A look back at the first 100 years of the Cummins Engine Company
In the unlikely event you’ve never heard a Cummins you have probably heard of them. Yet the name known for reliably towing your five-slide RV or moving a locomotive was also one of the first with disc brakes, independent front suspension and yes, even turbochargers, at the Indianapolis 500.
Cummins provides power in natural gas, electric and diesel that started the company, from tiny generators to the 12-foot long, up to 5000-hp Q95 engine that weighs 28,500 pounds and holds 170 gallons of oil. Last year they built more than 1.5 million engines.
2019 marked the company’s centennial anniversary, and from central Indiana sprang an enterprise ranked 159th on Fortune’s 2017 500 list (revenue greater than $23 billion last year) that operates a major facility in 14 countries on every continent except Antarctica and employs more than 60,000 people. By total employee count Cummins is the largest company headquartered in Indiana.
And it started with a chauffeur.
DIY Steam Engine
Clessie Cummins was born just after Christmas, 1888, in Henry county Indiana, east of Indianapolis. A hands-on guy, he made it through the eighth grade and according to rumor, built his own steam engine when he was 11 to irrigate the family farm. Handy with tools and thinking like an engineer if not trained like one, Clessie got a gig as mechanic at the Marmon Motor Company, which led to him working with Ray Harroun on the 1911 Marmom Wasp that won the inaugural Indy 500. On the side, he worked as a chauffeur for Columbus, Indiana, banker and investor William Irwin, a major sponsor of Harroun’s effort.
Irwin recognized Clessie’s talent, such as building a gasoline engine in Irwin’s garage, and nurtured it. It wasn’t long before they thought of building engines for local farms, but when they first glimpsed a diesel engine—and diesel hadn’t been around long—from Dutch firm R.M. Hvid, they saw potential in becoming a distributor. Irwin’s position as director of the U.S. Department of Commerce may have helped the deal along, and with financial backing from Irwin, the Cummins Engine Company was formally established in 1919. A venture with Sears, Roebuck and Company got engines into the catalog but liberal return policies meant many were used hard, not maintained, then returned, making Irwin remove the catalog business and advise that improved reliability would be wise.
Tinkerer that he was Cummins immediately began improving the Hvid engine, some of his changes granted patents. The Hvid license and experience led to Cummins’ own engine, the Model M (5-inch bore, 7.5-inch stroke, 7.5 hp/cylinder) in one, two, three or four cylinders, followed by the Model F (5.5-inch bore, 7-inch stroke), which came out in 1924 and ended the Hvid partnership, Irwin still the money behind it.
In 1926 and pressed for space the company bought the former Reeves & Company (later absorbed by Case, which 85 years later would share the same Chairman as Ram trucks) tractor plant in Columbus, Indiana, and renamed it the Columbus Engine Plant. Two years later Cummins introduced the Model U, the first enclosed high-speed diesel with fully pressurized lubrication and a distributor-type injection pump; the 4.5 x 6-inch engine came in 1-4 or 6 cylinders. To prove its value for on-highway operation and not just boats, Clessie put a four-cylinder unit in a Packard for demonstrations and in 1929 drove it to the New York Auto Show: They ended up placed across the street but attracted good business anyway. It was a smart move given that many previous engines had gone into yachts, a market that virtually disappeared with the 1929 stock market crash.
Subsequent engines included the Model K (not to be confused with the later K series such as the KTA19), KO, L/LR/LRT, and some would supply the marine and industrial markets for 40 years. The single-disc fuel system, which generated fuel pressure within the injector, also debuted in 1929 and would run through WWII. Clessie Cummins was elected President of the company in 1930.
After the success of the New York Auto Show and intent on showing diesel was the way to go for the highway market, Cummins convinced Irwin to repower with Model H diesels the truck fleet for California’s Purity Stores grocery stores, which Irwin had the controlling stake in. With superior economy and mountain performance, this was the turning point that put Cummins’ future on the road and they signed their first dealer in 1933. Over the next decade various feats of durability and performance included:
Running an upgraded 125-hp @1,800 rpm HA engine (predecessor of the NH “new H” line) truck with 16,750 pounds of cargo, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a week “nonstop,” covering 14,600 miles.
Driving a Cummins-powered Packard to Daytona Beach, posting an 80-mph record, and driving it back averaging 40 mpg.
