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Perkins diesel engines in Chrysler Corporation cars and trucks

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Perkins diesel engines were fitted to Fargo and Dodge trucks sold in the United States and internationally, and were factory installed in numerous Chrysler Europe vehicles. The English company was started in 1932 as F. Perkins Ltd. (after the engine's creator, Frank Perkins), and in 1933 they sold 35 lightweight, high-speed diesel engines to Commer, which would eventually be purchased by Chrysler.

By 1936, 140 employees had cranked out 556 diesels; the following year, P4 and P6 engines were launched, the latter designed for marine applications. Charles Chapman, technical director at the time, was credited with engineering these series. The company was headquartered in Peterborough, and by 1942 employed a tenth of the population there.

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Frank Perkins himself was born in Peterborough on February 20, 1889, to a family of engineers; he started to develop a light high-speed diesel engine with Charles Chapman for another company, but it was bankrupted by the Depression. Frank set up a private company to develop a light, high-speed diesel in 1932, hiring Charles Chapman again, as Technical Director. Their first engine, the Vixen, was first tested in 1932, started by handle; it reached 4000 revs. After years of refinement and testing, in 1937, the P6 engine was produced, with prototypes running 6 months after the original blueprints. The revolutionary new engine developed 83bhp at 2400 rpm.

During World War II, Perkins built over 12,000 engines, mainly marine diesels. After the war, Perkins opened up a new factory to start mass production; in the 1950s the company went public and licensed their designs to Simpson & Company in India; this was followed by numerous other overseas licensing deals. Thousands of people worked for Perkins, making tens of thousands of engines.

Studebaker offered a Perkins diesel in the United States starting in 1950, primarily for cab use (the Lark Econ-O-Miler); and in 1958, DeSoto started installing Perkins diesel engines into its cars in Sweden, a popular choice for Scandinavian taxi drivers. The taxi engine of choice (at least in Israel) was the 4.99, a wet sleeve design of just 1.6 liters (99 cubic inches) used in London Taxis as well as Israeli and other cabs.

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Hans Ensing wrote:

Official production of Chrysler group cars equipped with Perkins engines started in the Antwerp (Belgium) plant in 1956 and lasted there till 1959 when production was stopped, and Chrysler cars were built in the Chrysler International plant in Rotterdam (the Netherlands). In Rotterdam, a limited number of Perkins diesels were installed up until 1962.

In that year, a Antwerp taxi company issued a tender for a major number of diesel cars. Delivery should take place fairly quickly after the purchasing decision. Chrysler had a historically good relationship with the client, and decided to take the risk and ordered material for low range Plymouth Savoy models (normally not sold in Benelux) without engines in advance, to be able to meet the deadline.

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Shortly after arrival of the material, the taxi company ordered AMC Rambler diesel cars, which were then assembled in Brussels. The Savoys were given some extra trim and finally sold as Savoy Specials with gasoline engines. After this production of Perkins engines equipped cars virtually stopped.

A much longer relationship with Perkins has existed in commercial vehicles where they were used for Commer/Dodge trucks built in England until the 1980s. Chrysler opened their own diesel plant in 1963 in Darlington, UK, but sold it quickly to Cummins in 1964.
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[Thanks to Bruno Geertsen, president of Hunter Ltd through 1993 and grandson of the company's founder, for the following]. After World War II, American cars were favored by European taxi drivers and professional use because of their large size and smooth ride, but their gas mileage was problematic. At the same time, diesel engines started to be more popular on trucks, earth-moving equipment, and tractors; but few car brands had their own diesel designs (the major exceptions being Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot).

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Hunter NV, the Belgium distributor of Perkins engines, started making a diesel conversion set based on the high-speed (3,000 rpm redline) P4 Perkins powerplants. This required engineering new back ends, flywheels and housings, engine mounts, and more. Thousands were produced and installed, with 45-60 hp diesels replacing 120 hp (or above) gas engines. Ramblers, Plymouths, Buicks, and Dodges became much more economical; top speed was still around 80 mph, and diesel torque at low rpm compensated for the loss of horsepower. Even one Jaguar XK120 was modified on special order, with a 45 horsepower P4C Perkins diesel.

The Perkins P4C four cylinder diesel in these years had bore x stroke of 88.9 x 127 mm, displacing 3.141 liters; they produced 63 CV (a combined power and displacement rating; as noted earlier, around 45 horsepower). An air filter/silencer was standard, with warm air being drawn from an enclosed chamber in cold weather. Forged rods were made of nickel, chrome, and molybdenum, with a forged crank. A special breather prevented high pressures. Heads had removable steel-lined inserts. Pistons were special aluminum alloy models. The system used 12 volts, fuel injection, and a chain-driven camshaft and injection pump enclosed in a casing in front of the engine for precise adjustments.

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Perkins was acquired by Massey-Ferguson, the famous tractor manufacturer and Perkins' largest customer, in 1959, and Frank Perkins retired. Two years later, in 1961, Perkins made its two millionth engine. In that year, Jeep started offering a Perkins diesel option with 60 hp @ 3,000 rpm and 143 lb-ft @ 1,350 rpm which would last into the mid-1960s. The 1.6 liter Perkins diesel was used in the 1500FC - which would become the Commer Spacevan - with 42 hp @ 3,600 rpm. A 1.8 liter unit would be used on the Spacevan starting in 1965.

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In 1962, Chrysler, which had been using Perkins diesels abroad, started using them in American Dodge trucks as original factory equipment; 1,000 Perkins diesels were sold in 1962 model-year Dodge trucks after a late introduction (likely in the tractors, not pickups, but we do not know).

