Bill Bowser founded Bowser Manufacturing in 1946 in Redlands, California.
During the nine years Bill owned Bowser Manufacturing he redesigned the
Knapp Mountain and engineered the K-11 Pacific and Arc-1 4-6-6-4 Challenger.
The K-11 Pacific and Challenger kits are still sold today and are two
of the finest engineered locomotives of their time. Bill Bowser was one
of the premier designers in HO and made a significant contribution to
model railroading. This is the story Bowser Manufacturing's early years
and the difficulties encountered in designing and manufacturing a quality
locomotive in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Manufacturing's 1st Ad - 1948
In 1944, during World War II Bill was employed by the Naval Ordinance
Plant Indianapolis (NOPI). It was there that George Hockaday, one of Bill's
friends and an avid railroad modeler asked him to make some parts for
him. Wartime production controls made parts hard to come by and Bill had
a shop at his home with metal working capabilities.
There were many discussions with his friend about what the HO modeler's
needs were. This was a time when modelers did a lot of designing and scratch
building to create their locomotives. Also, Wartime requirements had practically
eliminated the availability of any kits that were produced.
Bill's new interest in HO prompted him to purchase the parts inventory
for the Knapp Brass Mountain when the opportunity arose. Knapp owed money
to Superior Casting that he could not pay and Bill agreed to take care
of the amount due in return for acquiring the parts inventory. The total
amount was around $200.00. The parts consisted of boiler castings, frames,
wheel sets, a few motors, and some valve gear that was nothing like the
actual locomotive valve gear.
||Many parts of the
Mountain, such as the frame and drivers, were not HO scale. Therefore,
Bill began the task of redesigning them to the proper scale. The redesign
of the drivers presented a technical problem since Bill did not have
the casting equipment necessary to make spoke drivers. After reviewing
many prototype pictures, it was discovered that some locomotives used
a different type of driver known as Scullen drivers. This was a break
as the Scullen drivers could be turned on a lathe from solid stock
and the holes drilled with a drill press.
Bill never really liked the climate in Indiana and in the spring of 1946
made a visit to California. The warmer, dryer climate and relative bug-free
environment convinced him that he should move there. Although the climate
was good, the California job prospects appeared bleak. Deciding that good
jobs were hard to find, and being an eternal optimist he decided to start
his own business.
At this point, it was not a clear choice that he should go into model
railroading. He was also considering camera design and manufacturing model
airplanes. But, after much consideration, the model train manufacturing
business won out.
Prior to moving, Bill prepared for his new venture by accumulating additional
machinery and locating the master pattern for the Knapp Mountain. The
master was purchased from Superior Casting Company in Chicago for $800.00.
In October of 1946 the family sold their house and furniture and shipped
the shop equipment to Redlands, California where it was put into storage.
Bill, his wife, and their two children then packed up, jumped into their
1941 Oldsmobile and traveled to California to begin the new adventure.
|When they arrived
in Redlands in August of 1946 they could not find a rental house so
they moved into the Redlands Hotel. Space for the new Bowser Manufacturing
was also in short supply. Not being the kind of person to let things
like this stand in his way, Bill bought a small piece of land and
began constructing a new building for his business. While the new
building was going up Bill's family continued to live in the Hotel.
Manufacturing on its way up.
||Once the building
was completed, the machinery was moved from storage and the doors
were opened for business. To help make ends meet in the years between
1946 and 1948 Bowser Manufacturing produced experimental rocket nozzles
for Redlands Rocket Propellant Company, a mold for a toy colt six
shooter, and parts for Bourne Engineering in Riverside. During this
period, a small die-casting machine was purchased and a press was
built to make plastic compression moldings used in small wheel centers
and motor commutators.
home of Bowser Manufacturing
Bowser Manufacturing's first product was the redesigned cast brass, Knapp
Mountain. However, as in any new business, things did not go as planned
and there were many challenges to overcome before it would be in production.
This was a serious problem and was preventing the production of Bowser's
first model. Putting other important tasks aside, Bill started researching
the process to see what was wrong. Soon it was discovered that the incorrect
type of plaster was being used to make the molds.
Bowser Manufacturing's first employees. From the left, Stan Hopkins,
Jack Womack, Bill Bowser, unidentified, and Stan DeBoef.
the brass castings for the Mountain were to be made locally by a person
who had brass foundry experience. The brass boilers and other parts
are made using plaster molds created from the master brass castings.
This process produces very fine detail. After ten months of trying,
not a single suitable boiler casting was produced and the contractor
threw in the towel. The problem was gassing in the mold that created
bubbles and destroyed the fine finish and overall quality of the part.
||The plaster used was listed as
casting plaster but it was meant to make plaster figures such as dolls.
