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The Little Engine That Did

September 8, 2014

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Were any of us to come across one of these in a barn or out in a field, few of us would recognize it for what it was. It's the engine that started the Cummins Engine Company. It's a not-too-distant cousin and a forerunner of the ISX engine we're familiar with today.

This 95-year-old Hvid engine still produces 6 horsepower at 550 rpm. It weighs 1,100 pounds, and the two flywheels weigh 375 pounds each. Photo by Jim Park
This 95-year-old Hvid engine still produces 6 horsepower at 550 rpm. It weighs 1,100 pounds, and the two flywheels weigh 375 pounds each. Photo by Jim Park
The engine was on display and working during the recent 40th anniversary celebration at the company's Jamestown, N.Y., manufacturing plant. Its proud keeper and chief technician, Randy Watts, a Combustion Performance and Emissions Tuning engineer (and self-confessed gear-head) was standing by the engine, proud as punch with a few oily rags in his hands, watching the thing blort, blort, blorting away on its little stand.

This particular engine dates back to 1919 and was probably hand-built by Clessie Cummins himself under a license from the Dutch-born engine maker, R.M. Hvid (pronounced Veed).

According to some notes from a website devoted to old engines, R.M. Hvid had developed and patented a fuel delivery system for compression-ignition engines. Rather than build engines himself, he sold licenses to use his patented fuel delivery system on engines built by others, the notes suggest. Clessie Cummins had one of those licenses, and he produced the plucky little red engine you see here.

"This isn't THE first engine, but that one would have been very similar to this one," Watts explained. "We're actually still trying to figure out which one this is. There are two different numbers on it -- on the base and on the top -- neither of them is in the location it should be, so there's some discrepancy there. I'm not sure if we'll ever know which engine was the original."

Watts says this type of engine was produced under the name Cummins Oil Engine, and this one would likely have been built within the first two months of the company becoming incorporated.  

As the story goes, and it's well documented in many online accounts as well as in the book "The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins," written by Clessie's son, Lyle, Clessie had made some improvements to the original fuel delivery system for the engine and had managed to increase its output from five horsepower to six. It was then he was approached by the Sears & Roebuck Co. to manufacture fuel systems for engines it was selling to farmers through its mail order catalog.

The Hercules Engine Company of Evansville, Indiana, had been Sears & Roebuck's original producer, selling 1.5- and 3-horsepower engines under the trade name Thermoil. The engines were popular but Hercules was unable to keep up with demand. Sears & Roebuck saw Cummins' working 6-horsepower engine and offered the fledgling company a contract to produce some 4,500 of the smaller engine, to supplement Hercules' production. At the time, Cummins had a working version of only the larger engine, but had been working on plans for the smaller ones.

Photo by Jim Park
Photo by Jim Park
Watts says Cummins likely produced fewer than 100 of the 6-horsepower engines seen here when he shifted production to the smaller 1.5- and 3-horsepower models for Sears & Roebuck. The deal with Sears & Roebuck put Cummins Engines on the map, but it very nearly bankrupted the company too.

Sears & Roebuck was selling the engines on terms of "$5 down, 30 days trial, 10 months to pay." The farmers took full advantage of these terms, buying the engines on time, using them for the harvest season and then returning them for a refund. Sears & Roebuck was returning the engines to Cummins at rate of about 20% of total sales.

Cummins' sales reached a peak of $25,000 in December 1920 before collapsing to less than $5,000 in February 1921. Engines were returned to the factory faster than they were shipped.

According to Lyle Cummins, it had become a local joke around Columbus, Indiana, at the time, that the draymen hauling the engines in and out of the Cummins Engine plant were making more money on the engines than was the manufacturer.

Cummins managed to sever the relationship with Sears & Roebuck in 1923, after four years of production which netted the company a measly profit of about $9,000. Cummins, however, managed to extract from the catalog retailer the princely sum of $85,000 to cover the cost of unsold inventory and parts, proving that young Clessie was not only good at designing and building engines, but that he had a pretty good head for business too.

Cummins has come a long way in the 95-years since the Hivd was sold through the Sears & Roebuck mail order catalog. Photo by Jim Park
Cummins has come a long way in the 95-years since the Hivd was sold through the Sears & Roebuck mail order catalog. Photo by Jim Park
Fortunately for Clessie, and the rest of us for that matter, he had an investor and partner, former employer and life-long friend, W.G. Irwin, who saw bigger prospects beyond the Sears & Roebuck fiasco, and sustained the company financially through its difficult start-up years.

As for the engine itself, it produces 6 horsepower at 550 rpm and weighs 1,100 pounds. The two flywheels weigh 375 pounds each. Compare that to the current ISX 15, producing over 600 horsepower at just over 3,000 pounds dry weight.

While its actual service life is unknown, it was designed as a constant speed engine to operate a flat-belt pulley, so it might have run an irrigation pump or a saw mill. Watts says the engine was found on an old oil lease in southeastern Ohio, leading to the assumption that it drove a pump.

There's more information on the early Cummins Hvid-based engines at the links below, as well as in the book "The Diesel Odyssey" by Lyle Cummins.


Gas Engine Magazine



  1. 1. imrankhan [ September 13, 2014 @ 05:35AM ]

    My fv cummins ingine job


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Author Bio

Jim Park

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Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.


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