by Lyle Cummins
The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins chronicles the story of an Indiana automotive pioneer. Most notably, Cummins has been recognized as the person who introduced the automotive diesel to the United States. He founded and was president for 19 years of the diesel engine company bearing his name. He showed his skills as a salesman, entrepreneur, and promoter par-excellence and set world speed and endurance records in cars and trucks.
Author Lyle Cummins has a unique perspective as Clessie Cummins’ youngest child. In his late teens, Lyle worked with Clessie on his boats and foreign cars. A decade later, Clessie employed Lyle as a design and development engineer in his new engineering company. Lyle’s research as an engine historian uncovered significant information which sheds new light on Clessie’s odyssey.
Lyle had the use of letters, patent applications, family scrapbooks, photo albums, and memories. The Diesel Odyssey is heavily noted and draws on hundreds of sources to light the shadows of an engineering genius. The author delights in small but telling insights into the events that shaped Clessie’s years with the Cummins Engine Company. Plus, Lyle shares some of the highlights of his father’s personal life.
Clessie’s adventures started in 1904 when he quit school in the eighth grade and stated, “I want to be a machinist and make things”. He worked for a short time around central Indiana in four early automotive related industries before settling at Nordyke and Marmon which produced the Marmon car. He was also on the pit crew of the first winner of the Indianapolis 500 mile race, Ray Harroun, who drove a Marmon Wasp to victory lane on May 30, 1911.
Cummins worked in an assortment of jobs, participated in motoring and “started making things” during his early adulthood. Then on February 3, 1919, the Cummins Engine Company was incorporated with Clessie and W.G. Irwin, who once employed Cummins as his chauffeur, being the principle shareholders.
Clessie’s first two diesel patents were applied for in 1921. They were both for improvements in fuel injection on engines built under license. Production of the Cummins model F engine began in 1925 with injection components of Clessie’s design for use in marine and lighthouse applications.
In a Society of Automotive Engineers meeting talk in April 1929, Clessie predicted “the common use of diesel engines for motorcars is not near. Eventually it will come, but there is no economic need for it now.” Little did he know that the Depression would start six months later and provide the economic need for energy-efficient transportation choices. The genesis of his promotional efforts started with the installation of a model U engine in a 1925 Packard seven-passenger limousine for a long distance road test and publicity tour. This was the first application of a diesel engine in an American automobile. In 1931, he set a new diesel powered record of 100.362 mph at Daytona Beach. These and other achievements helped prove that diesels could conquer the road.
Cummins continued setting records and manufacturing diesel innovations until his death on August 17, 1968. He had worked on his mechanical dreams until the end–an inventive genius spanning 56 years with numerous honors for his pioneering achievements.
The Diesel Odyssey sometime gets bogged down with trivial details, like technical descriptions from patent applications and long passages from business letters. Overall, however, the author creates a lively recounting of the father of the American truck diesel.
Clessie Cummins would be pleased with what son Lyle has done. So will any enthusiast of autos and history.
The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins, by C. Lyle Cummins, Jr., Carnot Press, P.O. Box 1544, Lake Oswego, OR, 97035, phone: 503-694-5353, © 1998. ISBN: 0-917308-04-2
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