The high temperature of the liquid brass caused the plaster to out-gas
and ruin the brass casting. The correct plaster is a special type
that is chemically inert and porous enough to allow any gases produced
castings before finising
Although the production problem was solved, Bill was running low on funds
and could not set up a foundry to make the Mountain castings. To obtain
some working capital, the decision was made to take on a partner. As a
result, a partnership was formed with Donald Acheson.
Although in production, the problems were not over. During this time period,
minature electric motor design and manufacturing were in their infancy and
motor problems were quick to develop. The most common problem was a short
developing in the motor's armature. The current motor design was still very
similar to the original motor used by Knapp.
Donald had a desire to get into a manufacturing business and the
funds to invest in the company. Although this new partnership was
the catalyst required to get Bowser into production, it would ultimately
lead to Bill losing the very company he founded.
With the financial problems behind them, arrangements were made
with Superior Casting of Chicago to produce the Mountain castings.
For the first production run all other parts except the screws were
made at the plant. Later, large quantities of the turned parts were
purchased from Automatic Screw Machine Company.
A one-ton bench press was used to make the flat items such as valve
gear and a small zamak die casting machine did the Scullen wheel
centers, side rods, and small cast parts. Finally, in late 1948,
Bowser Manufacturing had the Mountain in production and placed its
first ad in Model Railroader Magazine.
ad first appeared in MR in Nov 1948
The armature was produced using fiber insulation and single coated
formex wire. If the motor stalled,it would heat up. If it got hot
enough, the insulation on the armature wiring would melt causing
an internal short. The short, in-turn, would accelerate the heating
process. To make matters worse, it was discovered that the person
soldering the armature connections to the commutator was using too
much flux paste. When the motor got hot, the paste would liquefy
and seep into the armature wiring. Since flux is acidic, this would
eat away the insulation and cause a short circuit.
If all this was not bad enough, train hobbyists were cleaning the
track with steel wool and residue fibers from the steel wool were
be pulled into the motor by the magnet creating yet another way
to cause a short circuit.
Not one to give up, Bill started a complete redesign of the motor. The
fiber insulation was replaced with glass insulation, the wire was changed
to double coated formex, and the commutator terminals were pretinned (coated
with solder) so that flux was not needed. A special baked formex varnish
was applied over the armature wiring to protect it. The first five-hundred
motors were then 100 percent tested to assure quality. To differentiate
the redesigned motor from the old motor, it was now called the Supermotor.
A few years later the motor was improved again by adding a stonger magnet.
To counteract the past complaints and to show confidence in the new design,
an unlimited motor guarantee was included with each new motor. If the
customer developed any motor problems, they just had to send the motor
back for replacement at no-charge. A this time, this was unheard of. In
fact it was so unusual that it got Bill into trouble with some of the
members of the NMRMA (National Model Railroaders Manufacturers Association).
As motors were inclined to fail, they claimed the warranty set a bad precedence
that could lead to severe financial problems.
The new warranty did not create any problems for Bowser Manufacturing
as only a dozen or so motors were ever returned. Most of these failed
due to debris in the motor or improper disassembly and reassembly.
With Bowser's motor problems solved and the financial shortages relieved,
production continued on the Mountains. Now it was important to decide how
the Mountain should be sold. Bowser could sell the kits direct or they could
sell them through jobbers (distributors). The best approach would utilize
both methods. However, the Jobbers stated they would not stock Bowser's
products if they continued to sell directly to the public.
Bowser Mountain with tender
There was a big difference in the amount of profit between selling
through jobbers and selling direct. Jobbers bought the kits at forty-five
percent of list price. This meant Bowser had to sell many more kits
to make up for the steep jobber discount. Of coarse, the jobbers
claimed they would have no trouble moving the neccesary quantity.
About this time Kalmbach Publishing (Model Railroader Magazine)
published a survey of the model railroad market where readers were
asked their buying plans.
Economics for a $30.00 Kit
Units required to make $1900/mo
The survey indicated that Bowser could possibly sell as many as a thousand
locomotives a month. Based on this information and the pressure from the
jobbers, it was decided to sell using jobbers. This decision led to financial
problems as sales never came close to the survey results or the jobber's
estimates. Later Bill figured out that the survey was flawed. When asked
for buying plans, people respond with what they want to buy rather than
what they can afford to buy. Based on actual sales results, it appears
that people wanted to buy about five times what they could actually afford.
With the decision to sell through distribution, Bill returned the checks
he had received for direct orders from customers and told them they would
have to buy from their hobby store. This speaks well for his honesty but
shows how naïve he was in business matters. Without the promised
big sales volume and with the reduced profit on each sale, Bowser was
having a tough time.
With the Mountain in production it was time to develop a new model.
After looking at many prototypes, the K-11 Pacific was selected as
the next Bowser locomotive.
