The Amazing History of Detroit Diesel Engines

Detroit Diesel Corporation (DDC) has a reputation for being one of the most powerful, popular, and reliable manufacturers of diesel engines in the United States. Since its early days, even before taking on its iconic name, DDC was putting out top-quality products at a time when America needed a boost in the right direction. Here’s a brief guide to the amazing history of Detroit Diesel engines, from their roots to their most popular engines to how they still thrive.

Early Origins and World War II

The history of Detroit Diesel Corporation dates back to 1938 with another automobile company that most Americans are aware of: General Motors, or GM. This company wanted to produce and manufacture smaller, more commercial diesel engines out of Detroit, such as the two-cylinder Series 71. Meanwhile, GM’s Cleveland Diesel Division focused on larger-scale diesel operations for locomotives and marine use.

Before the end of the 1930s, GM formed the General Motors Diesel Division (GMDD) to promote and highlight products from the Detroit and Cleveland enterprises. Around the time that GM’s Detroit branch started producing the Series 71, World War II was getting underway. It turns out that the lightweight, compact, and powerful Series 71 was beneficial in powering military tanks, construction equipment, and electrical generators.

The demand from the war and similar efforts made GM’s Detroit division much busier and more profitable. By the end of 1943, Detroit Diesel had over 4,000 employees and was producing almost 60,000 engines per year! The company was massively successful, and it introduced the Series 110 in 1945 toward the end of the war. The 110 was more powerful than the Series 71 and was useful in construction and commercial transportation.


After the war, GM wanted the Detroit branch to remain successful and profitable, so the company started branching out from the military and tried to create engines geared toward the public market. General Motors launched the Series 53 to the public in the early 1950s, and it sold well in the wake of success and reliability with military machines. The war effort established trust and acceptance among the populace.

General Motors Diesel Division expanded operations and wanted to create more distribution options for the Detroit and Cleveland products. Both the Series 53 and Series 71 worked for commercial and off-road use. It was easier for the company to produce these two engines since they consisted of many interchangeable parts and had a difference in horsepower based on the number of cylinders.

Between the late 30s and the end of the 50s, General Motors saw massive success with diesel engines through a combination of contributing to wartime efforts and raising trust with the public for creating reliable, long-lasting engines. However, its most successful era was yet to come.

The 1960s – 1980s

Over the next several decades, General Motors Diesel Division continued to grow, and the company saw sales triple in the 1960s. In 1962, GM shifted the Cleveland operations away from diesel and toward electromotive operations, making Detroit the leading manufacturer of diesel engines and products in the company. In the 1960s, Detroit plants started producing diesel engines for maritime pursuits, launching the Series 149 for tugboats and other watercraft.

The Detroit Diesel Corporation saw much internal shifting throughout the decades. In 1970, GM merged its diesel division with the gas turbine and transmission-focused Allison Division, transforming them into the Detroit Diesel-Allison Division. This merger split in the early 1980s as Allison Division continued to work on turbine engines, while Detroit Diesel Division continued working in the diesel industry. The 1980s would become the greatest decade in a way no one could not have expected.

The Game Changer

1987 was the start of one of Detroit’s most famous and renowned engines: The Series 60. It brought many exciting and new features to diesel engines; it was the first commercial diesel engine to feature integrated electronic controls and components. The Series 60 was a four-cycle heavy-duty engine that quickly gained a reputation for being more fuel-efficient and powerful than many other diesel engines on the market. It gained popularity in the North American Class 8 truck market because of its reliability, and it quickly became the highest-selling heavy-duty diesel engine in that field.

Despite Detroit Diesel phasing out the Series 60 from production, it remains a popular and reliable model for auto enthusiasts. Many drivers keep their engines in good condition and believe in the quality and superiority of the Series 60.

One year after the launch of the Series 60, General Motors would shift ownership and the naming convention of the Detroit Division. A 1988 merger with renowned transportation company Penske shifted ownership of the company and officially created the Detroit Diesel Corporation (DDC). However, many folks simply refer to the company as "Detroit."

1990s – Present Day

The amazing history of Detroit Diesel engines continued well into the 1990s, even though the company did not see as much rapid growth and innovative success as in previous decades. Detroit Diesel Corporation grew its market share to 33 percent throughout the 90s, giving it a large audience.

In the early 2000s, DaimlerChrysler purchased Detroit Diesel Corporation, though it left the name unchanged, unlike previous mergers and acquisitions. By this time, Detroit had name recognition and public support, especially as the Series 60 engine continued to sell. In 2005, DDC invested $350 million to retool its plants and spent several years aiming to make more environmentally friendly diesel engines.

Detroit Diesel Corporation eventually phased out the Series 60 engine in favor of the greener DD15, which is still in production to this very day!

As of 2023, Detroit Diesel celebrates its 85th anniversary since its humble beginnings during the Great Depression and making a name for itself in World War II. The company’s success with the innovative and powerful Series 60 cemented it as one of the most beloved and popular diesel engine brands around the globe.

If you’re familiar with this brand and find yourself in need of Detroit motor parts, ATL Diesel is here to help. Our online catalog has several top-quality parts and rebuild kits for any make and model. You can input your engine's serial number, and our website makes it easy to find the right parts. If you have any additional questions, contact us anytime, and a member of our team will be happy to help you get your engine up and running.

The Amazing History of Detroit Diesel Engines