We have a fascination for old gas / distillate-powered motor cars, particularly those trouble-plagued Mckeens, and more particularly, SP's large fleet of same.

What you see here are our first offerings, which represent barely a scratch upon our amassed data and photos. In the future, expect to find a collection of articles about SP Mckeen car operations, particularly in their early days - see below for an example. The last two offerings listed below are now in the process of being expanded into major works of several thousand words apiece: The time... we just need to find the time...

- Wx4 Staff

Offerings as of 7/9/21:

SP Motor Car Mysteries

Instructions to Engineers on Gas-Electric Rail Motor Cars
(SP operator's manual)- particulars of 1930 Pullman / Electromotive cars #SP3 - #SP6 in PDF form

Baltimore & Ohio Brill motor car #6033 a look at the particulars of the motor car, as inspired by a gorgeous lantern slide

Ann Arbor McKeen Cars at Clare (MI) Union Depot
Part of Wx4's "C&O in Michigan" series

Other reading: Wx4's content pales in comparison to Madison Kirkman's Mckeen Historical Society website. Don Strack's superlative Utah Rails website hosts a PDF compillation of printed works of various sorts.

a "short" Mckeen Car in its least-natural SP environment

The image above, taken from a glass plate negative produced by an unknown photographer, shows a "short" (≈ 55ft; "long" cars ≈ 70ft; see page bottom) Mckeen car during a brief moment of glory, running westward on Southern Pacific's "Cal-P" mainline through the former cow pastures of Pullman Park, on the then outskirts of Richmond, California. Such regularly scheduled forays on the busy line were conducted with a high element of risk, as SP still had not nearly ironed out all of the trouble-plagued Mckeen's mechanical foibles. Company officials likely came to realize their mistake in short order, causing them to withdraw the cars in favor of less demanding runs on more weed-grown track, where an inert motor car would make a more modest impact upon operations.

The photo likely dates to 1910, about the time that construction workers completed the new nearby Pullman Company repair shops. Next door, land speculators created Pullman Park (note the kiosk), a residential development conceived at a time when industrial workers, due to matters of time and economy, preferred to walk to work. This general frame of mind would last for about another five years, at which time the automotive age suddenly and unexpectedly burst forth, turning old predilections upside down.

At the same time, SP was busily (and in hindsight, ill-advisedly) constructing the new suburban electric systems in the Oakland, Portland and Los Angeles (Pacific Electric) areas that would displace a great number of shorty Mckeen cars from the runs for which they were best-suited. Worse for the "wind-splitters", the United States Post Office Department instituted a new Parcel Post package delivery system in 1913, and it boomed virtually overnight. This overly-taxed the ability of the baggage-section-less short cars to haul both passengers and packages. Though the 200hp cars theoretically were capable of hauling a trailing car on level, dry rail, this arrangement was almost immediately found to come at a high cost to schedule time, even when the slippery-footed cars were operating on clear, level rail. Many motor routes subsequently reverted to standard steam-powered service due to a shortage of baggage section equipped 70 foot Mckeens.

So, throughout the years leading up to the end of World War I, SP's Mckeens were motors in search of a job. By then, most of the mechanical issues had been resolved, which along with conversion to distillate fuel, had made them much more economical and dependable to dispatch. Upon the close of United States Railway Administration control following the war, SP officials took a long, critical look at their local and branchline passenger services. Ten years before, these trains had formed the backbone of company earnings, but now many of them had seen their ridership evaporate from the effects of the private automobile and unregulated, competing auto stages.

The result was the first of SP's periodic purges of local / branch trains that essentially put the majority of the 55' Mckeens out to pasture in 1920. Three subsidiary Arizona Eastern cars managed to stay on the roster until mid-1929, perhaps in anticipation of the second wave of gas-electric cars that arrived from Brill and Pullman / Electro Motive early the next year. A few of the long cars survived in service in ever-decreasing numbers until the last one tied up from Placerville Branch duities in 1939, by which time SP was nearly ready to yank the plug on motor cars altogether.

the short and the long of it

Most of Southern Pacific's McKeen Cars came in either of two styles: 1) nominally 55 feet long with no baggage section, and 2) nominally 70 feet long with a baggage section and doors. The longer cars generally were built later, after SP realized the need for a baggage section on branch lines, particularly after the inauguration of Parcel Post in 1913. Three cars, numbers 27, 29 and 31, were lengthened from 55 ft. to 70 ft. in 1917 because of this. Beginning with #43 in 1910, all new SP-proper cars were constructed to the longer dimension, but its subsidiaries continued purchasing short cars, some configured with baggage sections, some without. Presumably the subsidiaries bought short cars because the 70 footers were too long for their turntables.


  • (above) 55 ft. car #17 w/o baggage section: This appears to show the car when it was delivered to Sacramento to be set up in 1908. photographer unknown
  • (below) 70 ft. car #29; Here we see her ready to depart Sacramento on the Placerville passenger in 1930. The Placerville run was the last regular assignment for SP Mckeens at the end of the decade. photographer unknown
  • (2nd below) subsidiary O & C 55 foot car #41, later SP #41: The combination of a baggage section larger than some 70 cars, plus a short wheel base, may have been the reason that this car had outlived all of the other short cars by at least seven years when it was finally withdrawn in 1936. The photo, purportedly taken at Sacramento, shows an early headlight adaptation, perhaps about 1910. photographer unknown

Sacramento Union, 9-29-1908