In 1931 Cummins put a modified four-cylinder Model U (smaller bore by 0.125-inch to get under Indy’s stock-block 366 cubic-inch limit, two intake valves, aluminum pistons, 85 hp @ 1500 rpm) into a modified Duesenberg Model A chassis—the engine’s 1,600 pounds almost half the car’s 3,389, and set a flying-mile record for diesel vehicles at Daytona running 100.755 mph.
The car later went to Indy because officials had made an exemption for diesels and required an 80-mph qualifying average versus the 90 of gasoline cars. The pole speed was 113 and the Cummins qualified at 96.87 (last by 0.7 mph) but it did that on day one. The winner’s average speed was 97 mph but the race kept going for everything that could complete 200 laps, and the Cummins finished 38 minutes later, in 13th place, averaging 86 mph and bettering 16 mpg.
Cummins returned for the 1934 race with two cars, both experimental supercharged, aluminum, square inline fours–one four-stroke, which required only seven horses to drive the blower and one two-stoke that used 37 hp to make 3 psi boost. Each one weighed half a ton and made 135 hp at 2500 rpm.
The four-stroke car placed 19th, retiring around 200 miles when torque damaged the transmission after a pit stop. The two-stroke car was the last to complete 500 miles, finishing in a diesel-high of 12th place and a cloud of smoke, the pistons and liners becoming one when it was shut off. Rumor has it Clessie was so annoyed the engine was removed and unceremoniously dumped in the White River en route back to Columbus, and “two stroke” was never uttered again at Cummins. That car was later lengthened to fit a four-stoke six, which covered the flying mile at 137 mph in March of 1935 with “Wild Bill” Cummings at the wheel. (“Cummings” not a typo)
Different milestones elapsed in 1936 when the company passed one-million dollars in sales (forty years later it would be $1 billion), in1937 when it made its first profit and in 1940 when it developed the U.S. Antarctic Service Snow Cruiser.
Engine development had continued with the HB (for bus, but used mostly in trucks), smaller Model A, HS (supercharged), HR (revised, with a bigger 5.125-inch-bore liner), NH and NHS, and the NVH-1200, a 60-degree V-12 sharing HR bore/stroke for 400 hp at 2100 rpm and the supercharged NVHS with 550 hp.
In 1950 Cummins returned to Indy with car #61, again the Cummins Diesel Special. It was a modified Kurtis Kraft chassis powered by an 860-pound, aluminum inline-six based on the JBS-600 truck engine, with a crank-driven Roots-style supercharger, four valves per cylinder, pressure/time injection and two injectors per cylinder. The undersquare 401 cubic inches (4.125 x 5.0) delivered 320 hp at 4,000 rpm, up to 340 hp at speed with the benefit of ram-air induction.
The 1950 car has been reported as the first to use disc brakes at the Speedway, though driver Jimmy Jackson’s 1949 front-drive car, developed by whiz-kid wrenches Frank Coon and Jimmy Travers, has also been reported to be disc equipped (photos of the 1949 car are inconclusive).
Car #61 qualified slowest at 129.208 mph and had to retire in 29th place at quarter-distance because of problems with the vibration damper and blower drive. Those were ironed out and the car went to Bonneville in September, where it set six diesel records from 163.82 mph over a kilometer to 148.14 mph over ten miles.
In 1951, the company busy with Korean war supply, Clessie recruited brother Don to head a race-team for the 1952 Indy 500, alongside chief engineer Nev Reiners, riding mechanic/co-driver of the 1931 car Thane Houser and four others. Frank Kurtis from Kurtis Kraft was brought in early to supply a suitable chassis.
The first turbocharger at Indy was on this car—Offenhauser didn’t get one until 1966—and it made 20 psi boost for 380 hp @ 4,000 rpm and 430 @ 4,500. Still based on the JBS-600 engine and sharing internal dimensions, this got the nickname JT-600 and used a magnesium crankcase, so weight was down to 750 pounds. Using tricks from the NHH-series engine which sat on its side, the JT-600 was installed 85 degrees from vertical, giving an engine cover height less than two feet off the ground.
Kurtis’ car debuted the offset design, with the drivetrain to the left and driver, just four inches off the ground, on the right for a 150-pound weight bias to the “inside” of the corners. He also debuted independent front suspension (Fred Clemons had done independent rear in 1931 but not on Cummins’ car) and tuned the aerodynamics in a wind-tunnel, another claimed first.
