Cummins Engine: From Tinkering to Automotive Titan
By Mary Giorgio
Today, it’s a multinational company with over 50,000 employees, but back when it was founded, Cummins Inc. was a small operation taking a big gamble on an even bigger future. The company’s founder, Clessie Lyle Cummins, was a talented mechanic who dreamed of building a viable diesel engine. He would patent 33 inventions related to engine improvement in his lifetime.
Born in Henry County, Indiana, on December 27, 1888, Clessie Cummins was fascinated with engines. He loved to experiment, and at the age of 11, succeeded in building a steam engine. Although Cummins’ formal education would end in 8th grade, he continued to hone his skill through observation and experimentation.
In 1911, Cummins joined the pit crew for a local race car driver named Ray Harroun. Cummins made several suggestions that improved the Marmon-Wasp car’s speed. Harroun took that race car to the inaugural Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Harroun’s first-place victory cemented Cummins’s reputation as a top mechanic.
Shortly thereafter, Cummins accepted a job as a chauffeur and mechanic for the family of wealthy banker William Irwin. The family allowed him to tinker with his engine designs in their garage. Impressed with his work, Irwin offered to finance Cummins’ engine project.
In 1918, Cummins’ workshop was moved to a 5,000-square foot space in the Cerealine Building, an old cereal factory in Columbus, Indiana. On February 3, 1919, Cummins incorporated Cummins Inc., becoming the company’s first president. The first product sold by the new company was a compression-ignition oil engine, licensed through R.M. Hvid Co.
Cummins’ real dream, though, was to build the first commercially viable diesel engine. The technology was developed in the late 1800s by German inventor Rudolf Diesel. However, it had not been successfully scaled to a commercial application. It would take Cummins almost a decade of experimentation to create his first successful diesel engine.
In the meantime, the company innovated in other ways. In 1921, it patented direct-injection design for its Model F engine. In 1925, it began offering the industry’s first 100,000-mile warranty. In 1929, it introduced a custom-designed single disc fuel system.
That same year, on Christmas Day, Cummins arrived at the home of William Irwin in a Packard limo outfitted with his first working diesel engine. The two men proceeded to test-drive America’s first diesel-powered automobile.
Bolstered by the successful test, Cummins put an ambitious promotional plan into place. He drove the limo from Indiana to New York City in January 1930, arriving in time for the start of a big auto show. Using the diesel engine, the trip required only $1.39 in fuel.
Cummins intended to take part in the auto show but was denied entrance. Rather than giving up, he came up with a creative solution. He staged his car across the street from the auto show, with a catchy sign that read, “$1.39 for Fuel, Indy to NYC.” The diesel-powered automobile exhibit drew huge crowds.
Although the new diesel engines were seen as an exciting novelty, the Great Depression might have spelled the end of Cummins’ new enterprise, if not for the connections of William Irwin. As the owner of a controlling interest in the Purity Supermarket chain in California, he agreed to authorize Cummins to outfit the chain’s delivery trucks with the new engines in 1932. The test was a tremendous success. The diesel engines proved to be more durable and reliable than competing technologies. Soon, more companies were clamoring for the motors to be installed into their semi-trucks too.
Throughout the 1930s, Cummins continued to use the Indy 500 as a testing ground for his designs. In 1931, he sponsored a diesel-powered car, finishing 13th and consuming a mere 31 gallons of fuel. That same year, a truck outfitted with a Cummins Model H diesel engine completed 14,600 nonstop laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track. Cummins Inc. survived the Great Depression through innovation, and by 1936 had reached $1 million in sales.
During World War II, Cummins produced its reliable engines for the United States military. Following the war’s end, private sales of truck engines soared. The federal government’s big push in the 1950s to construct interstates across the US provided an additional revenue stream for the company. Cummins supplied motors for most of the heavy machinery that would construct America’s highways.
The late 1940s and early 1950s brought changes to Cummins’ leadership. William Irwin’s great-nephew, J. Irwin Miller, took the helm as president of Cummins in 1947. That same year, Cummins issued its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. Clessie Cummins became Chairman of the Board. He retired from Cummins in 1955 at the age of 67. Cummins would later move to California, where he worked for Allison Aircraft Engine Company.
Miller, himself, became another legendary figure in the history of Cummins Inc. After joining the company in 1934, he worked his way up the ranks, eventually becoming the company’s president. Miller would go on to serve as Chairman of the Board for 26 years. His vision for the future of the company was largely responsible for the growth strategies that led to their market dominance.
Miller and his wife Xenia were also generous philanthropists, establishing the Cummins Foundation in 1954. The couple was inspired by their love of architecture and belief that Columbus could only attract top talent if the community was an inviting place to live. To date, the foundation has donated millions of dollars to improve the Columbus community, most notably paying architects’ fees on over 60 public projects that utilized the designs of some of the country’s most talented architects. Their own home is an architectural marvel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is open to the public for tours.
Under Miller’s leadership, Cummins Inc. became a global company. In 1956, the company’s first international facility opened in Scotland. Others soon followed, most notably in East Asia and India. By the end of the 1960s, the company had facilities in 98 countries. Today, their footprint has soared to 5,000 facilities in 197 countries. Cummins remains a global leader in automobile innovation. In an acknowledgment of his significant contributions to the company’s early success, Clessie Cummins was inducted into the Central Indiana Business Hall of Fame in 2007.