Gear Head Tuesday – More on Diesel Cars

Gear Head

Last Tuesday we covered Rudolph Diesel’s disappearance in 1913 some years after his invention of the engines that bear his name. We wrote briefly of some diesel powered cars in the U.S. with much of the focus being on the diesels offered by Mercedes-Benz. A regular reader, “Gene W.”, kindly pointed out that I had neglected to mention Peugeot diesels. He wrote that he has owned three of them, and would own one now were they still available in the U.S. By the way, “Gene” once owned a ’56 Packard Caribbean hardtop that we would have loved to have been able to acquire …

Today, running with Gene’s suggestion, we’ll go into more detail about diesel cars and we hope to make up for our omission of Peugeot last week. We begin by adding detail to last Tuesday’s post about diesel car offerings generally.


1933 Citroën Rosalie – the first passenger car to offer a diesel engine

In 1933 Citroën introduced the Rosalie in the European market, the first passenger car to offer a diesel engine option, the 1,766 cc 11UD engine. Mercedes-Benz introduced the 260-D in 1936.


1936 Mercedes-Benz 260-D

After World War II, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, diesel-powered cars gradually gained a toehold in the market. The widest acceptance of diesels was for commercial applications, such as ambulances, taxis, and station wagons used for delivery work. Most were conventional in design. Mercedes-Benz offered a continuous stream of diesel-powered taxis, beginning in 1949 with their 170-D powered by the OM-636 engine.


1949 Mercedes-Benz 170-D

Ten year later, Mercedes introduced their OM-621 engine in the 180D. This 2.0 L engine produced 55 horsepower at 4,350 rpm. Beginning in 1959, Peugeot offered the 403D with their TMD-85 four-cylinder engine of 1.8 L and 48 horsepower, followed in 1962 by the 404D with the same engine. In 1964, the 404D became available with the improved XD88 four-cylinder engine of 2.0 L and 60 horsepower.

At this time, only Mercedes offered diesel powered cars in the U.S. Many U.S. Mercedes-Benz dealers had been Packard or Studebaker dealers, Studebaker-Packard having picked up the distribution of Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. as part of the deal with Curtiss-Wright that saw the closure of Packard’s operations in Detroit.


1959 Peugeot 403D

In 1967, Peugeot introduced the world’s first compact, high-speed diesel car, the Peugeot 204BD. Its 1.3 L XL4D engine produced 46 horsepower at 5,000 rpm.


Peugeot 204 BD

Following the 1970s oil crisises (1973 and 1979), Volkswagen introduced their first diesel in the VW Golf (Rabbit in the U.S.), with a 1.5 L naturally aspirated indirect-injection engine.

Mercedes-Benz tested turbo diesels in their C111 experimental and record-setting vehicles. In 1978, the first production turbo diesel cars were introduced, the 3.0 5-cylinder 115 horsepower Mercedes 300 SD, available only in North America, and the Peugeot 604.


Above: Mercedes-Benz C-111 Below: Mercedes 300 SD Turbodiesel


The biggest single step forward for mass-market diesel cars came in 1982 when Peugeot introduced the XUD engine in the Peugeot 305, Peugeot 205 and Talbot Horizon. This was the class leading automotive diesel engine until the mid-1990s. The first mass market turbo diesel was the XUD powered 1988 Citroën BX and then the 1989 Peugeot 405. These cars gave power and refinement approaching gasoline engine standards and had the best chassis in their class. Diesel Car magazine (U.K.) said of the Citroën BX “We can think of no other car currently on sale in the UK that comes anywhere near approaching the BX Turbo’s combination of performance, accommodation and economy”. (Peugeot and Citroën merged in 1976. The Citroën BX and the Peugeot 405 shared platforms.) These were the cars that started the diesel boom in Europe that has now hit 50% of the market in new car sales.


Styled by PininFarina, the Peugeot 405 was the last car Peugeot sold in the U.S. before exiting the American market in 1991. The styling is similar to that of the Alfa-Romeo 164 of the same time period. The Alfa was also designed by PininFarina. These Peugeots fared far better in the marketplace elsewhere than in the U.S. They are supremely comfortable cars and offer excellent handling. 

