Both diesel and gasoline engines were developed in the late 19th to early 20th century. Diesel engines were for the most part of the 20th century used mostly for large applications in ships, trains, and for large vehicles such as trucks and busses, but gasoline engines remained the preferred option for personal cars during the 20th century. Only during the last decades of the 20th century did diesel engines begin to make a little bit of headroom in the personal car market. In the 80s more than 10 percent of new cars sold in Europe were diesels.

What developments in diesel engines started to make them more attractive for personal cars? What made diesel powered personal cars go from 0% in the 50s to more than 10% in the 1980s? I'm specifically interested in if there were any technical advances that made diesels more suitable for personal cars, but I'm not sure if there were any.

(NB: after the signing of the Kyoto treaty in 1997 many European countries started to promote diesel a lot, and the share of diesel personal cars increased a lot. I am not interested in this part, but in the period before governments started to promote diesel cars substantially.)

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think they were any more attractive. The technology was available in farm tractors and small commercial vehicles since the '60s. Power density was, and still is, a serious drawback to marketing diesels that compete with gasoline. Driveability issues had to be solved and diesel pumps had to be installed at gas stations. The US had a couple peculiar problems with automotive diesels - popularmechanics.com/cars/a6599/… $\endgroup$
    – Phil Sweet
    Aug 16, 2019 at 0:14
  • $\begingroup$ The improved fuel economy and the fuel shortage, also interest had been shown in designing jet engines... $\endgroup$
    – Solar Mike
    Aug 16, 2019 at 4:24
  • $\begingroup$ Also, at the time and up until recently diesel was cheaper. Most governments have changed that... for grabbing money or for the environment is a moot point... $\endgroup$
    – Solar Mike
    Aug 16, 2019 at 5:08
  • $\begingroup$ The price of petrol! Diesel also rose, but the economy of the engines made it more attractive. $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2021 at 20:50

1 Answer 1


diesel power for passenger cars became more attractive as gasoline prices rose, but was hampered by the following issues: 1) they are noisier, 2) they vibrate more, especially at idle and low speeds, 3) they are harder to start in cold weather, 4) they produce less power-per-pound of engine than a gasoline engine, and 5) they pollute more- especially particulates and NOx.

Adding cylinders (going to 5 or 6 instead of four) smoothed out the early diesels, better engine mounts kept the vibrations out of the frame, advanced glow plug technologies made them easier to start, adding turbocharging made them more powerful, and tailpipe emissions were reduced with things like computer control of injection cycles, stratified charge or precombustion chambers- but in the end, there wasn't any way to get them to meet the same emission standards as a gas engine without cheating (like VW), and the price and tax differences between diesel and gas dwindled away with time.

  • $\begingroup$ Most of the solutions you quote appeared after the 80’s... especially the use of computer control. $\endgroup$
    – Solar Mike
    Aug 18, 2019 at 5:17

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