Purdue University is an Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) school created through the Morrill Act of 1862. In the late 1890s, Purdue became a leader in the research of railway technology. For many years Purdue operated a full-size locomotive on a dynamometer on the West Lafayette Indiana campus. Purdue even operated its own railroad to connect the campus to a main rail line. In the 1930s the dynamometer was decommissioned and the locomotive retired.
From the first day of classes in September 1874 until the 1930s, Purdue did not have a mascot. In 1937, Purdue student Israel Selkowitz suggested the school adopt an official mascot representative of Purdue's engineering heritage. He originally proposed a "mechanical man". After much debate and compromise, it was decided to build a locomotive on an automobile chassis. This choice allowed the mascot to build on Purdue's engineering and railroading heritage, as well as represent the school's nickname in a meaningful way. When a passenger railroad operated a charter train independent of a scheduled timetable, it was known as a "special". Thus, the trains which carried Purdue's sporting teams and their fans to other cities for athletic contests were known as "Boilermaker Specials". It was a perfect match.
Support for the first Boilermaker Special was provided by key members of the class of 1907, and members of the Purdue Reamer Club who would be members of the classes of 1940 and 1941. The Boilermaker Special I debuted in 1940. The locomotive body was constructed by the Baldwin Locomotive Works (Philadelphia, PA) on a 1940 model-year "Champion" automobile chassis donated by the Studebaker Corporation (South Bend, IN). The chassis had a 6-cylinder in-line engine and a three-speed manual transmission. The gearshift was on the steering column. The cab contained a single bench seat for the driver and one passenger. Although the coal tender area was not designed for passengers, two passengers could sit on the tops of the wheel fenders.
The cab had two sheetmetal doors, one on each side. Each door had a window. Although the cab had a windshield, the back only had a window opening with no glass. The bell and the whistle on the boiler are believed to have been donated by the Monon Railroad shops in Lafayette Indiana. The whistle used exhaust from the engine as the compressed gas. Although the cab had marker lights, the only driving light was the single 'cyclops' light mounted high on the front of the boiler. Due to the placement of the single headlight, Boilermaker Special I was only driven during the day. In honor of the Purdue students and alumni who contributed to the project, the numbers "074041" were later installed in the sides of the headlight.
In 1953, the Boilermaker Special II was created by installing the original Baldwin body from the Boilermaker Special I on an International Harvester truck chassis. A matching trailer was added in 1957 to increase the passenger seating capacity. The trailer remained in use until the early 1990s.
In 1960, the Boilermaker Special III was introduced. It was built in Detroit by the General Motors Corporation on a 2-ton GMC school bus chassis. The cab and tender were constructed of plywood with facings of sheet steel on each side. Forward of the cab, the body was heavy sheet steel and steel plate. The brass bell originally installed on Boilermaker Specials I and II was installed on the boiler. A new 'cyclops' headlight was installed at the front of the boiler. It was much larger than on the earlier Boilermaker Specials. It featured a small 12-volt bulb reflected by a large parabolic mirror. It was so bright it could only be used during parades. The cab had two seats for the driver and a safety passenger. In addition to a safety-glass windshield and windshield wipers, the cab also had sliding side windows. The only door to the cab was a lockable sliding door which led from the back of the cab to the coal tender area. The body had a complete 12-volt, negative ground electrical system with a 4-beam headlight system, including brake, back-up, marker, instrument, and interior lights. The drive train was originally powered by a six cylinder engine driving a manual transmission and a two-speed differential on the rear axle. The rear axle featured dual wheels. The brakes used compressed air for power. With all these features, the Boilermaker Special III was capable of driving on any improved road, day or night, in all weather conditions.
The tender area had two long bench seats along each side with enough space for 14 passengers. The tops of the seats were hinged to allow items to be stored within the benches. Two 20-gallon gasoline tanks were at the back of the tender under the seats.
Since the six-cylinder/manual combination had to move over 9,000 pounds of vehicle and passengers (or more if the 1957 trailer was towed), it was under-powered and difficult to drive. In the 1970s, the drive train was replaced with a carbureted General Motors/Chevrolet 350 cubic inch V-8 and a three-speed automatic transmission. The two-speed differential from 1960 was retained, although it was locked in the "high" range and the shift linkage removed. With a pair of "cherry-bomb" glass-pack mufflers on a dual exhaust, the Boilermaker Special III had significantly more power and sounded like a hot rod when at wide-open throttle. After the drive train was replaced, the Boilermaker Special was capable of maintaining highway speeds greater than 60 miles per hour.
