Old Detroit Diesel Engines Have No Business Sounding This Good

Converting fuel into noise is lovely sometimes.

It seems like the further electrification and continual advances in automotive design are going to straight-up kill common diesel engines as we know them. Is that sad? Eh, maybe. Most diesels have been smelly, low-revving, slow, and didn’t sound all that good. This is an exception.

Maybe some VW diesels have a cult following. And of course, heavy-duty pickup trucks can be tuned to make four-figure torque peaks, but I’d never heard this kind of intoxicating notes from ancient trucks like the vehicles in these clips.

For starters, just listen to this four-cylinder, two-stroke, diesel engine in an old-school Diamond T commercial truck from the 1940s.

These diesel engines were two-stroke units, essentially producing power every other stroke. These motors are different than a gasser two-stroke engine; there’s no oil and fuel mixture needed to make it run. The result is a rowdy, and screaming engine, with an exhaust note that was way more Lamborghini Countach energy, rather than Mack truck.

For the ’40s, Detroit Diesel’s two-strokes were light, compact, and high-powered for a diesel engine. Well, they were “high-powered” for the era, at least. The 4-53 made up to 140 horsepower, but turbocharged variants (4-53T) could crest 175 horsepower. Not too bad for a diesel engine developed at the tail end of WWII.

God, just listen to that fury.

Detroit Diesel got its start from GM back in 1938, as a subdivision creating, you guessed it, diesel engines. These engines were somewhat modular — with pistons essentially being the same among a series, but cylinder count varying. Like, a Detroit Diesel 4-53, meant that it was four-cylinder, and each cylinder had 53 cubic inches. Simple.

As far as I can tell, these engines never made their way into any light trucks from the factory. Yet, it’s not super hard to find owners of trucks, not just GM ones, swap an old-school Detroit Diesel under the hood. Like this guy, who did an impressive Detroit 4-53T two-stroke diesel engine, into a 2009 Ford F-350.

An engine like that would normally be at home in an old GMC large truck from the 1960s.

As cool as these engines were, they were insanely dirty. Eventually, legislation stopped Detroit Diesel engines from being put inside vehicles. GM pivoted, and put more emphasis on developing their Duramax line of diesel engines. GM backed up from Detroit Diesel in the 1980s, and eventually, they were purchased by DaimlerChrysler in 2000. Post-DaimlerChrysler merger split, Daimler retained ownership, and their newer engine designs have found their way into Freightliner Semi-trucks, and some Damiler-branded busses. These two-stroke engines may have had a good power-to-weight ratio in their heyday, but they fell out of favor with newer, lighter, four-stroke designs. For reference, a 4-53 engine weighs well over 1,000 pounds, depending on the dressings.

Still, I can’t imagine how cool it would have been a kid in the 1970s hearing one of these screaming around on the freeway. Mega dope.

Kevin Williams
Kevin Williams

Kevin's been into cars his entire life, anything from the tiny kei cars in Japan, to the maybe not-so-good American barges of the 1980s. He's flipped more than 25 cars, only lost money twice, and has known how to make his dollar stretch as far as it can. If he ain't talking about cars, he's probably snacking on something sweet and cakey. Contact the author here.