Diesel World - - Contents -

Diesel-pow­ered land ve­hi­cles go back a long way in U.S. his­tory, but diesel light trucks are a rel­a­tively new part of the scene. Why? A com­bi­na­tion of tech­nol­ogy and fi­nances. In the early days of diesel en­gines, down­siz­ing them was a huge chal­lenge. Given enough cap­i­tal, en­gi­neers can work through al­most any tech­ni­cal chal­lenge. But in­vestors want a re­turn on in­vest­ment so there needs to be mar­ket in­cen­tive. It’s very clear the en­gi­neers and in­ven­tors could have short­ened the time­frame for the de­vel­op­ment of diesel-pow­ered light ve­hi­cles but mar­ket de­mand al­ways dic­tated the pace of de­vel­op­ment.

Diesels started as mon­strous things in the 1890s suit­able only for ships and sta­tion­ary pow­er­plants. By the 1930s en­gi­neers had them worked down to fit in the largest of trucks, smaller wa­ter­craft, trac­tors and con­struc­tion equip­ment. By the end of the ’40s diesel tech­nol­ogy was knock­ing at the door of of­fer­ing prac­ti­cal diesel power for light ve­hi­cles but mar­ket fac­tors still got in the way.

Among the biggest tech­ni­cal chal­lenges were bat­ter­ies. In a cost-ef­fec­tive sense, they hadn’t pro­gressed enough to di­rect-start a diesel on a cold day with­out need­ing to make space for a lot of bat­ter­ies. From the con­sumer stand­point diesel en­gines were noisy, smelly, rough as a cob and had very lim­ited rpm ranges. The oner­ous startup process for a diesel en­gine in ’40s and ’50s Amer­ica was more than most of the pub­lic would bear. On top of that, they de­liv­ered low power from what was still a large pack­age. Even the base six-cylin­der gassers on the mar­ket could out­per­form diesels small enough to fit in a light ve­hi­cle, not to men­tion the end­lessly pop­u­lar big Amer­i­can gas V8s. Not much in­fra­struc­ture was avail­able ei­ther, with diesel fuel sta­tions few and far be­tween, and ser­vice peo­ple were not on ev­ery cor­ner.

United States mar­ket de­mand for light-duty diesels was at least 20 years be­hind Europe and didn’t reach any sig­nif­i­cant level un­til the 1973 gas crunch. Af­ter that, diesel power be­came one el­e­ment in the car and light duty truck man­u­fac­tur­ers’ fran­tic ef­fort to sup­ply high­e­con­omy ve­hi­cles. Those few who had been driv­ing the sparsely avail­able light-duty diesel prod­ucts avail­able here were sud­denly trans­formed from nerdy geeks into for­ward-think­ing role mod­els. Ev­ery as­pect of the in­fra­struc­ture re­sponded and by then the tech­nol­ogy ex­isted to make a diesel-pow­ered car or light truck rea­son­ably prac­ti­cal, if still a bit more oner­ous to run than your dad’s Oldsmo­bile.

Oldsmo­bile! Say­ing “Oldsmo­bile” in con­junc­tion with “diesel” still prompts un­con­trol­lable weep­ing in some cir­cles. There are cur­rent and for­mer Gen­eral Mo­tors ex­ec­u­tives in that crowd, not to men­tion GM cus­tomers of the ’78-81 pe­riod. Forty years down the road, the Olds Diesel is still near the top of many peo­ple’s list for GM’S “Days of In­famy” and is gen­er­ally re­garded as hav­ing sin­gle-hand­edly soured the Amer­i­can pub­lic on diesel cars and trucks. The diesel light-truck mar­ket re­cov­ered quickly with good prod­ucts from many man­u­fac­tur­ers, in­clud­ing Gen­eral Mo­tors, but the diesel car mar­ket has never bounced back nor re­al­ized its po­ten­tial.

What you see here is a chronol­ogy of diesel-pow­ered light trucks and SUVS avail­able in the United States in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers to about 1990. We’ve left out most of the odd­balls and one-offs. Some will be fa­mil­iar, some not so fa­mil­iar. Good or bad, each had a part to play in where we are now.

Check back next month for the sec­ond half of our his­tory of diesel dis­cus­sion.

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