A major factor in the popularity of diesel-powered cars across Europe and the contrasting lack of popularity on diesels in the U.S. is tax policy. Aside from the damage done to diesel engine popularity in the U.S. by the GM Oldsmobile diesel fiasco we covered last week (and which spread across other GM divisions which had used the Oldsmobile Diesel, including Cadillac), U.S. fuel tax policy makes diesel fuel more expensive than gasoline, largely offsetting the fuel economy delivered by diesel engines. Across Europe, diesel fuel is taxed the same as gasoline, giving the natural economy of diesels a leg up in the high tax Socialist countries of Europe. As we wrote last week, greedy Socialist governments across Europe tax cars on overall size, engine displacement and on engine output, giving diesel engines an advantage over gasoline fueled cars. Further hindering the sales of diesel engine cars in the U.S. are the stringent NOx standards across the 50 states.

By 1991, the three major French auto producers – Renault, Citroën and Peugeot -were gone from the North American market. In 2012, talk of a possible return to the U.S. by PSA (Peugeot-Citroën) started when General Motors bought a 7% stake in the company and began work on some common projects. Later, GM sold their stake in PSA.

The company has embarked on a major recovery program under boss Carlos Tavares who hopes the plan will see PSA return to profit in 2016 after a long period of heavy losses. He is patterning the company’s operations across the world after their successful China model.

Responding to a question about Peugeot’s potential return to the U.S., Tavares, former head of Japanese automaker Nissan, said Peugeot must first achieve four target goals, after which “we can then look at the next steps we should take.”

As part of the company’s “Back in the Race” recovery plan, Tavares said three brands — Peugeot, Citroën and DS, an upmarket nameplate grown out of Citroën — will be reinvigorated so that they can “operate anywhere in the world.”

It is sad that Peugeot (and Citroën) had to withdraw from the U.S. market. Their cars are supremely comfortable and offer outstanding handling.

The evolution of diesel-powered cars has continued. In 1997, the first common rail diesel passenger car was introduced, the Alfa Romeo 156. We didn’t see this car in the U.S., as Alfa had also withdrawn at the time from the U.S. market. The common rail injection system increases power and economy by injecting the fuel into the combustion chambers at very high pressure.

Chrysler put an Italian VM Motori SpA diesel engine in the Jeep Liberty sport utility vehicle in 2005 and 2006 to assess the American market’s interest in modern high performance diesel engines.

In 2004 Honda released their first diesel engine, the i-CTDI, in the Honda Accord, but we didn’t get this car in the U.S. The engine featured an aluminium block, DOHC chain driven valvetrain, common rail direct injection and a variable geometry turbocharger.

In the Spring of 2005, Mercedes-Benz unveiled their first application of a mass-produced aluminum block diesel engine for passenger vehicles and commercial use. While aluminum is traditionally considered of inferior strength and temperature resistance to withstand diesel applications, Mercedes engineers made extensive use of CAD/CAM design to arrive at an aluminum block that would meet with Mercedes’ testing and reliability standards. The first use of the M-B aluminum diesel was in 2006 model-year vehicles in the E-Class sedan and ML-class and GL-class SUVs. Similar in weight (459 lb) to the five-cylinder it replaced, and considerably lighter than the in-line six-cylinder it also replaced, this 3.0L V-6 produces 224 hp at 3,800 rpm and max torque of 376 lbs/ft at 1,600-2,800 rpm and makes use of a four-valve head. Additionally, the Mercedes-Benz BlueTec system, a concert of emissions control strategies, rendered this new diesel 50-state legal in the U.S. in 2008.

Given that diesels command more market share across Europe than in the U.S., it is no surprise that many hybrid cars in Europe have their battery component mated to diesel engines, something we have yet to see in the U.S. These Europen diesel hybrids produce the lowest CO2/km of cars offered in the European market. Fuel tax policy continues to inhibit the popularity of diesel cars in the U.S.


A 2016 Peugeot 308 GT Turbodiesel. A fine car we won’t likely see in the U.S.


An interesting footnote to last week’s post about Rudolph Diesel supplied by “Dave B.”:

“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.”

One Comment

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  1. How really interesting, I thought I knew the history of diesel engines, Thanks for broadening my knowledge.


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