept, but the engines and transmissions were not adequately isolated form the pounding of a rail joint every 39 feet (times two for two rails) plus crossings and turnouts. Steel wheels, steel rails, and no thread locking compounds yet.

    The aerodynamics were misunderstood but the body structure was very advanced.

    Maybe if they had made buses for the road…

    • To reverse the motor the camshaft had to be rotated to a new position. This caused the engine to run in the oposite rotation. Part of the failure of the motor unit was the unreliability of the air (octeroon

      To reverse the car, the engine had to be stopped and the camshaft was rotated/moved to a new position. This caused the engine to run in the opposite rotation when restarted. The failure of the power unit involved several major faults. The unreliability of the air operated clutch (octeroon clutch) was a continual problem. Equally a problem was the fact that only one axle of the power bogie was driven. It would have been much better to have had both axles driven. Queensland railways in Australia had a chain drive to both axles of the power bogie on their 3’6″ gauge MCKeen cars.

  3. The Portland postcard is interesting. A lesser known fact is like their counterparts in NYC who didn’t want steam engines down Park Avenue neither did the Portland city fathers want steam going down the main drag in Portland. E.H. Harriman, the U.P. Chairman , believed the McKeen cars were the answer to the issue. But their poor mechanical performance never made the idea a success and the cars were withdrawn.

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