The K-11 was a well known engine that was in common use on many railroads.
In HO scale the model would be a good size and could negotiate the
small radius curves found on many layouts.
Manufacturing in action.
Past experience with the manufacturing of the Mountain made it obvious
that the following criteria must be met in order to develop a profitable
- Casting costs had to be reduced.
- Manufacturing costs had to be lowered.
- The kit must be easy to build and have very detailed assembly instructions.
- The locomotive must operate properly and remain in top operating condition.
- Sales volume must be increased to reduce overhead and advertising
costs on a per model basis.
To lower the cost of the castings, the K-11 boiler and other parts
were made from Zamac 5 instead of cast brass. Each Mountain part
produced required a plaster mold. The Pacific parts were mass produced
using steel dies in an automated die casting machine. Also, some
engine detail was left off. Although leaving detail off upset the
more avid, purist modelers, it was a necessary compromise. The idea
was to create a quality model but leave off some of the more intricate
detail that raised production costs.
Being a more seasoned company helped Bowser to get the K-11 Pacific
into production in record time. In January of 1951, Bowser was ready
to fill customer orders.
K-11 Ad appearing in January 1951 Model Railroader
on Ad to see full ad)
The K-11 kit was sold with the cast brass tender used on the Mountain.
Although the Mountain tender was a good fit, it was more expensive
to manufacture than the K-11's die cast parts.
An additional benefit from the K-11 development was the 69"
spoke drivers. Since the Mountain used the same size drivers, this
meant spoke drivers were now available for the Mountain. Bowser
offered the new drivers separately and advertised them in their
Mountain ads. The Mountain kit continued to be shipped with the
ad from May 1950.
The driveline of the K-11 was similar to the Mountain. Bill was very
meticulous in the alignment of the driveline parts. Many locomotives drivelines
of the time used an angled motor mount with an attached a worm gear on
the end of the motor shaft that meshed with the drive gear. In the Bowser
design, the drive worm gear is mounted between two sets of bearings. A
short flexible drive shaft is used to connect the motor to the worm gear.
The motor shaft is on the same line as the driveline and the drive worm
gear is perpendicular to the axle drive gear. This system makes for smooth
power transfer and reduces stress on the motor bearings.
||The gear lash is set when the worm gear
is mounted and is not dependent on the motor mounting. The motor can
be removed and reinstalled without having to reset the gear lash and
there is little danger of accidentally bending the motor shaft. This
system may not be as sophisticated as the gear boxes in use today,
but it was quite advanced for the time.
Driveline with Supermotor
The K-11 also introduced driver axle bearings. Each K-11 driver axle
is mounted in a pair of bronze bearings to minimize wobble and prevent
wear that causes the mechanism operation to deteriorate over time.
K-11 with cast brass tender
Seems that life was never meant to be easy for this struggling model
railroad company as economic changes were beginning to negatively affect
the hobby market. New competition for the potential buyer's funds took
their toll. Low down payments for cars, furniture, homes and appliances
were attracting the capital that was previously used for hobbies. Inflation
was raising the cost for materials, wages, and advertising while economic
pressure kept a lid on prices. This put companies like Bowser in a real
Many model railroad companies survived by being a garage shop operation
with little overhead. The locomotive business was hurt more than the car
kit business since car kits sold for a few dollars while locomotive kits
were a significant bite out most people's income. These economic conditions
created a problem for Bill. His partner, Don, had a trust fund to live
off of while Bill had to make draws against his Bowser capital account
for living expenses. This situation would contribute to the future loss
of his company.
Although financial success still alluded Bowser, plans went forward to
do the next model. This was to be the granddaddy of all projects - the
Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 articulated Challenger. A recent survey indicated
that a quality Challenger kit could be a good seller. To an engineer like
Bill, this was the supreme challenge - something he could really sink
his teeth into.
Pacific Challenger 3985 (still alive today).
The UP 4-6-6-4 Challenger was designed by Otto Jebbelman and first
built by Alco. Two hundred and thirty Challengers were built. Weighing
566,000 pounds with 94,400 of tractive effort made the Challenger
one of the most powerful locomotives ever built.
" I really took a lot of time designing the Challenger kit and
was lucky to get Karl Wenzlaff, one of the top die makers in the country,
to do the dies." Bill Bowser
Bowser Challenger with wood Semi-Vanderbilt tender - 1951
Challenger was originally purchased by J. Rhodes in Monterey California
shows the original drive for the Challenger model. Notice how all
the worm gears are supported by pillow blocks with bearings and all
sections of the drive line are connected by flexible driveshafts.
Challenger Drive with Supermotor
To create the Challenger tooling Karl rented time in a machine shop to
do the machine work and did the hand work at home. He lived in El Monte
California and had frequent conferences with Bill about the Challenger
project. Karls's son, George Wensel, was a child actor at the age of five.
