Cummins diesel engines still roaring
When it comes to diesel engines, two of the most famous names are Cummins and Jacobs.
Cummins engines were the first diesels installed in cars, buses and trucks. And Jacobs Vehicle Systems sold the first design that allowed diesel engines to slow vehicles when drivers lift off the throttle — commonly referred to as the Jake brake.
Remarkably, both were created by members of a family that now lives in the local area. Reliable and economical Cummins diesel engines were engineered, manufactured and sold by Clessie Cummins in Columbus, Indiana, beginning in 1919. His son Lyle, who lives in Wilsonville, helped bring Clessie's idea for the Jake brake to market.
In June, the Cummins Engine Co. co-founded by Clessie will fly Lyle and his wife Jeanne to Columbus to help celebrate its 100th anniversary. It is now a Fortune 200 company doing business all over the world. More than 10,000 people are expected to show up in the city's downtown, which will be closed off for the June 15 event.
Lyle's son Matt, who lives in West Linn, will drive to the event in his 1999 Dodge pickup. It has a Cummins diesel engine with nearly 300,000 miles on it.
"I've rebuilt just about everything on it," said Matt, who works for Daimler Trucks in North Portland.
Altogether, 85 members of the Cummins family are expected to attend the celebration from around the county. They will include Lyle and Jeanne's children, and Matt's wife Cheri and their children.
"It's really wonderful what the company is doing to remember dad. He was a true spark plug," Lyle said during a recent interview at Matt's house.
Humble roots, creative mind
According to Lyle — who is still very sharp at 88 years old — his father overcame a humble background to revolutionize the automotive world, both by his brains and the sheer force of his personality. Lyle, a retired University of Portland engineering assistant professor, has written the definitive book on his father, "The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins."
Clessie's life and numerous accomplishments also have been documented in many other books, newspaper and magazine articles, and by Indiana public broadcasting. Among other things, he is the only recipient to posthumously receive one of the Society of Automotive Engineers' highest awards, the Horning Medal. The citation inducting Clessie into the Automotive Hall of Fame says he "introduced the automotive diesel to the United States."
Modest beginning, big accomplishments
Clessie was born into a farm family in 1888. It was a far different time than today, with limited technologies and opportunities for advancement. Clessie grew up tinkering with and fixing agricultural equipment, then building his own wagons and sleds, and eventually making simple cars and boats.
Although diesel engines first gained popularity for agricultural and industrial uses, Clessie foresaw a wider application for them. And he had the imagination and drive to make it happen.
Clessie first adapted and squeezed one of his small marine diesel engines into a 1925 Packard limousine, proving that it could be a practical, reliable and economical means of personal transportation.
Then he figured out how to sell the idea to the world with personal demonstrations that included cross-country trips in early diesel trucks and buses, and diesel-powered race cars that competed in the early Indy 500 races in his home state, eventually setting five world records for endurance and speed for trucks, buses and race cars, and was awarded 33 United States patents for his inventions. Before too long, he was mingling with Henry Ford and other automotive industrial titans.
Although some, at the time, dismissed Clessie's demonstrations as mere stunts, one of them almost got him killed, leading to the invention of the Jake brake. In August 1931, he was driving two other men in a Cummins-powered truck from New York to Los Angeles, attempting to set a new truck speed record across the continent. The brakes went out as they were descending the steep gravel road from the Cajon Pass leading into San Bernardino. The existing fuel system kept diesel flowing into the cylinders even when the pedal was lifted, so the engine's compression could not help slow the truck.
Clessie barely avoided colliding with a train at the bottom of the road and vowed he would solve that problem.
He worked on it for many years and finally came up with the solution in 1957. Jacobs began selling the bolt-on replacement intake system in 1961. Technically called a compression release engine brake, it has helped prevent countless crashes — although the loud rat-a-tat exhaust roar prompted many cities to ban its use within their limits.
Clessie kept inventing things until his death in 1968. Lyle's book includes a picture of his father standing next to a radical "barrel engine" that he designed, built and ran in the completely equipped machine shop in his basement the year before.
Like father, like son
Lyle, who born in 1930, followed in his father's footsteps, earning a master's degree in civil engineering from Stanford University in 1956. The next year, he began working with his father on the Jake brake, serving as the design engineer, and doing the testing and much of the patent work on it. They later worked together on fuel and other diesel engine system improvements.
Like his father, Lyle also worked in the field. That included frequent visits to Portland, where Jacobs had a distribution center that also installed the brake system. He moved to the local area in 1970 to become an assistant engineering professor at the University of Portland. His classes reflected what he had learned from his father.
"They let me teach what I wanted to teach, about how to bring a product from concept through production to market," Lyle said about his two years at the North Portland university. He published his first book, "Internal Fire: The Internal Combustion Engine 1673-1900," in 1976.
Lyle then worked from 1982 to 1985 as a principal in the U.S. marketing effort for the Austrian-based Steyr-Daimler-Puch automobile diesel engine, where he received five U.S. plus foreign patents on diesel fuel systems. After that, he published three more diesel-related books, including the biography of his father in 1998 and his more recent one, "Diesels for the First Stealth Weapon: Submarine Power 1902-1945," in 2007.
Lyle said he is honored that the company has invited his family to its 100th anniversary celebration.
"He was a triple threat," Lyle says of his father. "He was creative, he was innovative, and he was salesman — he could cajole anyone into doing anything."
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)