Detroit Diesel: Everything You Need to Know (History Lesson)

When we produced our Duramax articles a few weeks, we briefly looked at the Detroit Diesel 6.2L and 6.5L V8 engines that GM used prior to their Duramax line. And that got me thinking, how far back does Detroit Diesel go? Where did start, where did they go, and what are they doing now.

While the story of the diesel engine starts in the late 1800s in Europe with a man named Rudolf Diesel, the Detroit Diesel timeline begins in the U.S in the 1930s. With that in mind, get your popcorn, get comfy, and let’s get into the entire history of Detroit Diesel.

The Stock Market Crash of 1929

To really understand where Detroit Diesel came from, we have to rewind the clock to 1929 before the company was ever formed. Right at this time, the US was recovering from the stock market crash of 1929 and General Motors was focused on acquisitions since companies are much cheaper to purchase after an economic crash. Lucky for GM, they were in a good financial position to scoop companies for pennies on the dollar, and that’s exactly what they did.

GM was really looking to buy a diesel engine manufacturer and they were heavily interested in a handful of companies, including Cummins, but ultimately they settled on purchasing Winton. At that time, Winton was well known as the premier builder for diesel engines for workboats and yachts.

Charles Kettering and Alfred Sloan

But, before that acquisition happened Charles Kettering, one of the smart inventors of the automobile industry, was approached by Alfred Sloan, who at the time, was the President of General Motors. Alfred wanted to build diesel engines and figured Charles Kettering was the right guy for the job.

Long story short, Charles Kettering had a yacht with a Cooper-Bessemer four-stroke engine. He didn’t like the performance of the engine and after trying to rebuild and improve upon the injection system, he gave up and decided to motor swap his yacht to a Winton engine, but he specifically wanted his Winton engines to be equipped with unit injectors, but Winton was not fond of this idea.

Development of Unit Injectors

Ultimately, Winton did put unit injectors on their engine for Kettering, but they were basically garbage and failed immediately. So, with that in mind, Kettering insisted that General Motors develop their own unit injector on Big Bertha, which was a big single-cylinder two-stroke engine.

Eventually. Kettering and General Motors figured out the unit injector, got them to work well, and then put them onto the Winton engine in Kettering’s yacht and then they immediately went on an 18hr cruise where these newly unit injectors gave them zero problems and worked almost perfectly.

Jumping back over to 1930, Charles Kettering began his own research into two-stroke diesel by having Winton build two single-cylinder test engines for him. One of those engines was shipped to Electro-Motive Company, which GM bought around the same time they bought Winton, and the other engine was sent to Kettering’s lab in Detroit.

Cleveland Engine Division

Ultimately, it was all a success and Winton started producing tons of big engines for use in things like Submarines for the Navy, trains, and more. But in 1937, GM changed things up and Winton effectively begin the Cleveland Engine Division which would continue to produce marine and stationary power applications.

Detroit Diesel

That takes us to 1938, one year after forming the Cleveland Engine Division, they formed the Detroit Diesel engine. The idea was to basically take all the R&D that they had already done on these large two-stroke diesel engines, and shrink it down to a smaller platform, one that wasn’t meant for marine, locomotive, or stationary use.

The Series 71

That takes us to Detriot Diesel’s first which was the Series 71 engine platform, which had a target application of construction, military, and standby generator use. The Series 71 engine platform was available in three sizes. You could either get a 3-cylinder, a 4-cylinder, or a 6-cylinder.

And it’s worth quickly noting that the Series 71 wasn’t just a shrunken version of the two-stroke engines from the Cleveland Engine Division, because shrinking a massive engine down something much smaller creates a ton of issues, especially with lubrication. Luckily, Charles Kettering was able to figure these issues out and the first Series 71 engine was produced in 1937.

Moving back to 1938, Detroit Diesel ramped up production and around 700 engines were sent to GM’s Truck and Couch division, then in 1939, the engine was sent to various suppliers for use in their applications, one of which was the Allis-Chambers tractor.

World War II

Fast-forwarding a little bit, the Series 71 all across World War II, and by 1944 around 62,000 of these engines were produced. As you can imagine, producing that many engines in such a short amount of time isn’t particularly easy, and its peak, Detroit Diesel could barely keep with demand even after massively scaling their staff size.

Long story short, the Nazis were defeated and Japan had the power of the sun dropped on them twice by the US. With so many Series 71 engines being used in military applications, there are literally hundreds or thousands of them scatted all over the world in that old military equipment, since obviously not everything is brought back after the war.

As an interesting side note in this article, I’d like to highlight that all Series 71 engines are supercharged, as a two-stroke diesel can’t naturally draw air in, so some sort of forced induction is necessary for the engine to function. For those of you who are into the hot rod world, this is where the famous 8-71 blower comes from.

After the War

After the war in the 1950s, Detroit Diesel introduced their new Series 110. What made this new engine series so much different from the Series 71 is the fact that it was only available as an inline-six-cylinder platform. Gone was the idea of a platform that scaled up in size by adding cylinders. At nearly the same time, they also introduced the Series 53 engines

The 110 marketed as a more powerful alternative to the 71 and it was used in construction equipment, rail cars, and more. After the war though, started to fall off in popularity and important, as on-road trucks began to boom in popularity as a superior solution for transporting large amounts of goods.

