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Model Railroad Classics: Bowser Manufacturing

Bowser Manufacturing's 1st Ad - 1948.
Founder Bill Bowser 1953.
Bowser Manufacturing on its way up.
Completed home of Bowser Manufacturing.
Bowser Manufacturing's first employees. From the left, Stan Hopkins, Jack Womack, Bill Bowser, unidentified, and Stan DeBoef.
Bowser Manufacturing in action.
This ad first appeared in MR in Nov 1948.
Mountain castings before finishing.
Completed Bowser Mountain with tender.
Driver ad from May 1950.
Scullen Drivers.
Original Supermotor.
K-11 Ad appearing in January 1951 Model Railroader.
 K-11 Driveline with Supermotor.
Bowser K-11 with cast brass tender.
Union Pacific Challenger 3985 (still alive today). Richard Leonard photo.
Challenger 3949 builders photo. Note the Scullen drivers.  UP photo.
Early 4-6-6-4 Little Challenger 3915 (later 3815) with Semi-Vanderbilt tender.  UP photo.
Original Bowser Challenger with wood Semi-Vanderbilt tender - 1951. This Challenger was originally purchased by J. Rhodes in Monterey California.
Original Challenger Drive with Supermotor.
Forty year old Bowser Challenger made from the original dies.
Bowser Wood UP Tender.
Bowser Published a comprehensive Reference Manual sometime after the Challenger went into production.
Founder Bill Bowser May 2000.
By Steve Gill/Technical Advisor: Bill Bowser
Photos by the Author unless otherwise noted.
Ads from Model Railroader reproduced with permission.

Bowser is a name familiar to model railroaders today, well-known for their fine line of plastic freight car kits, among other items. Currently located in Pennsylvania, Bowser’s roots stretch back to Indiana and clear across to California. Founded by Bill Bowser in 1946, the company was responsible for the design and manufacture of some of the most detailed and reliable locomotive kits of the day. During the nine years Bill owned Bowser Manufacturing he redesigned the popular Knapp Mountain kit, and engineered the K-11 Pacific, as well as the Arc-1 4-6-6-4 Challenger. The K-11 Pacific and Challenger kits are still sold today, proving their enduring value to the model railroad community. This is the story of Bowser Manufacturing's early years, and the difficulties encountered in designing and manufacturing a quality HO scale locomotive kit in the 1940s and early 1950s.

We are used to mass-produced, injection molded models with fine detail. But when scale model railroading first began to take hold in America, there were few parts and kits available. As we began to emerge from the effects of the Great Depression, and war in Europe loomed on the horizon, HO scale models made their debut. Some hobbyists created crude homemade castings for their own use, and would sell off the rest to offset the cost of production. Some small machine shops began producing side lines of hobby equipment, but none were full-time hobby producers.

At the height of World War II in 1944, Bowser was employed by the Naval Ordinance Plant Indianapolis (NOPI). It was there that George Hockaday, one of Bowser's friends and an avid railroad modeler asked if he could make some hobby parts for him. Wartime production controls had made parts hard to come by, but Bowser had a small 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. Wartime restrictions had practically eliminated the availability of any kits that were produced.

One of the most popular kits of the day was a brass Mountain-type kit produced by Knapp. Bowser'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 Bowser agreed to take care of the amount due in return for acquiring the entire parts inventory. The total amount paid was around $200.00. The inventory consisted of boiler castings, frames, wheel sets, a few motors, and some valve gear that was nothing like the actual locomotive valve gear.

Upon closer examination, Bowser discovered that many important parts of the Mountain, such as the frame and drivers, were not HO scale. Bowser set out to create a more accurate product, and began the task of redesigning theses parts to the proper scale. The redesign of the drivers presented a technical problem since Bowser 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 Scullin drivers. This was a break as the Scullin drivers could be turned on a lathe from solid stock and the holes drilled with a drill press.

Bowser never really liked the climate in Indiana, and in the spring of 1946 he 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. Bowser was also considering camera design and manufacturing model airplanes. After much consideration, model trains won out.

Prior to moving, Bowser 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. Bowser, 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. Since a suitable factory location couldn’t be found right away, Bowser bought a small piece of land and began constructing a new building. 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 small 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.

