One hundred and twenty years ago this summer — in 1893 — Rudolf Diesel fired up a single-cylinder engine attached to a flywheel. The contraption was fueled by peanut oil.
He must have been relieved as the engine sputtered to life because Diesel had worked for years on a new idea: that higher levels of compression within the engine could ignite the fuel, thus replacing the spark required by conventional internal combustion engines.
It is highly unlikely that Diesel — born in Paris in 1858 of German parents — could have possibly conceived how the engine bearing his name would revolutionize the world of transportation.
Diesel's early plan was spelled out in the title of a paper he published, also in 1893: "Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Contemporary Combustion Engine."
Diesel had tinkered with steam engines, the leading power provider of his day, but found them inefficient. His goal was to develop a more efficient engine that would rely on heat for compression and ignition, thereby eliminating components and allowing the use of almost any kind of fuel.
Early diesels were big, heavy and noisy. Diesel said he developed his engine to provide low-cost power to factories, shops and other stationary applications, but in 1886 Karl Benz had been granted a patent for a motor car, and the world of travel and transportation was about to change.
Among the early supporters of Diesel's engine was Adolphus Busch, co-founder of the St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch beer empire. The German-born Busch was so convinced of the future of the new engine that he owned, for a time, all rights to diesels sold in the U.S. and Canada. In 1912, Diesel and his wife, Martha, travelled to America, visiting Busch in St. Louis and Thomas Edison in East Orange, N.J.
Edison described the engine as "one of the truly memorable accomplishments of mankind."
Over the years, diesels became lighter and cleaner and were adapted to nearly every form of motor vehicle as well as farm equipment and emergency power generators. Today, nearly all over-the-road trucks are powered by diesels, as are ships, railway locomotives and construction vehicles.
But nowhere in America is the success of the modern diesel engine more apparent than in the auto industry, where clean diesel car registrations have shot up by 24 percent since 2010. Because they are 20 percent to 40 percent more fuel-efficient than their gasoline counterparts, new diesels are arriving in U.S. showrooms in increasingly larger numbers. This, despite the fact that diesel fuel typically costs more than gasoline.
Add the increased torque of the diesel, better durability and lower maintenance costs, and it's easy to see why diesels are gaining in consumer appeal.
The market leader is Volkswagen, which offers diesels in seven models. More than 20 percent of VW sales in the U.S. are diesels. Audi and Mercedes-Benz also offer multiple diesel models and new diesels are either in showrooms today or will soon be arriving from BMW, Chevrolet, Porsche, Mazda and Chrysler.
Altogether, U.S. consumers today have 22 choices of diesel cars, SUVs and pickups, double the number of only five years ago. In addition, researchers at J.D. Power and Associates predict that diesel sales will nearly triple over the next ten years, raising to more than 10 percent of U.S. sales. In Europe, diesels accounts for about 50 percent of sales.
While American consumers obviously benefit from diesel's added miles per gallon and fewer stops at the pump, car companies have another motivation: federal fuel economy standards will soar to a 55 mpg average by 2025. The auto industry is investing billions in improvements such as direct fuel injection, turbo-charging, lighter materials and tires with less rolling resistance — all with the objective of more miles per gallon.
Thus, when a diesel is added to a company's product mix, improved fuel economy is a given.
If he were around today, Rudolf Diesel would probably be shocked — but proud — to see the way his engine has transformed so many aspects of the automotive industry. The delivery of power, as efficiently as possible, was always his major goal. That he succeeded is beyond question.
William Noack is a retired General Motors executive who writes about automotive trends. Readers may write him at 3168 Braverton St., Fourth Floor, Edgewater, MD 21037.