Gear Head Tuesday – Rudolph Diesel Disappears, 30 Sept 1913

Gear Head


Rudolph Diesel and an early Diesel engine

On 30 September 1913, Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the engine that bears his name, disappeared from the steamship Dresden while traveling from Antwerp, Belgium to Harwick, England. On 10 October, a Belgian sailor aboard a North Sea steamer spotted a body floating in the water; upon further investigation, it turned out that the body was Diesel’s. There was, and remains, a great deal of mystery surrounding his death: It was officially judged a suicide, but many people believed (and still believe) that Diesel was murdered.

Diesel patented a design for his engine on 28 February 1892. The following year, he explained his design in a paper called “Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Contemporary Combustion Engine.” He called his invention a “compression ignition engine” that could burn any fuel – later on, the prototypes he built would run on peanut or vegetable oil – and needed no ignition system: It ignited by introducing fuel into a cylinder full of air that had been compressed to an extremely high pressure and was, therefore, extremely hot.

Such an engine would be unprecedentedly efficient, Diesel argued. In contrast to the steam engines of the era, which wasted more than 90 percent of their fuel energy, Diesel calculated that his could be as much as 75 percent efficient. (That is, just one-quarter of their energy would be wasted.) The most efficient engine that Diesel ever actually built had an efficiency of 26 percent – a long way from 75 percent – but still much better than its peers.

By 1912, there were more than 70,000 diesel engines working around the world, mostly in factories and running generators. Eventually, Diesel’s engine would revolutionize the railroad industry. After World War II, trucks and buses also started using diesel-type engines that enabled them to carry heavy loads much more economically.

At the time of Diesel’s death, he was on his way to England to attend the groundbreaking of a new diesel engine plant – and to meet with the British navy about installing his engine on their submarines. Conspiracy theories began to fly almost immediately: “Inventor Thrown Into the Sea to Stop Sale of Patents to British Government,” read one headline; another worried that Diesel was “Murdered by Agents from Big Oil Trusts.” It is likely that Diesel did throw himself overboard. Diesel was nearly broke and his financial condition was very likely a factor in his death, but the mystery probably will never be solved.

The acceptance of diesel engines in cars in the U.S. has a spotty record. Mercedes-Benz was a pioneer in introducing diesel-powered cars to the U.S. The gasoline shortages of the years of the Carter presidency created an uptick in acceptance of diesel engined cars in the U.S. Volkswagen offered diesel-powered Rabbits and Dashers in the late 70s and into the early ’80s.


Above: Mercedes-Benz was the first to offer diesel-powered cars in the U.S. This is a ’59 190-D. Below: An ad for diesel-powered VW Rabbits from 1979.


As gasoline prices eased, interest in diesel powered cars in the U.S. fell. General Motors did much to quash interest in diesel cars with its notorious Oldsmobile diesel. Oldsmobile engineers wanted to design a purpose-built diesel V-8 engine. But in those days, GM was no longer run by the “car guys,” but by the financial staff. It is on the financial staff that the decline and near death of GM can be laid.

The GM financial staff insisted that Oldsmobile engineers adapt the existing V-8 to a diesel configuration. The engineers pushed back hard, telling the bean counters that the internal pressures of a diesel engine would destroy an engine not originally designed to be a diesel. The bean counters won the argument -sort of. The Oldsmobile Diesel, just as the engineers predicted, had a very high failure rate. The upshot of it was that GM spent far more in warranty claims than it would have cost to develop a clean sheet of paper diesel V-8 for Oldsmobile. The failure-prone engine, combined with the shoddy build quality across all GM divisions at the time was a fatal blow to Oldsmobile. Olds customers left in droves and never came back. Shortly after its 100th Anniversary, GM was forced to close the Oldsmobile Division thanks to the bean counters’ penny-wise-pound-foolishness.


An Oldsmobile Diesel – the car that killed Oldsmobile

Back to square one: soon only Mercedes-Benz was offering diesel-powered cars in the U.S. In more recent years, Volkswagen has also begun offering diesel engined cars in America again, but the numbers in which they are sold remain small.

The story is very different in Europe. The Socialist governments across Europe have loved to tax every aspect of car ownership. Cars are taxed on engine displacement, on fuel consumption, and on overall size. This is why so many cars sold in the European markets have such small engines, why cars as large as U.S. cars are rare in Europe and it is a big factor in the price of fuel there. It’s the taxation rather than the narrow streets that has dictated the size of cars popular in Europe. All of these factors have made diesel power the preferred engine for cars in Europe: diesels command some 75% of the car market there.

In 1930, Packard’s Marine and Aviation Engine division introduced a diesel aviation engine. It was an economical engine, but failed to gain a wide enough customer base to sustain it.


Despite the limited appeal of diesel engines in cars in the U.S., acceptance of the engine in the truck market has been good – even in pickup trucks. In the mid-’60s, Studebaker offered Cummins diesel engines in their truck line.


Although Rudolph Diesel disappeared, his engine hasn’t. Instead, it has supplied power in millions of applications across the globe.



“Ol’ Petrol Head” supplies us with this closing item:


One Comment

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  1. Dave Brownell 06/10/2016 — 19:11

    If I remember the story correctly, Anheuser-Busch, a short while before Diesel’s death licensed his engine technology for use in powering refrigeration units to cool rail cars transporting kegged or barreled beer. This replaced the need for ice station stops for their products. For a while, A-B might have held the North American rights for non-automotive engines of that type. Rudolph would not live to see Prohibition take away that patent income.


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