While doodlebugs have become endeared by many railfans and
historians over the years due to their small size and quaint nature (serving
bucolic towns and communities) they actually filled a very important
role for the industry. Developed during the early 20th century these
rail cars, most of which were powered with gasoline engines and not
diesels, enabled railroads to reduce operating costs
associated with light branch and secondary lines that saw either little
passenger and/or freight traffic. The motorized cars have become known
by many names and while it is not quite known where the name doodlebug
was derived the car should not be confused with
the Rail Diesel Car, or RDC.
This was a specifically designed and marketed single car, similar to its
earlier counterpart but developed specifically by the Budd Company and was powered by a diesel engine. Today, a number of doodlebugs remained
preserved at various museums around the country.
Santa Fe Doodlebug #M160 is parked in Clovis, New Mexico on January 11, 1967. Today, this car is preserved at the Museum of the American Railroad.
earliest history of the doodlebug can be traced back to the General
Electric in 1904. It was then that the company's engineer's realized
that there may be a market for
self-propelled rail cars in the railroad industry. Of course, they were
quite different from similar cars used by the interurban and streetcar
industry, which were powered by standard electricity. These cars would
utilize some type of self-contained engine for power. In the case of
GE's test car, constructed in 1905, it took a standard Delaware &
Hudson Railway baggage car built by the Barney & Smith Company and
equipped it with a automobile
gasoline engine from the Wolseley Motor Company of Great Britain
(interestingly, this company was founded in 1901 just a few years prior
to the new car design), retrofitted for use in rail service.
GE decided to use this specific engine for two reasons; first,
it contained adequate power for their experiment but at the same time
did not need such high horsepower as a standard locomotive given that it
was only to be used for light passenger and freight duty. As it turns
out their hypothesis proved to be correct. Additionally, it used two,
75 horsepower traction motors and a 600 volt generator and was able to
carry nearly 70 tons of cargo. The car became known as GE #1, or
D&H #1000, and was tested between Saratoga and Schenectady, New York
where it reached speeds upwards of 40 mph. A year after this car was
tested engineers further
improved on the first test car and built GE #2, which used a V8 engine
that was much lighter than the Wolseley design. This second experiment
used a car built by the Wason Manufacturing Company from Springfield, Massachusetts and overall was more than 50% lighter than its predecessor.
Pennsylvania Railroad gasoline-powered rail car #4663 built by Pullman-Standard, capable of producing 400 horsepower.
GE #2 also was the first to actually debut to the public as it tested on
a number of railroads including the Minneapolis, Northfield &
Southern Railway, Chicago Great Western, Lehigh Valley, and the Delaware
& Hudson (this car was eventually sold to the MN&S). Around
1908 the company debuted GE #3, a third demonstrator that was more
powerful and a bit lighter than the previous cars. It also saw more
publicity than its two predecessors. In the end, when General Electric
concluded its rail car business
to focus on main line electrification projects it sold more than 100
units, many of which were custom tailored to the railroads'
specifications. Soon after this time the Electro-Motive Corporation was
founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1922 by H. L. Hamilton and picked up
where GE had left off with the express purpose of marketing self-propelled rail cars (which eventually transformed into main line locomotives featuring diesel engines).
During EMC's tenure of doodlebug construction, which is often
considered the era in which the car truly came of age, it utilized car
bodies built primarily by Pullman Standard, J.G. Brill, and the St.
Louis Car Company (the latter two of which were of interurban and
streetcar fame), featuring the same setup as GE had used;
baggage/combination designs with a sliding door for freight/mail and a
rear area for standard coach seating. For power EMC featured gasoline
engines constructed by the Winton Engine Company. While Winton at the
time was focused on automobile engines it began collaborating more and
more with EMC in the railroad industry. EMC's first doodlebugs were
more powerful than GE's last designs and were rated at around 275
horsepower while using GE traction motors and generators. An early
proponent of the motorized rail car was the Chicago, Rock Island &
Pacific (Rock Island) and it soon began experimenting with its models.
Looking for an increase in power the Rock, in 1927, took
traction motors and the power plant from one car and placed it in
another. This setup featured traction motors on all axles (four) with two
engines, boosting its output to 550 horsepower. EMC
liked the idea so much that it soon built seven units with 800
horsepower for the Rock, using them all for many years. While
early doodlebugs appeared similar to a heavyweight passenger car newer
models in the late 1920s and early 1930s had a more boxy appearance and
flat cab face with a headlight attached to the hood (and in many cases
extra freight/mail doors). While it is sometimes difficult finding information about doodlebugs today the model actually became very popular
for the reasons mentioned above with EMC producing more than 400
Rock Island Doodlebug #9070 is seen here in 1949 at Devils Lake, North Dakota although why she was this far north of the railroad's system is unknown. The car was built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1928.
Many Class Is like the B&O, Milwaukee Road, Pennsylvania, Western Maryland, Santa Fe, Burlington and others all used doodlebugs along with numerous smaller roads finding use for it. Unfortunately, the Transportation Act of 1958 doomed doodlebugs as it decreased the power states had to regulate railroads in providing passenger services over lightly used branch and secondary lines. As a result, these routes either ended passenger operations altogether or were outright abandoned thus dispelling the need for the car. While most were gone by 1960 interestingly Sperry Rail Service found a second life for some cars, which were retrofitted and operated into the 2000s checking for internal rail defects. Additionally, other cars have been saved and are preserved at museums
around the country with some still in operating condition. It has often been asked where the term doodlebug is derived. As
aforementioned, unfortunately, no one knows although it is theorized
perhaps the way the car meandered or "doodled" through small towns and
across the countryside.