A Brief History Of Diesel

Once deemed too sluggish for passenger cars, today diesel powers high-speed, high-tech units that combine efficiency with great driving dynamics. But the origins of the engine are much humbler.

When Rudolf Diesel stood back from his workbench in 1893 to survey the prototype engine he’d just completed, he could never have imagined how significant it would become to the automotive world. Diesel, a Paris-born German who made his reputation designing refrigerators, had developed an engine that was more than seven times more efficient than the steam engine.

The diesel engine, as it came to be known, was also more efficient and reliable than the gasoline engine that had been invented 20 years earlier by Diesel’s countryman, Nikolaus Otto. This was thanks to the slower rate at which it burned fuel, meaning it made better use of the heat generated, and put the engine’s mechanical components under less strain.

Such was the diesel engine’s efficiency, however, that it wasn’t long before it became a mainstay of the industrial revolution. It was used in trains, power stations, factories and ships. And despite its relative weight when compared to a petrol unit, the diesel lump eventually found a place in the world’s automobiles.
It took some time for car makers to begin making use of the diesel engine, mind you. Mercedes-Benz first used the fuel in 1936, and premiered its ground-breaking 260D at the Berlin Motor Show of that year.

For the next 30 years, diesel lumps tended to be the preserve of commercial vehicles – they were deemed too sluggish and unrefined for use in passenger cars.

That started to change in the 1950s and 1960s, as manufacturers like Mercedes and Peugeot woke up to the greater efficiency and longevity of diesels in an era of post-war austerity.

It’s fair to say this was a Europe-specific trend. Indeed, even as recently as the late 1990s, only two manufacturers – Mercedes and VW – offered diesel variants of their cars in the US. In Europe, meanwhile, the diesel revolution was rapidly gathering pace. This led to other car manufacturers like Audi and Fiat producing diesel cars.

Today, thanks to Government incentives, diesel enjoys unprecedented popularity in many European countries, accounting for up to a half of new car sales across the EU.