The Engine That Powers The World

Petrol or Diesel. It’s always a good debate.

In terms of personality, they are very different beasts. Well they are to me.

The pinups of the petrol engine world are celebrities. They are drop-dead-gorgeous, sexy (in a manly way), sporty, incredibly cool. They look and sound amazing. They insult your senses and leave you shaken and stirred. I love them.  I cherish my V8 like a son.  But they are pretty high maintenance, sickeningly showbiz, terribly self-centred and they need nurturing.  Lots of nurturing. They like to be the centre of attention, shown off in public and constantly told how amazing they are. They demand to be pimped, polished and pampered. More mistress than machine.

Diesels, couldn’t be more different.  They are the no-nonsense grafters of the engine world.  Loyal as Labradors, they stick by you through thick and thin and they get stuff done.  They are workmates and trusted friends – engines you want to share a beer with. They are about function, not fashion. Most are plain looking, and that’s being generous. Many are butt ugly. All are happy hidden from view. They demand little and give a lot. You can abuse the shit out of them but they refuse to die. Think Monty Python’s Black Knight.  He was a diesel.

If your life depends on the engine under your bonnet, you’d be star-struck to choose petrol.  If you were kidnapped in the jungle who would you want with you – a real SAS sergeant major or Bear Grylls ? 😉

Perhaps not surprisingly then, petrol engines get all the limelight. And, even if compression ignition is what turns you on, you will still be labelled a petrolhead. Outrageous.

So. When the lovely people at the BBC asked if I would like to make a film about the history of the diesel engine – more accurately the Rudolf Diesel engine – I jumped at the chance.

I love any and all kinds of engine but I am conscious that Diesels are getting ever more flack these days as we better understand the stuff they chuck out and that we breath in. And while these things are clearly VERY important (and are being addressed, I am assured, by people much cleverer than me) I think it’s all too easy to forget – if you’ve ever even thought about it in the first place – just how important the diesel engine has been to the development of our modern world. Unless you are a smelly, barefoot hermit, living totally off-grid, growing your own grub and wiping your bottom with self-generated lettuce leaves then the chances are that you are VERY dependent on Diesel engines, even if you loathe them. For instance, today, measured in the distance goods travel from their manufacture to their point of sale, 94% of global trade is diesel-powered. If you put all the containers stacked on one of the largest container ships on a train, it would be a staggering 91km long.  That’s a continuous chain of carriages from London to Oxford !

But it’s not just the movement back and forth of the things we buy, sell and throw away. Today, Diesel engines shift more people from place to place than ever before.  Half of all new cars sold in the EU are now Diesels.

So, my new film is an unapologetic celebration of Rudolf Diesel’s brilliant but controversial contraption. Its future may be uncertain, but its history is not. The evidence is all around us. Just as the steam engine powered the industrial revolution, the Diesel engine has been the driving force behind the globalization of our 21st Century world. I, for one, think it’s high time we doffed our caps to Rudolf Diesel and gave his incredible invention a little more love.

One of the things I like and respect most about Diesels is how robust and reliable they are. The reason is because, at heart, they are so simple.  Once they are cranked up and running, they just need air and fuel.  No hydrophobic spark-generating nonsense.  In a diesel, ignition is generated by simply super-squeezing air inside the cylinders until it is hot enough to start a fire – compression ignition.  And they will burn pretty much anything. Even coal dust was tried in the early days, I gather.  Rudolf Diesel’s first engine ran on peanut oil.  With a bit of filtering to get rid of the cod, batter and bits of savaloy, my Land Rover would happily rock along fuelled by the waste oil from my local chippy.

I have always loved diesel engines ever since making their acquaintance as a young lad obsessed by tractors. I learned to drive on a Massey Ferguson 135 when I was about 13 and, to this day, the faintest whiff of red diesel mixed with hydraulic fluid and harvesting dust brings back a tsunami of very happy memories of my early days as a farmhand. It’s why I am so drawn to sniffing tractors whenever I get the chance. Is it just me ?

But, in all the years I have loved and driven diesels, to be honest, I have never thought that much about their history. So, this film has been my chance to dig about in the archives. And, what a treat it has been. The film is only an hour long, and it isn’t aimed exclusively at hardcore engineering obsessives (like me!), so we have had to focus on some really cool historical highlights and avoid too much tech. But, it is packed with stunning archive film clips, that I doubt you have seen before, and features everything from tractors to trucks, submarines to shunters and cars to container ships. Even the Luftwaffe gets a look in.

The film is part of BBC4’s highly acclaimed Timeshift strand and is produced in-house by BBC Arts.



BBC4 Prime Time
1 x 60’
BBC Arts / ‘Timeshift’


BBC4 Website