Winch to Hitch: A Brief History Of (Diesel) Time

October 2017 Column, Feature Trevor Mason

When you first get into the diesel game, the first things you learn are the differences between the big brands, at least on a surface level (you gotta get those brand prejudices set in stone EARLY). Aside from the obvious brand name differences, you immediately learn the names of the engines, too. Chevy’s got the Duramax, Ford has the Power Stroke, and RAM has the Cummins. It’s easy! But when I was younger, I just assumed that each company had developed their own engine. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized that Dodge didn’t develop the Cummins. Yes, they have a partnership with the engine manufacturer (one that rumors keep insisting is coming to an end, but that’s a story for another time), but the Cummins isn’t strictly theirs. The deal with Nissan for the TITAN XD is proof enough of that. Adding insult to injury, it was around the same time that I learned that Ford didn’t come up with the Power Stroke either. The original Power Stroke was developed by International Harvester (now known as Navistar). So what gives? It turns out that not even Chevy developed their engine on their own. Their first stab was a partnership with Detroit Diesel (which, to be fair, was a subsidiary of theirs at the time) and the Duramax was a joint venture with Isuzu. So how did we get here from there?

In 1893, German inventor and mechanical engineer Rudolf Diesel first came up with the idea for what would become the modern diesel engine. Diesel knew that the steam engines of the era were terribly inefficient and obtained a patent for his compression-ignition engine. After his death in 1913, the engine underwent significant development and did indeed replace the steam engine in multiple applications.

Fast forward to 1919, when Clessie Cummins, along with partner William G. Irwin, founded the Cummins Engine Company and became one of the first companies to take advantage of Diesel’s technological innovation. Cummins’ adherence to quality and reliability helped the company grow by leaps and bounds. By the 1960s, Cummins had a presence in 98 countries.

So how does the Dodge RAM figure into this equation? Out of desperation, it seems. By the mid-80s, Chrysler was the only one of the Big 3 that didn’t offer a diesel-powered truck option. GM was first in 1982 with the introduction of the 6.2L Detroit Diesel engine, followed shortly thereafter in 1983 by Ford’s International Harvester-made 6.9L. Dodge was taking a beating in the truck market, due in part to an outdated body style going back to 1972 (despite a refresh of sorts in 1981), but also to an ill-considered team-up with Mitsubishi from 1978 that featured an underpowered 105hp/169 lb/ft diesel engine.

Dodge needed a sure thing. The success of Cummins in the commercial trucking sphere led Dodge to seek them out for a partnership, which ended up being a boon for both companies, as Dodge gained the power and reliability they were looking for, while Cummins gained recognition as the preeminent diesel engine manufacturer in the world. As for the others, Ford assumed sole production of the Power Stroke in 2011 when they introduced the 6.7L, a medium-duty engine completely designed and built in-house. GM continues to produce the Duramax from its facility in Moraine, Ohio.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that none of these ventures could have been accomplished without teams of talented, hard-working people working together to make the best products they can. It’s a lesson we can all stand to learn. Go team!

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