Diesel engines remade trucking

Heavy-duty trucks run on heavy-duty fuel: diesel. These days, more than 95 percent of the big trucks on the road run on diesel fuel. But it took a while for diesel engines to take hold. Rudolf Diesel went from being a student of thermodynamics to inventing a new kind of engine based on the premise that higher compression created more power and efficiency. His first prototype was built in 1893 and the first successful model in 1897. It was 16.2 percent more efficient than the steam engines that were available at the time.

Other inventors’ improvements only increased the diesel engine’s benefits and utilities. Swiss inventor lfre Büchi added a turbocharger to the diesel engine in 1925, boosting efficiency more than 40 percent. In 1927 Robert Bosch made diesel engines even more economical and efficient with a fuel-injection pump.


Clessie Cummins, a mechanic in Columbus, Indiana, formed a partnership in 1919 with industrialist and banker William Irwin, for whom he was a part-time chauffeur. Their first endeavor – a three-horsepower farm diesel built for Sears, Roebuck – was a bust, but with Irwin’s backing, Cummins kept working to build better, more powerful diesel engines. He hit on a successful solution in 1930 that worked well in automobiles.

Truck manufacturers remained unconvinced, continuing to rely on gasoline engines. Irwin came to the rescue again, placing Cummins diesel engines in the delivery trucks in use by his California-based grocery chain of Purity Stores. The drivers liked them and word spread. The company prospered as America’s roads and highways led to more truck traffic. Cummins continued to focus on engines it sold to truck manufacturers. Cummins developed a turbodiesel in the early ‘50s which increased engine horsepower by half without increasing fuel consumption. Cummins dominated the heavy-duty U.S. diesel market throughout the ‘50s, but the ‘60s brought increased competition. Cummins kept to diesels, but its attempts to scale down to the light-duty market were not particularly successful, nor were the company’s efforts to diversify.

On a roller coaster driven by a fluctuating economy, Cummins increasingly turned toward non-highway engines and a growing European market. In the ‘80s, it faced more competition from Japan, and met it with better manufacturing procedures and cost-cutting. In the late ‘80s the pressure was on to meet government emission control regulations. Its offering had problems and business migrated to its more successful competitors, causing Cummins’ market share to fall dramatically.

Cummins bounced back under a new partnership with Ford, Tenneco and Kubota, and its 75th year, 1993, was its most profitable ever. It went on to form a number of joint ventures and invested heavily in research and development. Nevertheless, Cummins and other heavy diesel engine manufacturers paid a large fine to the EPA to settle a suit that claimed computerized timing devices were used to evade emissions tests. Cummins’ financial fortunes dropped with its heavy-duty truck engine sales declining precipitously. The slide continued. However, in 2001, Cummins agreed to build engines for Paccar, the parent company for Kenworth and Peterbilt. Cummins diversification into other sectors beyond heavy-duty diesel engines ultimately saved it. One notable development was its alliance with Chrysler and the introduction of the first Cummins-powered RAM truck. It is a partnership that has thrived.

The Cat – Caterpillar

Caterpillar was founded by competitors Benjamin Holt and C.L. Best. Holt invented the steam tractor in the 1890s, while Best worked to perfect gasoline technology. The two tractor companies combined after World War I, to form Caterpillar Tractor. They introduced the Caterpillar Diesel Sixty Tractor in 1931 and quickly became the world’s-largest producer of diesel engines. They widely powered construction, mining and agricultural vehicles. Caterpillar introduced its first truck-specific engine in 1939, but stopped building truck engines during World War II and didn’t start again until the 1960s. Caterpillar introduced its first off-highway truck in 1962. By the mid-2000s, Caterpillar led the market in Class 8 engines, with almost 30 percent of the market; Cummins was nipping at its wheels. Market lead flipped in 2007, with Cummins selling more than Caterpillar.

Caterpillar ran afoul of the EPA’s emission standards with its 2002-03 engines, and paid a hefty fine. By 2008, Caterpillar decided that the market for truck engines was plateauing and the costs of keeping up with ever-increasing emissions standards were just too great. It made the decision to bow out as an independent engine manufacturer in North America by 2010. It formed an alliance with Navistar to continue selling trucks and engines in Asia and Europe, focusing on severe-duty trucks for construction, petroleum production and logging. There is still a fairly robust market for “remanufactured” Caterpillar engines.

Made in Detroit

The history of Detroit Diesel goes back to 1938 and General Motors, which founded the GM Diesel Division. Heavy-duty war equipment needed lighter-weight, compact engines and GM delivered. The Series 71 performed well and gained a reputation. By the ‘50s GM was developing new designs and shifted their focus to over-the-road trucks. In 1957, the Series 53 engine, including two-, three- and four-cylinder models. They were versatile enough to be used for many different industries.

GM rebranded its diesel division to Detroit Engine Division in 1965. It combined efforts with the
Allison Division and officially merged the two in 1970 to become the Detroit Allison Division, which competed successfully with Cummins throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The Series 60 line, introduced in 1987, included standard integrated electronics and boosted fuel efficiency. It was a huge hit and quickly became the best-selling Class 8 truck diesel engine. It attracted the attention of Roger Penske and his Penske Corp. took a majority ownership in a new endeavor, Detroit Diesel. The new company flourished and by 1993, when it was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, controlled about a third of the on-highway engine market. Its success attracted a new buyer, DaimlerChrysler. As a division of Daimler Trucks of North America, Detroit Diesel retooled and upgraded and released a new engine line, the “DD,” while continuing to sell its Series 60. It sold its one-millionth Series 60 engine in 2009.

Detroit Diesel – now known simply as “Detroit” – continues to stay on the leading edge of diesel engine development with concepts such as the BlueTEC® emissions technology and Remote Diagnostics System. It also is a leading supplier of products to other industries.

The Future of Diesel Engines

Considering the durability of diesel engines and their ability to haul huge loads, it’s hard to envision that they will be replaced soon. Many diesel truck engines are able to rack up more than a million miles and still run. Advanced technology has boosted fuel efficiency and reduced emissions without sacrificing power.

Electric, battery electric, as well as hydrogen fuel cell-powered heavy trucks are beginning to surface that future watchers say will make diesel engines obsolete, but it’s hard to tell if they are a real threat or just the newest shiny thing. In any event, with diesel engines powering truck fleets worldwide, not to mention all other heavy machinery across multiple industries, it will take a long time before they go the way of the dodo, even though government regulators around the globe are working hard to make diesel, as well as gasoline engines, obsolete.


About timwjackson

Working every day for a better Colorado.
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