The Boilermaker Special III was used for 33 years until 1993 and logged more than 110,000 miles (177,000 km). After the Boilermaker Special V was dedicated in 1993, the Boilermaker Special III was dismantled in a Lafayette Indiana salvage yard. The salvage process was photographed and documented by the Purdue Reamer Club so that no one could later claim they owned the Boilermaker Special III.
In 1979, a small version of the Boilermaker Special was introduced. The Boilermaker Special IV, or "X-tra Special" as it became known, was built on an electric golf cart chassis. This allowed the mascot to be present at indoor functions or on softer surfaces (i.e. a turf athletic field) where its massive, gasoline-powered big brother could never go. The Boilermaker Special VI replaced the Boilermaker Special IV in 1996.
The current Boilermaker Special V is built on an Navistar chassis and powered by a diesel engine, similar to that found on a Coca-Cola delivery truck in the United States. The Navistar chassis was donated by the Navistar International Corporation (formerly International Harvester). The body is primarily constructed of aluminum which was donated by ALCOA, which has an aluminum processing factory in Lafayette Indiana. The aluminum body was fabricated and installed on the chassis by the Wabash National Corporation, also of Lafayette Indiana. Wabash National manufactures aluminum trailers for the North American trucking industry.
It is interesting to note the Boilermaker Special V has roots which trace back to the original construction of Boilermaker Specials I and II. In the early 1960s, the Studebaker Corporation, which provided the chassis for Boilermaker Special I, was going out of business. In an effort to raise money and reduce operating costs, Studebaker sold its Loadstar heavy truck line to International Harvester, which provided the chassis for Boilermaker Special II. In 1986, International Harvester Corporation sold its agricultural division to Tenneco and changed its name to Navistar International to concentrate in the manufacture of heavy trucks. Since the Boilermaker Special V has a Navistar chassis, it is linked to the Studebaker Loadstar name and the International Harvester Corporation which produced its predecessors.
Very few pieces of the Boilermaker Specials I and II remain in existence. The brass bell from the Boilermaker Special I is the same bell that was used on Boilermaker Specials II and III. It is currently installed on the Boilermaker Special V. Pieces of sheetmetal from the Boilermaker Special I/II body bearing the words "Purdue" and "Boilermaker Special" have been archived. The "cyclops" headlight from Boilermaker Special I was saved by the Reamer Club after it was removed from Boilermaker Special II in 1960 and installed on the Boilermaker Special IV in 1979. This headlight was not used on the Boilermaker Special VI and has again been archived.
Some parts of the Boilermaker Special III were saved before it was scrapped. As mentioned above, the bell from Boilermaker Special I was removed and installed on the Boilermaker Special V. The headlight's reflector and trim were installed in a new headlight box and placed at the front of the Boilermaker Special V's boiler. The single-flute steam whistle, which was installed on the Boilermaker Special III in the 1980s, was transferred to the Boilermaker Special V as well. Sheetmetal bearing the words "Purdue" and "Boilermaker Special" were saved and have been archived. Finally, a heavy brass plaque, which was installed inside the cab above the windshield to commemorate the 1960 dedication of the Boilermaker Special III, was also removed and archived.
The Boilermaker Special has been operated, maintained, and funded by the Purdue Reamer Club since the first Special was dedicated in 1940. The club's membership consists entirely of independent Purdue students (those who are not members of a fraternity or sorority) representing a wide cross-section of the student body. The Boilermaker Special is frequently seen around the main campus and at local community events where it is used to promote the university. From May through August, it can also be seen around the state of Indiana in various parades and festivals. It helps to spread school spirit by blowing its authentic train whistle and horn. It also has an external sound system that plays family-friendly music. The members of the Purdue Reamer Club travel with the train to every away football game, including bowl games. It is "street legal" and can be driven on expressways at a top speed of 65mph.
During the football season, caps bearing the logos of defeated opponents are attached to the Boilermaker Special's cow-catcher.