This coincides with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which had a huge impact on in-city travel as well as inter-state travel. As such, transporting goods on the road becomes much easier and that’s partially what created that big boom of heavy-duty trucks.

Unfortunately, Detroit Diesel was a little to the party. They really didn’t shift their focus towards producing commercial truck engines until 1955, and by that point, Cummins had a massive lead on them, with the majority of commercial trucks using Cummins engines. Still, though, Detroit Diesel got to work offering their engines to heavy-duty manufacturers and they were quickly adopted.

Series 71 Variant

Even with the Series 53, Detroit Diesel needed some more powerful engine options to keep up with Cummins, so in 1957 they introduced a new variant of the Series 71, but this time it featured a V-configuration. It was originally launched as the 6V71, which was a V6, but was quickly followed up with the 8V71, 12V71, 16V71, and much later the 24V71.

As compared to the original 71 Series, the V configuration engines offered quite a bit more power, since displacement was massively increased with the additional cylinders. You have to remember that all 71 series engines have the same displacement per cylinder, so 71 series engines with more cylinders always have more displacement.

Jumping forward to 1962, Cleveland Diesel was moved to GM’s Electro-Motive Division, which meant that Detroit Diesel was the only remaining partner of the GM Diesel Division, but in 1965 GM Diesel Division was reorganzied into the Detroit Diesel Engine Division and by 1967 they were able to celebrate building their one-millionth engine.

From there, they merged together the Allison Division, who producing transmissions and gas turbines with Detroit Diesel Engine Division, and created the Detroit Allison division in 1970. Between 1970 and 1980 Detroit Allison grew quite a bit and started to take away some of the market shares from Cummins, and they grew even more once they dropped their Series 60 line of engines.

In no time at all, the Series 60 became the best-selling diesel engine for Class 8 trucks in the North American Market. Fast fowarding to 1988, shortly after the introduction of the Series 60, Penske and GM began working together, and ultimately, created a new organization known as the Detroit Diesel Corporation, with Roger Penske holding a majority ownership stake in it, and under his command, they grew at an even faster rate.

In 1993 they produced a whopping a $20 million dollar net income and in the same year they were listed on the New York stock exchange as DDC. It was at this point that they controlled about 33% of the on-highway truck engine market, with the majority of it still being held by Cummins.

Daimler Truck of North America

It might not seem like it, but considering their on-highway market share was once 3%, growing to 33% is pretty insane. Through the 1990s, Detroit Diesel Company continued to grow, now as a public company, and it wasn’t until 2000 that there was really any change, which is when Daimler Chrysler acquired Detroit Diesel Company and placed it under their Daimler Truck of North America Umbrella.

Depending on how strongly you feel about a parent companies nationality, this is either a move you would’ve been fine with or hated, because Detroit Diesel, the company that massively helped in World War II, the company that helped with the explosion of commercial truck market, the company that employed tens of thousands of US employees, was now owned by a German automaker.

It’s almost like a slap in the face to those who believe in US-made products, but at the end of the day, Detroit Diesel had outgrown their small roots and boomed into a publicly traded international powerhouse of a company.

The DD Engine Line

When 2005 rolled around, the Detroit Diesel Corporation made a big investment in their own company, spending over $300 million dollars to refurbish their production plant and tooling. With the refurbishment, crazy growth, and insane progress happening all at one time, they also released an entirely new engine with it, so the DD engine line was born. This includes engines like the DD13, DD15, DD15TC, and DD16, which was all still being produced today and used on commercial trucks all over the world.

Detroit Diesel Today

Moving up to the current day, Detroit Diesel Corporation has continued to grow and develop, launching several new concepts along the way to help with emissions compliance and ease of maintenance. Arguably their biggest development has been their BlueTec Emissions systems. They’ve also expanded their ideas past just commercial engines and as such renamed the company to Detroit to show that they’re more than just a diesel engine company.

And as no surprise, they are pushing to get into the electric commercial truck market. Whether or not you believe electric is the future is a topic for a different time, but it’s pretty crazy to think that a small company from the 1930s that blew up in the commercial truck market with their two-stroke diesel engines is now moving towards diversification and electrification. Crazy times we live in.

Today, they’re offering parts and a full lineup of engines for commercial applications. They’re also producing transmissions, safety systems, and much more.

1 thought on “Detroit Diesel: Everything You Need to Know (History Lesson)”

  1. I realize that you can only put so much information into a video that has a limited amount of time so please double check all of your info. When you referred to the forced air injection of Detroit Diesels and the later use of the blowers on drag race engines, you referred to them as 8-71 units. The first blowers that were in wide spread use were the 6-71 type. I’m surprised that with your wide knowledge of engine development and racing upgrades that this mistake was not caught sooner. Other than that minor flaw I have enjoyed your videos and will continue to watch.


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