The 3,100-pound #28 couldn’t accelerate with the gasoline cars but ran well until rubber buildup clogged the turbo intake in the right front, which killed the turbo and it retired on lap 71 from fifth place to place 27th. To that point #28’s average was 131.5 mph, about a mile-an-hour faster than the winning average, indicating it was keeping pace, so a rules change was quickly enacted and #28 was the last diesel to race at Indianapolis; Cummins reappeared as sponsor on later cars, including the 1987 winner. Car #28 was restored in 1968 and a crack was found in the crankshaft leading to speculation the engine would have failed if the turbo hadn’t. To mark Cummins hundredth anniversary the 2019 Indy 500 featured a parade lap with all five Cummins cars that have run there.
Back to Business
While Clessie and Team Cummins were using racing for R&D J. Irwin Miller was running the company, as President from 1947 and Chairman from 1951. An initial public stock offering was made but it would be 17 years before the ticker (currently CMI) was offered on the New York Stock Exchange. Had early Ram enthusiasts invested $24,000 in Cummins stock rather than a 1989 Dodge Cummins pickup, 30 years later they’d have about $475,000 (based on share price and adjusted for splits).
The mid-1950s brought both good and bad. Miller established the Cummins Foundation in 1954 and three years later told the city of Columbus the foundation would pay all architects fees for public structures. As a result the small city of 44,000 people and 28 square miles has schools, churches, fire stations, a library and at least one Miller residence designed by leading architects (Pei, Roche, Saarinen, Birkerts, Owings & Merrill, etc. ); in 1991 the American Institute of Architects named it the sixth most important city for architecture in the United States.
A Cummins company history will tell you in 1955 the company powered the majority of diesel trucks in the U.S., highlighted by the newer JT-600 turbodiesel. What it doesn’t mention is that 1954 was the year Clessie Cummins was released from his eponymous Engine Company, though he kept some patents and formed Cummins Enterprises Company. One of his last ideas while at Cummins was the compression-release engine brake, and after he’d left and perfected the concept he shopped it to several companies, including Cummins, with none expressing an interest. Jacobs Chuck Company (of drill chuck fame) did bite and the Jake brake was born. Clessie lived another 13 years, tinkering at home and at Allison Aircraft Engine Company, and one has to wonder how many heads rolled for turning down the engine brake from the man who helped build the company.
During the latter half the 20th century Cummins focused on business basics—controlling costs, acquisitions, sensible growth and a global footprint. Cost containment came from buying Indiana’s Seymour Woolen Mills facility and making it the filter business that would later become Fleetguard, purchasing England’s Holset for turbocharger expertise—with a Holest turbo first appearing on a Cummins engine seven years later and in 2000 the first diesel VGT on the market, and teaming up with J.I. Case on medium-duty engines in the U.S. and Komatsu in Japan.
They established engine production in Shotts, Scotland, Jamestown, New York, Whitakers, North Carolina–the Rocky Mount plant where early Dodge Cummins B engines were built, and Darlington, England for the “Small Vee” line of V-6 and V-8 engines primarily for the marine market. And by 1992 they had acquired all of Onan Corporation for their power generation business.
Arguably the most famous engine Cummins debuted in the second half-century was the B5.9 in 1984. A success on its own, and eventually spawning a 3.9-liter four-cylinder version, it was Dodge’s 1987 decision to install it in the D/W series that really got it going. Dodge wanted it for “its toughness, durability and fuel economy,” and initially thought they would need 20,000 engines a year. That quickly proved an understatement–only 14 years later Dodge/Ram had used a million of them.
Ongoing diversification and expansion drove the removal of “Engine Company” from the name, beginning the new century as Cummins, Inc. Mid-decade, Cummins debuted their first production-ready diesel-electric hybrid truck powertrain in the Oshkosh HEMITT A3. It had a constant-rpm 400-hp ISL 9-liter engine and generator driving four wheel motors capable of moving the 30-ton truck up to 65 mph with a 20 percent increase in fuel efficiency, and made available 200-kW power.
Ninety years after the company was established the F3.8 four-cylinder arrived for the BRIC market. This was the first Cummins engine designed and built overseas, and it sells 250,000+ units per year. Another road engine developed this century, the ISV5.0 originally envisioned as a 5.6 V-8 and 4.2 V-6 (your correspondent drove the V-8 in 2005) went into production in 2015. With the Titan XD not offering it forward, there are some reports the 5.0 will go away quietly.
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