BBC Autos

Evolution of Design

Twelve decades of diesel

  • From the World’s Fair to the world

    Envisaged as a way for farmers to burn fuel derived from surplus crops – or whatever biomass they had ready to hand – the diesel engine was a marvel of the industrial age. Rudolf Diesel, pictured, presented his prototype at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, where it ran on peanut oil. Rather than relying on a spark device, Diesel managed to force compressed air into the combustion chamber, which caused the oil to ignite. The principle would earn Diesel renown, if not much money, and his engine a dubious, unshakeable nickname: oil-burner. (Photo: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty)

  • Citroën Rosalie, the first diesel passenger car

    Roundabout 1932, Andre Citroën, whose company was at the time drowning in debt, contracted the renowned British engine designer Harry Ricardo to create diesel-powered versions of Citroën motor cars, specifically the Traction Avant’s predecessor, the Rosalie. Prototypes showed great promise, but it was too late. In December 1934, Citroën fell into bankruptcy, and Michelin, its cautious primary shareholder, killed the oil-burning Rosalie. (Photo: PSA Peugeot Citroën)

  • Mercedes-Benz 260D goes to market

    Citroën was close, but the nod for building the first mass-produced diesel-powered passenger car goes to Mercedes-Benz. The German automaker’s stalwart 260D debuted at the 1936 Berlin motor show. The car, available in sedan, landaulet and even cabriolet body styles, made use of a 2.6-litre four-cylinder engine producing a noisy 45 horsepower. With a top speed of 59mph, the 260D was no one’s racing car, but the famously reliable engine established Mercedes as the world leader in diesel power. (Photo: Daimler)

  • Cummins Diesel Special, the upsetter

    A ringer entry in the 1931 Indianapolis 500 from a boat-engine builder, the Cummins “Diesel Special” would shock the motorsports world by finishing in the thick of the pack for what was then the greatest prize in racing. Not only would it place a respectable 13th, it became the first car to finish the 500 without a pit stop. Buoyed by the racing success, owner Clessie Cummins would go on to preside over one of the largest marine and truck engine manufacturing companies in the world. (Photo: Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

  • Mercedes-Benz C111 drives a wedge

    The first iteration of the rakish C111 concept supercar appeared in 1969. Improbably powered by a Wankel rotary engine, the gullwing beauty was a rolling laboratory of automotive future-think. For the C111's second and third generations, Mercedes decided to go diesel, and the results defied oil-burners' pokey, smoky reputation. Versions of the aero-optimised, diesel-powered C111, starting with the 190hp C111-IID, shattered a host of speed records between 1976 and 1979 – a streak that culminated in the gasoline-powered, 500hp C111-III hitting 250.958mph. (Photo: Daimler)

  • Oldsmobile diesels chart a low point

    Oldsmobile’s range of V6 and V8 oil-burners – including the misbegotten 5.7-litre LF9 V8, which was based (a little too closely) on a gasoline engine of the same displacement – were the engines that gave diesel a bad name in the US. Intended to ease consumers’ pain during the 1970s oil crisis, the engines were popular options in the US market for a time, but feeble performance and odious reliability of models like the pictured 1982 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency spelled their doom. By 1985, they were history – and good riddance, said America. (Photo: General Motors)

  • 1986 Fiat Croma TD i.d., a shot of energy

    The combination of turbocharging and direct fuel injection compensates for a conventional diesel engine’s lazy, low-revving nature with a shot of low-end torque. Volkswagen and Audi have given the technology a global presence, but it was Fiat that paved the way in the late 1980s with a turbocharged direct-injection option for the Croma, a compact sedan designed by legendary stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro. The TD i.d. model’s spry 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine produced 93 horsepower – 19 more than the available 2.5-litre non-turbocharged diesel engine. (Photo: Fiat Group)

  • Audi serves notice at Le Mans

    In 2006, Audi fielded the R10 TDI, a turbodiesel racer, in Le Mans’ fastest class, LMP1. Made of aluminium, the car’s 5.5-litre V12 engine was significantly more efficient than the gasoline-powered engine it replaced in Audi’s Le Mans programme. The R10’s victory in 2006 would herald a new era of Audi dominance at the Sarthe circuit, as the TDIs – and subsequent diesel racers the R15 and R18 – would win six of the next seven LMP1 titles. (Photo: Audi)

  • Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, US-bound

    Encouraged by Volkswagen’s success marketing turbodiesel models to American consumers, General Motors (GM) announced in 2011 that it would commercialise its Australia-only Holden Cruze CDX (pictured) in the US as the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, marking the first time in over 25 years that GM would market a diesel passenger car in the US. (Photo: General Motors)

  • Volkswagen previews diesel-electric future

    Designed to travel 100km on one litre of fuel, Volkswagen’s so-called 1-Litre project – begun in 2002, mothballed in 2005 and resurrected in 2007 – has culminated with the XL1, a two-seat passenger car featuring a turbodiesel-electric powertrain. Though other automakers, among them Citroën and Volvo, have brought diesel-electric hybrids to market in the past year, the XL1’s purpose is not to compete so much as point the way forward for Volkswagen – and for passenger cars in general. (Photo: Volkswagen)