A Brief History
On January 6, 1930, a milestone in automobile engine history occurred when the first diesel powered automobile trip was taken from Indianapolis, Indiana to New York, New York. Clessie Cummins of Cummins Engine Company (1919) had installed one of his Diesel engines in a used Packard limousine and took the first short ride in a diesel powered car on Christmas, 1929. When the engine and automobile combination proved successful, Cummins then orchestrated the first road trip by a Diesel powered automobile with his trip to New York.
Internal combustion engines had been furiously developed during the 19th Century, with variations such as 2 stroke, 4 stroke, and Rudolph Diesel’s baby, the Diesel Engine. Diesel did not produce a practical engine at first, and several other inventors were hard at work to make the new motor run well enough for practical use. Using the compression of the air/fuel mixture to ignite the fuel instead of a spark plug, as in a gasoline engine, the Diesel engine is necessarily heavier in construction because of the greater forces involved with higher compression. Both 2 cycle and 4 cycle Diesel engines were developed, characterized by much better production of torque than a gasoline engine, but far less horsepower for engines of similar size. Early applications of Diesel engines were in ships, submarines, construction and farm equipment, trucks, and even airships and airplanes (though because of the extra weight, Diesel engines never became commonly used in airplanes).
Once Clessie Cummins proved a Diesel powered automobile could reliably travel a long distance, other engine and automobile manufacturers took notice. The first Diesel powered cars were produced by Citroen of France in 1933, but government regulations prevented general sale and production. Before World War II Diesel engines were beginning to show up in armored vehicles and train locomotives. Combining a turbo charger or super charger with the Diesel engine made the motors produce much higher horsepower, and by 1936 Mercedes-Benz was producing a Diesel powered model. In the 1950’s turbo Diesel powered trucks became the masters of mountainous terrain previously a serious obstacle to motorized trucks.
Diesel powered cars were still a novelty in the 1960’s, when gasoline was still cheap and the Diesel engines were noisy and smelly. During the 1970’s when the 1973 Oil Crisis hit, followed by another Oil Crisis in 1979 and gasoline prices skyrocketed, automobile manufacturers looked to Diesel engines as a way to improve the miles per gallon rating of their cars. Turbo Diesels for cars appeared, greatly improving acceleration and the public started buying the product. Unfortunately, during the 1970’-1980’s Diesel car engines got a bad name when General Motors offered a mass produced version based on a gasoline engine block not up to the rigors of Diesel power and the motoring public got a bad taste of faulty engines.
The need and desire for the increased mpg offered by Diesel engines (often around 20% more than a gasoline engine) and improved pollution control of Diesel engines allowed manufacturers to continue to refine the Diesel engine and consumers confidently bought Diesel powered cars and light trucks. In 2002 Dodge offered a souped up pick up truck with a 735 horsepower Diesel engine! By 2004 Diesel powered cars became the majority in Western Europe. Diesel fuel made from vegetable oils started to appear, and are commonly found today as “biodiesel.” By 2014 well over 16.4 million cars and light trucks in the United States were Diesel powered, but Diesels accounted for only around 3% of new car sales in the US. In the US market, Volkswagen accounts for about half of all Diesel powered car sales.
Once upon a time, for most of the 20th Century, Diesel fuel was considerably cheaper than gasoline, which combined with the extra fuel efficiency of Diesel made the Diesel powered vehicle a bargain to own. (Plus, Diesel engines are generally far more durable than gasoline engines.) Today, the vagaries of market speculation and price fixing (alleged) has driven Diesel prices up to nearly that of gasoline or at times higher than gasoline, making the advantage of having a Diesel powered car disappear. (Since Diesel fuel is less refined than gasoline, it is inherently cheaper to produce, but capitalism allows for strange things with market pricing.)
Diesel powered cars are no longer loud and obnoxiously smelly beasts, nor are they slow. Some Diesel powered cars have competed successfully in racing and luxury cars can be found with Diesel engines. Question for students (and subscribers): Have you owned a Diesel powered car or light truck? Would you like to own one? Please tell us what you think about Diesel power for they everyday person in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cummins, Clessie L. My days with the diesel;: The memoirs of Clessie L. Cummins, father of the highway diesel. Chilton Books, 1967.
Cummins Jr., C. Lyle and James A. Henderson. The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins. Carnot Press, 1998.