Can you start a Diesel engine without electricity?


50 years ago the Japanese had a 3 wheel pickup truck with a hand started diesel engine in the rear.There was a small stove on the cylinder head where a few oily rags were burned to heat it up. I was never close enough to one when starting to know how it was cranked but the driver was at the rear. I believe Subaru made the trucks.

The only instructions for hand starting a diesel engine of any significant size I have run across was for Yanmar marine engines. Those engines seem to have everything engineered in to enable hand starting but it doesn’t sound easy. With an external adjustment on injection timing and individual cylinder decompression valves there’s hope.But while a 20 horsepower engine will move a 40 foot sailboat at a reasonable speed it’s not much for cruising in a sedan on the Autobahn or I-95.


I saw a French Canadian driver start a 1951 Autocar with a 250 Cummings at -35F. He had been stuck overnight at a motel without plug-ins and had run out of fuel. Once the Cummings had lost prime, it had to crank fast enough and long enough to run on ether sprayed into the air intake to pick op the new fuel. He wrapped a load tarp completely around the undercarriage to block the wind and built a wood fire under the oil pan. It had an electric starter, but it would have worker with an air starter also. Once an air starter ran down, the air tank had to be recharged by running the engine or from the glad hand of another running truck.


I have hand started a small diesel engine used on a generator. With a one cylinder four stroke cycle engine, you have an entire revolution of freewheel that allows you to accelerate the flywheel for enough momentum to get the engine through the compression stroke.
This is also a trick I used to use to kick start large displacement one cylinder motorcycle engines, like the 500 cc Yamaha single I used to have which was kick start only.
I saw an antique Fairbanks-Morse stationary two stroke diesel that had built in blow torches to preheat the heads and it was started by valving compressed air from a compressed air tank into the cylinders, like running a steam engine on compressed air until the engine started.
In fact, it was the very engine in this video that I watched the startup on.


Direct injected diesels generally don’t have or need glow plugs. Most automotive diesels are indirect injected engines where the fuel is injected into a pre-chamber. The glow plug heats the pre-chamber that the fuel is injected into.

The old Honda CVCC engine was a gasoline engine that used a prechamber. The spark plug ignited the fuel in the prechamber, which had its own intake valve and was fed a rich mixture that a spark plug could reliably ignite. The burning mixture would jet into the main combustion chamber which was fed a super lean fuel mixture and ignite that lean mixture.
The fuel air mixture was too lean to produce significant amounts of NOx and the CVCC cars could meet the emission standards of that time without a catalytic converter.


There was a clip on youtube with an early 1950’s bulldozer starting on gasoline and switching to diesel. Didn’t some diesels use a gasoline “donkey” engine to crank the main diesel engine?


Here’s a video of an old Caterpillar D8 being started with a built in gasoline powered pony engine. The exhaust pipe of the pony engine was routed through the diesel engines intake manifold to help preheat the air going into the engine for easier starts.


One thing to consider is that diesels use very little fuel at idle so they can be left on for very long periods of time. So once you get this truck started in your novel using the hot rocks or whatever, don’t shut it down.


*&^%! You stole my joke! I was going to recommend a bonfire.


Also, you can refuel the diesel while the engine is running too.


I currently have two 1990 International DT360 engine’s in my fleet that would start and run all day without electricity. Personally, I wouldn’t want to hand crank them, but with the proper pulley set up and enough ambient temperature, it would be completely possible.

Back in the day I had a parts supplier that had a hard time supplying alternators that wouldn’t die after a couple weeks. These two trucks were my favorite, because even with a dead alternator, the trucks would make it back to the shop just fine as long as they weren’t shut down. The only electricity used to move the truck is for the starter- everything else is accessories (lights, fans, wipers, etc.)


May you start a diesel without electricity, yes. Can you, is another matter.


In the very early ‘70s many people learned that a gas engine can run without electricity too.
More than once I’ve walked by a car in a parking lot sitting there dieseling after the owner shut it off and left. One of the actions taken by manufacturers to comply with the then-new Clean Air Act was to run the engines leaner. Cylinder temp rose to the point that some cars’ cylinders were self-igniting without the benefit of the spark plugs. The solution was to add anti-dieseling solenoids to the carburetor linkage to allow the throttle plate to close completely and choke the engine when the key was turned to OFF. At the time there were even articles in car mags and newspapers discussing the problem.

Note that back then everything was mechanical. There were no oxygen sensors, MAF sensors, crank position sensors,… everything that happened was driven by the crankshaft.


This is really helpful, I’m doing more research on it


It sounds like I’m the summer, rolling it down a hill is the answer. Thanks for all your input


That’s the easy way. Wouldn’t there be more drama, and more resourcefulness shown, with a winter start, the person in peril (or kind stranger) finding some way to heat the intake manifold or the combustion chambers?


What is the plan for brake lights and headlights? Carbide lamps?


The only thing an internal combustion engine (ICE) needs to run is aerated fuel, compression, and heat energy. You might benefit from researching how ICE engines work as background for your book.


Well if the guy is out in the hinter land with no electricity or other modern conveniences, seems to me brake lights would not be a problem. If you allow your eyes to adjust to the dark, you don’t need headlights. This is basic training 101 for night maneuvers. No lights allowed. It’s amazing how well you can see in total darkness if you don’t spoil that visual purple by lighting a cigarette and having to wait an hour again for your eyes to adjust.


Cigarette lighter… I am beginning to see possibilities!


I remember cars that did that. My 1979 Toyota 4X4 had some sort of fuel shut-off solenoid on the side of the carb and did not suffer from run-on, once I figured out the solenoid was not working. That trip to the junkyard for a functioning solenoid, which was IIRC $5 or less, was the first of many such excursions for that fondly remembered truck.