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Proud Father of the Highway Diesel

By on November 1, 2017
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Visionary, Entrepreneur, Wunderkind, Diesel Pioneer

Descriptors such as visionary, entrepreneur and wunderkind certainly apply to Clessie Lyle Cummins. From humble beginnings as a rural Indiana farm boy with no formal education beyond the 8th grade, he improved on existing diesel engines, created new engine designs, was awarded 33 U.S. patents, and set five world endurance and speed records for trucks, buses and race cars.

Born on December 27, 1888, Clessie went to work as a chauffeur and mechanic in Columbus, Indiana. In 1919, he founded the Cummins Engine Co, Inc. (now Cummins, Inc.). Many credit him as the driving force that took diesel engines from farming byways to the nation’s highways. In 1935, five years after originally demonstrating diesel viability for cars by repowering a Packard limousine, Clessie made his first commercial attempt to provide diesel engines for passenger cars.

A Nose for News

Discussions with the Auburn Automobile Company began in early 1930, partly to help Auburn enter the family car market and save the struggling automaker. To reduce weight, two early prototypes of an application-designed Model A diesel were built using an aluminum alloy. A Paramount News crew was scheduled to film portions of a New York to Los Angeles cross-country  publicity trip. Days before the trip was to commence, the 851 4-door convertible was rendered inoperable due to a fire started by an electrical short in the trunk. Desperate to stay on schedule, Clessie had the unharmed engine quickly installed in an exact Auburn 851 replacement.

On June 17, 1935, he left New York on the cross-country demonstration. Along the way, he recorded a 100-mph run on the Bonneville Salt Flats and crossed the under-construction Hoover Dam. On July 4th, he triumphantly rolled into LA and stopped at the Warner Brothers studios, having travelled 3,774 miles, averaging a remarkable 35-mpg. The total fuel cost of $7.63 averaged $.07 per gallon.

A Rediscovered Gem

After a 1937 wreck, not of Clessie’s making, destroyed the second 851, the same engine was installed in the white 655 4-door sedan pictured here. Shortly after delivering ten more sedans for installation of Model A engines, Auburn came under scrutiny for questionable stock practices, and the contract was cancelled. The 655 served as Clessie’s daily driver until it was placed into storage during 1939. He died in 1968 at age 79. During 1974, the white 655 was discovered in a lumberyard warehouse. While the car required extensive restoration, the engine only required minimal work. Today, the 655 is preserved in his memory as part of Cummins, Inc.’s storied history.

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