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. Initially 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. This was a serious problem and was preventing the production of Bowser's first model. Putting other important tasks aside, Bowser 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. The plaster used was listed as “casting plaster” but it was meant to make casts of figurines and the like. 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 to escape during the casting process.

Although the production problem was solved, Bowser 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. Acting largely in the capacity of a silent partner, Acheson had a desire and the funds to invest a small manufacturing business. Although this new partnership was the catalyst required to get Bowser into production, it would ultimately lead to Bowser 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 Zamac die-casting machine did the Scullin 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.

Even though the Mountain was in full production mode, the problems were not over yet. In the late 1940s, miniature electric motor design and manufacturing were in their infancy and component failure was common. The motor design was still very similar to the original motor used by Knapp. The most common problem was a short circuit developing in the motor's armature. 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, hobbyists of the time were cleaning the track with fine steel wool, and residue fibers would be pulled into the motor by the magnet creating yet another possible short circuit scenario.

Not one to give up, Bowser 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 pre-tinned (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 named “Supermotor.” A few years later, the design was improved again by adding a stronger 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 problems, they just had to send the motor back to Bowser for replacement at no-charge. This type of guarantee was unheard of; in fact it was so unusual that it got Bowser into trouble with some of the members of the NMRMA (National Model Railroader Manufacturers Association). As standard motors of the time were inclined to inevitably fail, they claimed the Bowser warranty would set a bad precedence that could lead to severe financial problems for all manufacturers. The new warranty did not create any problems for Bowser Manufacturing however, as only a dozen or so motors were ever returned. Most of these failed due to debris in the motor or improper disassembly and servicing.

With Bowser's motor problems solved and the financial shortages relieved, production continued on the Mountain kits. Now Bowser turned his attention to marketing and distribution of the kits to the public. He could sell the kits either direct or 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. There was a big difference in the amount of profit between selling through jobbers and selling direct. Jobbers bought the kits at 45% off list price. This meant Bowser had to sell many more kits to make up a profit for the steep jobber discount. Of course, the jobbers claimed they would have no trouble moving the necessary quantity to meet sales projections.

While all this was going on, Model Railroader published a survey of the potential model railroad market. Readers were questioned about their buying plans for the coming year. Looking at the results of the survey at face value, Bowser was assured he could possibly sell as many as a thousand locomotives a month! Based on this information and the continual pressure from the distributors, it was decided to sell through the jobbers. With the decision to sell through distributors, Bowser returned the checks he had received for direct orders from customers and told them they would have to buy from their local hobby store. This decision led to another financial crisis as sales never came close to the survey results or the jobber's estimates. Later, Bowser figured out that the survey was flawed... When asked for “buying plans,” people had responded with what they wanted to buy rather than what they could afford to buy. Based on actual sales results, it appears that people wanted to buy about five times what they could actually afford. Without the promised big sales volume and with the reduced profit on each sale, Bowser Manufacturing was going through a rough time.

Even with new financial challenges to face, Bowser’s drawing board didn’t stay idle long. With the Mountain kit in full production it was time to develop a new model to add to the line. After looking at many prototypes, the K-11 Pacific was selected as the next project. 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.

Past experience with the manufacturing of the Mountain made it obvious that the following criteria must be met in order to develop a profitable product:

  1. Casting costs had to be reduced.
  2. Manufacturing costs had to be lowered.
  3. The kit must be easy to build and have very detailed assembly instructions.
  4. The locomotive must operate properly and remain in top operating condition.
  5. 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 instead of cast brass. Each Mountain part produced in brass 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. The K-11 kit was sold with the same 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" spoked drivers. Since the Mountain used the same size drivers, the spoked drivers were now available for the Mountain. Bowser offered the new drivers separately, and the Mountain kit continued to be shipped with the Scullin drivers.

The driveline of the K-11 was similar to the Mountain. Bowser 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. 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.

It seems that life was never meant to be easy for this struggling model railroad company. With two quality locomotive kits on the market, changes in the national economy began to affect the hobby market. New competition for discretionary income took their toll. Low down payments for new cars, new furniture, new homes and appliances were attracting the capital that was previously used for hobbies. Post-ware inflation was raising the cost for materials, wages, and advertising while economic pressure kept a lid on retail prices.

