DIESEL-POWERED LIGHT TRUCKS IN AMERICA — PART 1
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.