First Semi-Truck in the United States to Get Loaded on Diesel

Was it the Winton Gas Engine and Manufacturing Company, Fairbanks Morse and Company (Fairbanks-Morse) or Kenworth Truck Co. that developed the first commercial vehicle equipped with a diesel engine? While all three have claimed distinctions involving the diesel engine, one thing is clear, Winton built the first diesel engine in the United States.

In 2011, Alexander Winton, who made his fortune in building bicycles and automobiles, had built his first yacht equipped with a steam engine. Since it took a few hours to start the steam engine and get the boat underway, Winton wanted a better engine that wouldn’t take nearly as long to get started. First, he came up with a gas-powered engine and then in 1913, after Diesel’s U.S. patents expired, he developed his company’s first diesel engine. Losing out in the battle for dominance in building automobiles to Henry Ford, Winton eventually ceased production of automobiles in 1924 and concentrated on developing Winton Engine and Manufacturing Company to build marine and diesel powerplants. Eventually, he sold the engine manufacturing business to General Motors in 1930.

Meanwhile, Fairbanks Morse Company, which started as a weighing scale manufacturer in the early 1800s, and diversified into windmills, coffee grinders, feed mills, and farm tractors, entered the large engine business following the expiration of Rudolf Diesel’s U.S. patent in 1912. By 1914, the company was producing the single-cylinder Model Z hot-bulb diesel engine in 1-, 3-, and 6-hp ratings and eventually ratings up to 20-hp. Over the next 30 years, the company built more than half million units of the two-stroke semi-diesel engine, which used a red-hot bulb chamber to ignite the fuel.

Fairbanks Morse also developed a range of Model Y diesel engines for trucks with one to six cylinders and horsepower ratings 10 to 200. The company’s Model Y-VA became the company’s first high-compression, cold-start full diesel engine, which uses mechanical compression to heat up the air and ignite the fuel in the combustion chamber.

Two years after General Motors acquired Winton Engine and Manufacturing Co., and while it was still working on perfecting the Winton diesel engine for commercial vehicles, Kenworth Truck Co. engineer Murray Aitken drew up plans for the company’s first production model equipped at the plant with a diesel engine.  The plans called for equipping the Kenworth truck with a 100-hp Cummins HA-4 diesel engine and an exhaust pipe rising vertically above the truck cab. Prior to the assembly of this first diesel engine-equipped truck at its relatively new factory in Seattle’s Belltown area, Kenworth had retrofitted gasoline-powered trucks with diesel engines.


Sources: – “Who Invented the First Semi-Truck?” Sept. 12, 2014, by Timothy Brady,

TruckTrend Network – “General Motors’ Diesel History – Baselines. Long Before The 6.2L And Duramax…” by Bill Senefsky, March 1, 2006 – – “Detroit Diesel – North American Diesel icon,” by James Jensen, 2011,  This article on was first published as “Jimmy Diesels – A Short History,” by James Jensen, in the Western Mariner Magazine, April 2011.

“Kenworth: The First 75 Years,” by Doug Siefkes and Kenworth Truck Co., Documentary Book Publishers, 1998