This put small companies like Bowser in a real squeeze. Many small model railroad companies survived by being a “garage” operation with little overhead. The locomotive business was hurt more than the car kit business since they could be sold for a few dollars while locomotive kits were a significant bite out most anyone’s income. These economic conditions created a problem for Bowser. His partner Acheson had considerable savings to live off of, while Bowser had to draw against the company’s capital account to cover his family’s living expenses. Although financial success still eluded Bowser, plans went forward to develop the next model. This was to be the granddaddy of all projects--the Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 articulated Challenger.

A model magazine survey indicated that a quality Challenger kit could be a good seller. To an engineer like Bowser, this was the supreme challenge, something he could really sink his teeth into. The 4-6-6-4 Challenger was designed by Otto Jebbelman and was first built by Alco. Two hundred and thirty Challengers were built for American railroads following World War II. Weighing in at 566,000 lbs. with 94,400 lbs. of tractive effort made the Challenger one of the most powerful locomotives ever built.

Bowser had to recalculate about 6000 dimensions from official Union Pacific blueprints to create the HO scale Challenger design. His only help was a Monroe Mechanical Calculator powered by an electric motor. 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 nearly identical. Remember, this was all done in 1951 without the aid of computers! After investing considerable time into the design of the kit, Bowser set out to hire Karl Wenzlaff, one of the top die makers in the country, to make the master dies. To create the Challenger tooling Wenzlaff had rented time in a machine shop to do the heavy machine work, and did the fine hand work at home. He lived in El Monte, California, and had frequent conferences with Bowser about the Challenger project.

When 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.

When the Challenger went into production, Bowser Manufacturing's financial position was still pretty poor. Bowser 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 company’s overhead and one-half of his and Acheson’s salary. During the year the contracted lasted, the company was in full production of model kits, and was able to build up a nice inventory at a very low cost. The contract with the Bureau ended in 1955.

Soon after the contract ended, Acheson decided to force Bill Bowser out of the company enforcing the buy-or-sell agreement they signed at the time the partnership was formed. Under the agreement, when Acheson offered to buy Bowser's interest, Bowser could have bought his 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 out that Acheson had personally guaranteed. For Bowser to buy the company, he would have to match Acheson’s offer and cover the loans. Also, Bowser had drawn against his capital account to live on while Acheson had not. This meant he had to come up with even more money to match the offer. Acheson knew Bowser could not come up with the necessary funds and he got control of Bowser Manufacturing for a very small amount--far less than half of its true value.

After losing the company, Bill Bowser leased the plant from Acheson, and won a contract with Northrup to design periscopes for Army tanks. This piece of equipment required some close tolerances and Northrup was having trouble getting a working model designed and built. Bill formed a new company called Bowser Precision Products, and grossed $80,000 in its first year building periscopes and other contract items.

Since Bowser Manufacturing was in full production prior to the buyout, Acheson had enough kits inventoried to last into the 1960's. When he started running low on parts Acheson did not have the expertise to manufacture replacements, and kit availability suffered. By that time, however, he had made a considerable amount of money selling the ready inventory while operating with a very low overhead.

In 1961 Acheson was contacted by Lewis English who was interested in purchasing Bowser Manufacturing. A price was met, 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 installed in their basement. The Lewis family began rebuilding the nearly defunct company (at its peak, Bowser Manufacturing had formerly employed twenty-two people).

Today Bowser Manufacturing is run by Lewis and Shirlee's sons Lewis Jr. and Lee. Bowser Manufacturing continues to manufacture the K-11 Pacific and Challenger kits. 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 the original Challenger design. With the addition of a super detail kit, the Bowser UP Challenger and Big Boy are two of the finest large HO scale steam engine models available. Today, Bowser is one of the few manufacturers of high quality, die cast locomotive kits in existence.

Bill Bowser’s engineering career continued successfully through the years until his retirement. Bill is now 90, and lives in a small town near Lake Mead in Arizona. He recently had a resurgence of interest in his old company's products and is busy designing a new miniature motor. 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. Thanks to people like Bill Bowser, model railroaders were able to enjoy advancements and quality products much like the ones some of us may take for granted today.

Steve Gill is the proprietor of Ulrich Models, and an avid model railroad historian. This is his first RAILROAD.NET byline.

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