Fond of clattery engines, big torque and sticky fuel bowsers? You have Rudolf Diesel to thank. The engine technology that bears his name has been propelling cars, ships and aircraft for well over a century now, and with the man’s 162nd birthday happening this month, it seems like an opportune time to list some of the more remarkable cars to use his world-changing technology.
From workhorses to racecars, diesel engines have not-so-quietly achieved great things for more than a hundred years.
The years ahead will be tough, though, with the dieselgate scandal and a new focus on particulate emissions seeing diesel tech fall out of fashion among the world’s manufacturers.
That said, there’s been no shortage of impressive diesel-powered machinery in recent times, and here are just some:
Volkswagen Touareg R50
Volkswagen in the noughties seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut ruled by wild-eyed engineers. Experimentation with new kinds of engines was rampant, and it seemed that getting a green light for a special project simply depended on whether or not the desired engine could physically fit.
A 12-cylinder Phaeton? How about the W8 Passat or six-cylinder Golf R32? The Germans had a fascination with jamming the biggest engine possible into seemingly everything, and the Volkswagen Touareg R50 was just another example.
Is a twin-turbo 5.0-litre diesel V10 a sensible thing to put in a family SUV? Absolutely not, but is it cool? Absolutely so.
It’s interesting to note that with 257kW and 850Nm, the R50 boasted more torque than the other insanely over-the-top Touareg – the petrol-guzzling 6.0-litre W12.
How many turbos is ideal? One? Two? Three, even? Nope – four is the ideal number if you’re Alpina, which introduced a quad-turbo engine in 2018. Fitted to the Alpina XD3 performance SUV, the 3.0-litre diesel engine uses four turbochargers to output a hardly-believable 286kW/900Nm in left-hand drive examples.
Sadly in our Aussie right-hand drive cars the steering column gets in the way so it was downgraded to just two turbochargers. Despite that, our version can still hit 100km/h in 4.9 seconds thanks to its 245kW/700Nm powerhouse. Not bad for a diesel.
Silverado 2500 - 6.6 Duramax V8 (L5P)
You can mess around with toy diesels all day but if you want the ultimate in liquid coal, you have to jump into the realm of American trucks. The 6.6-litre Duramax V8 under the bonnet of the Chevrolet Silverado 2500 is currently the most powerful diesel you can drive on a car licence with 332kW, while its monstrous 1234Nm of torque is unrivalled by anything before it.
If that's still not enough output to embarrass an SUV, GM's engineers designed the L5P to reliably develop up to 410kW and an earth-shaking 1424Nm.
For a road-going tow rig, the Silverado 2500 is pretty much the next best thing to an actual truck.
1991 Kenworth W prime mover race truck
This blue monster is one of the oldest race vehicles still circulating in Australia - but it's only become more fearsome with age. FATE - named after owner/driver Franks Amoroso's freight company - was born in 1988 and packs a 14.0-litre Cummins 'big-cam' V8 diesel with a hand-ground camshaft, custom twin turbochargers and modded pistons to produce a conservative 1100kW.
It still races at the front of the Australian Truck Racing championship to this day. "I still get the same buzz today as I did 31 years ago, I can tell you that," he told WhichCar's sister site truckanddriver.com.au late last year.
Audi R10 TDI, R15 TDI, and R18 TDI race cars
Diesel’s not usually the fuel of choice for race cars, but in the days before Dieselgate VW-owned Audi was rather keen on it. Between 2006 and 2016, with the V12-powered R10 TDI, the V10-powered R15, and V6 R18, Audi’s Le Mans efforts relied on turbocharged diesel power units - with the final evolutions of the R18 adding hybrid assistance on top of that for good measure.
Of 75 race entries between the three generations, the TDI Le Mans racers racked up 57 wins - vindication indeed for Audi's diesel fixation, as well as the less pit-stop intensive strategy it allowed. Diesels ain't just for trucks.
Oshkosh Striker 8x8
When you need to rapidly distribute 18 tonnes of life-saving water and foam on to a downed aircraft you need something big, powerful and brimming with Newton’s finest. That’s where the eight-wheel-drive Oshkosh Striker 8x8 aircraft rescue and firefighting tender steps in.
Powered by not one, but two, rear-mounted 574kW/3183Nm Scania Tier 4F, 16-litre V8 diesel, its combined 1148kW is sent to all eight wheels via a seven-speed automatic gearbox and can get the 62-tonne behemoth from a standing to 80km/h in 20 seconds, on the way to a top speed of 125km/h.
The engines also drive the pumps that can push 17,033 litres of water and 2400 of foam up to a height of 20 metres, even while the Striker is on the move. When you need bulk grunt, a diesel – or two – becomes necessary.
Peugeot 908 HDi FAP race car
In the same vein as Audi’s Le Mans racers is Peugeot’s 908, the twin-turbo V12 racer that took home the top trophy at 20 of 30 races it entered. Along with Audi's Le Mans prototypes of the same era, it helped put diesel power on the map in motorsport.
But 2009’s 24 Hours of Le Mans was the HDi FAP’s moment of glory, placing both first and second with Aussie driver David Brabham standing on the top step.
The 908 was raced from 2007 to 2010, though sadly Peugeot's on-track diesel brilliance didn't really spread into its road car family to the same extent as Le Mans rival Audi.