Simanaitis Says

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THE SAME guy who invented the heavy-duty truckers’ Jake Brake toured Europe at the wheel of an Indy race car. He was also briefly credited with—incorrectly, I hasten to add—fueling a boat engine with river water.


The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins, by Lyle Cummins, Carnot Press, 1998. Both and list this collectible hardbound edition. The Cummins Power Store has it in paperback,

Clessie Lyle Cummins, 1888-1968, founded Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana, in 1919 and served as its president until 1947. He became known as the father of the American truck diesel (33 U.S. patents attest to this)—and he also had adventures galore.

The Jake Brake, now ubiquitous on heavy-duty trucks, is a device exploiting the retardation effect of engine compression. Introduced in 1960 by Jacobs Mfg. Co. (and hence the moniker), the Jake Brake owed its genesis to one of Clessie’s adventures, albeit with quite the passage of time.

In 1931, Clessie and two colleagues set coast-to-coast truck speed records with one of their Cummins diesel trucks. The trio encountered gravel roads, mechanical breakdowns, sandstorms, one condemned bridge they drove over and another they bypassed via two embankments and a shallow stream in-between.


The Cummins-Diesel Test Truck that set transcontinental records in 1931. This and other images from The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins.

Real excitement came in an essentially brakeless run down the 35 miles—and 4000-ft. descent—from the Cajon Summit to San Bernardino, California. Paralleling a freight train much of the way, they performed a Keystone Kops near-miss with it at a level crossing.

Clessie was evidently left with a lasting impression, leading eventually to his invention of the Jake Brake.

By the way, they finished that 1931 New York-Los Angeles trek in an elapsed time of 125 hours 52 minutes, a bit more than five days, and a logged running time of 97 hours 20 minutes, both new records for trucks.

Nor did the truck travel empty: Their cargo on the trip was the Cummins-Diesel race car, a converted Duesenberg that had been the company’s entry in the 1931 Indianapolis 500.

No fancy trailers for this Indy car: During race week, it was driven to and from the track, a distance of 50 miles from Columbus, Indiana.


The Cummins-Diesel Indy car at the 1931 Indianapolis 500.

The Cummins No. 8 qualified at 96.871 mph, a mid-pack performance in a field of 40 cars, and raced without refueling pitstops to finish 13th (with three conventionally fueled cars behind it). Then it was driven back to Columbus on the diesel fuel left in its tank.

What’s even more amazing was No. 8’s road use, both before and after its Indy run. Clessie drove it on tours to technical meetings and demonstrations throughout the eastern U.S., often with his wife along.

Then Clessie and business partner W.G. Irwin took No. 8 to Europe. They saw Mont St. Michel and the Bayeux tapestry, stayed in Paris at Hotel Crillon (“Ar—Paris 3 pm—No brakes—Holiday traffic”) and lapped Montlhèry at the urging of Prince Nicholas of Rumania.


Just another bit of Parisian traffic among the Champs-Élysées.

Their tour included Monte Carlo, Turin (where No. 8 lapped Fiat’s famous Lingotto rooftop test track), Milan, on to Switzerland, eventually back to Paris and then across to England for laps at Brooklands.

Observes Lyle, “After landing in Quebec, Clessie drove to Toronto where Stella [his wife; Lyle’s mother] joined him for the return to Columbus in No. 8 with her holding a cuckoo clock on her lap—as had W.G. since the Black Forest.”

And fueling a boat engine with river water?

This tale came about when Clessie and W.G. took newspaper reporters down the Ohio River in Ceco II, one of several diesel-powered family watercraft. When the boat ran out of fuel, Clessie came up with a brilliant solution: They’d return fueled by river water.


The Ceco II, once mistaken for being miracle-fueled.

Clessie gave the fuel tank several carefully poured buckets of the Ohio River, restarted the engine each time and got them home.

Of course, he knew that the pickup pipe was a tad above the tank’s bottom—and that diesel fuel is lighter than water. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013


  1. Bill Urban
    February 4, 2013

    Dennis, a great post about this American pioneer. Concerning those noisy Jake Brakes . . . why are the “Jake Brakes Prohibited” signs dissapearing? The Jacobs Co. has understandably blocked any such negative name association. For noise abatement purposes they prefer the generic “Compression Brake”.
    Also, Jake Brakes not only greatly enhance safety and brake life, they can also assist acceleration by rapidly slowing engine rpm for faster shifts with non-synchronized transmissions (especially useful if skipping gears or at very slow speeds, when up hill momentum can fall off more quickly than rpm).

  2. Pingback: Clessie Cummins’ 1932 Cross Country Marathon Run | The Old Motor

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