Perkins would eventually be replaced by the more powerful Cummins diesels, though Perkins would continue to have a place in Chrysler Europe's products for many years.

In 1964, the 4.236 engine was introduced; 4.5 million of these would be made in a new, state of the art factory. One year later, the first of a new line of heavy truck and bus engines was brought out with the V8.510 engine. In 1965, the Perkins six cylinder was selected as a standard engine choice for the Commer/Dodge 500 series of trucks, alongside Cummins diesels.

1965 Dodge 500 engineCummins V6Perkins I6
Cubic Inches 352354
Bore x Stroke 4.625 x 3.503.875 x5.00
Redline3,000 rpm 2,800 rpm
Horsepower[email protected][email protected]
Torque[email protected][email protected]
Compression Ratio 17.5:116:1

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The Perkins 6.354 deserves special attention. The Perkins R6 had been problematic, and when it was dropped, it left a hole in the medium-duty lineup. A new 120 bhp unit was proposed to fill the gap; engineering proceeded at a fast pace in Peterborough, using an innovative idea - using a small jackshaft driven by the timing gears for the auxiliary drive, with a new oil pump driven by a quill shaft. The advantage of this was being able to run auxiliary equipment like compressors and pumps at engine speed, with simple couplings. The 6.354 used a low camshaft with long pushrods to allow for a small timing case, which provided space for the water pump and made it possible to make the engine relatively large in displacement but small in length, so the straight-six could be used in the space reserved for a gas V8. In addition, water spaces between cylinders, and the bore itself, were made smaller - with the bore going down from 5 inches to under 4 inches (compared to the P6).

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This was the first Perkins straight-six to use direct fuel injection, adding a chamber in the piston crown rather than in the head, so that there was more power and better mileage; port casting was made more precise, and a new CAV pump and injectors were used to reduce pollution. The result was a 112 bhp, 354 cid (5.8 liter) engine, produced starting in 1960; by around 1962, power ratings were increased to 120 bhp. Turbocharged engines for tractors, marine, and industrial use were added as well, with 150 bhp or more; they used an air-to-air charge cooling system. In the Mexico City area, they compensated for the high altitude with a turbo-compensated diesel version. However, American sales remained low, even as Perkins engines were used as original equipment in trucks; reliability was sometimes a problem as the uses were not what engineers had anticipated.

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While the 6.354 series was made, engineering changes were implemented to increase durability, and the engine was bored out somewhat (to 372 cubic inches) for greater power in some markets. As major changes were made, numbers were added to the end, resulting in the 6.3541, 6.342, 6.372, and T6.3543 designations.

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In 1967, after receiving the Queen's Award to Industry for the large number of exported engines, Frank Perkins died at the age of 78. By now, small Perkins engines were used extensively in European cars, both as factory installations and as retrofits; while the marine, industrial, and heavy truck branches were doing well. In 1969, over 350,000 power-generating diesels were made, establishing Perkins as a powerhouse in that sector, too.

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In the 1970s, Perkins created an advanced test cell to find and reduce engine noise, and brought out the squish lip combustion chamber to reduce emissions; the Perkins line also bested diesels from Mitsubishi, MAN-DEUTZ, Caterpillar, and Detroit Diesel to be chosen for the Dodge/Commer 100 line; chosen engines were the naturally aspirated four cylinder 4.256 and six cylinder 6.354, and the turbocharged 6.354. By this time, the final versions of these engines were probably available - the 6.3544 (and turbocharged version), which had undergone a major redesign of the cylinder block and head, along with machined inlet ports.

Production hit a new high of 500,000 engines per year in 1976, as the company became a major force in forklift trucks. At that point, the naturally aspirated 6.354 was producing 98 kW (131 bhp) at 2,800 rpm, with 385 Nm (284 lb-ft) of torque.

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In 1984, Perkins acquired Rolls Royce Diesel International, renamed Perkins Engines (Schrewsbury) Ltd., to break into the military market, larger power generators, and big trucks. In 1985, the ten millionth engine was produced, and the Prima, billed as the world's first high-speed direct injection engine, was prepared.

The 6.354 was still made, but with the new 1000 Series - which had many shared components, but incorporated major changes for new emissions standards and was metric-conforming - volumes started to fall; the engine series would last until 1996, with over 1 million made.

In 1994, Perkins bought Dorman Diesels, now Perkins Engines (Stafford) Ltd, which was mainly in the power generation business; the Perkins 4000 line would be based on Dorman's designs. During the 1990s, Perkins launched new 700 and 900 series; achieved ISO 9000 certification; signed agreements to supply Caterpillar and NACCO (the world's largest lift truck maker); ; and made their 15 millionth engine.

In 1998, Caterpillar quietly bought Perkins for US$1.3 billion, creating the world's largest diesel engine manufacturer.

Chris Cowland, Chrysler's Director of Advanced and SRT Powertrain, former Chief Engineer and Platform Director for the Chrysler Pentastar V6, started his career with 13 years at Perkins.

Perkins continues to build new series of engines that conform to ever-tighter emissions standards, for industry, marine, and power-generation applications; they also make gasoline engines, and is the leading supplier of engines under 2,000 kW. In 2003, they built a new facility in Georgia to produce 400 series engines for American customers, as well as a new factory in Brazil.

Those who are interested in Perkins' past may want to visit their exhibition in the North Offices (in Peterborough), which has memorabilia, video footage, and historical products.

Our primary source was the Perkins Heritage site which has further details, and the main Perkins Engines site.

See Jim Benjaminson's history of Perkins-diesel-powered Plymouth cars in the 1950s

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