He appeared in "Room for One More" and "How to Marry a
Millionaire" with Marilyn Monroe. He probably will never forget sitting
on Marilyn Monroe's lap for publicity pictures.
Bill had to rescale about 6000 dimensions from Union Pacific blueprints
to create the Challenger design. His only help was a Monroe
Mechanical Calculator powered by an electric motor.
3949 builders photo. Note the Scullen drivers. UP photo
Matching this picture with the builder's picture shows how closely
the Bowser Challenger resembles the UP Challenger. With just a small
amount of added detail it would be identical. Remember, this was all
done in 1951 without computers!
year old Bowser Challenger made from the original dies.
|Early 4-6-6-4 Little Challenger 3915
(later 3815) with Semi-Vanderbilt tender. UP photo
the Challenger kit began shipping it did not have a tender. Around
June of 1951 a Semi-Vanderbilt wood tender was added. The Semi-Vanderbilt
tender was used behind some of the early 4-6-6-4s that preceded the
UP Challenger. These early 4-6-6-4s became known as little Challengers
and were renumbered as the 3800 series. They had different sand domes
and valve gear.
Wood UP Tender
When the Challenger went into production, Bowser Manufacturing's financial
postion was still pretty poor. Bill had some contacts at the National
Bureau of Standards that he made when he worked at the Naval Ordinance
Plant. Using these contacts, he was able to negotiate a profitable contract
with the Bureau that paid one-half of the comany's overhead and one-half
of his and Don's salary. During the year the contracted lasted, the company
was in full production of kits building up a nice inventory at a very
low cost. The contract with the Bureau ended In 1955.
In 1961 Don Acheson was contacted by Lewis English who was interested in
purchasing Bowser Manufacturing. Don set a price and that Lewis agreed to
and Bowser Manufacturing became the property of Lewis and Shirlee English.
What was left of the inventory and tooling was moved to Muncy, PA and put
in their basement where the Lewis family began rebuilding the nearly defunct
company. At its peak, Bowser Manufacturing had employed twenty-two people.
Soon after the contract ended, Don Acheson decided to force Bill
out of the company using the Buy-or-Sell agreement they signed at
the time the partnership was formed. Under the Buy-or-Sell agreement,
when Don offered to buy Bill's interest, Bill could have bought
Don's interest by coming up with the money to match the buyout offer.
This is supposed to protect one partner from the other. However,
Bowser Manufacturing had several loans that Don had personably guaranteed.
For Bill to buy the company, he had to match Don's offer and cover
the loans. Also, Bill had drawn against his Bowser capital account
to live while Don had not. This meant Bill had to come up with even
more money to match the offer. Don knew Bill could not come up with
the necessary funds and he got the company for a very small amount
- far less than half of its true value.
Since Bowser was iin full production prior to the buyout, Don had
enough kits on hand to last into the 1960's. When he started running
low on parts he did not have the expertise to manufacture replacement
parts and kit availability was affected. By that time he had made
a considerable amount of money selling the inventory while operating
with a very low overhead.
Published a comprehensive Reference Manual sometime after the Challenger
went into production.
Today Bowser Manufacturing is run by Lewis and Shirly's sons - Lewis
Jr. and Lee Bowser Manufacturing continues to manufacture the K-11 Pacific
and Challenger kits. It is fortunate that Bowser Manufacturing was purchased
by someone with the determination to preserve these great models. Over
the years, the English family purchased other companies, such as Penn
Line, and expanded the Bowser product line. They have also made numerous
changes to the original models. One of the most significant additions
to the product line was the UP Big Boy kit that evolved from Bill Bower's
original Challenger. Although temporarily discontinued, the Big Boy kit
is available again. With the addition of a super detail kit, the Bowser
UP Challenger and Big Boy are two of the finest large steam engine models
available. Today, Bowser manufacturing is one of the few manufacturers
of high quality, die cast locomotive kits in existence. A future article
will present more details on Bowser Manufacturing after its sale.
After losing the Company, Bill leased the
plant from Don, his ex-partner, and won a contract with the Northrup
to design a periscopes for Army tanks. This piece of equipment required
some close tolerances and the Northrup was having trouble getting
a working model designed and built. Bill formed a new company called
Bowser Precision Products and the company grossed $80,000 its first
year building periscopes and other contract items.
Bill's engineering career continued successfully
through the years until his retirement. More details will be available
in an attached article in the future.
Bill is now over 90 years old and lives in Arizona. He recently had a resurgence of
interest in his old company's products and is busy designing a new
Bill has a great memory and supplied most
of the details for this article. I appreciate his help and his patience.
Every time I talk to him I learn something about engineering. One of the brightest people I have ever met.
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