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Cummins engine built in 1939 getting new life

COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) – A piece of Cummins history has returned to Columbus after being left for nearly eight decades in the South Dakota oil fields.

Half buried in the open prairies near Bison, South Dakota, an old truck sat forgotten, rusting under the big sky.

According to 24-Hour News 8’s partner, the Columbus Republic, the truck’s engine wasn’t really a fit for the old truck. Scraps clinging to the rotted frame belonged to an International Harvester truck from the 1950s.

But the Cummins motor inside was much older, amateurishly shoehorned into a chassis it was never meant to fit.

Former owner Owen Hanson recalls a mechanic’s surprise opening the hood in 1975.

“It was the oldest engine he’d ever seen,” Hanson said.

In 1971, the 1939 Cummins HB diesel motor hauled its last load of sand to the Dakota oil fields, Hanson said. It has never started since, abandoned to brutal, high prairie winters and long, hot summers. Even curious mechanics who occasionally probed the historic oddity could never quite convince it to run.

After long decades of service, either nature would reclaim it or a metal scrapper would melt it down, Hanson said.

And that didn’t seem a fitting fate for a motor which served so many members of his family for so many years, he said.

So, he started calling people at Cummins. The first person with whom he spoke didn’t understand his request – after all, it seemed like he was trying to return a 77-year-old engine, Hanson said.

But Hanson persisted and eventually connected with Bruce Watson, now-retired curator of the diesel manufacturer’s historical collection – part of which is displayed in a small museum in the company’s downtown Columbus headquarters. The rest is stored in a garage, brought out for occasional car shows and industry conferences.

Watson and a team from Columbus-based Cummins jumped at the chance to acquire a historical piece of the company’s tradition.

“The price was certainly right,” Watson laughed.

Hanson was more interested in preserving the engine than making money, so he gave it to Cummins for free.

For most of the engine’s tenure in the United States, it was installed in a dump truck servicing the Dakota oil fields, he said. The Hanson family acquired the original vehicle from the wife of a business partner who died while working on the rigs.

From there, the engine was stripped out of and installed into several different vehicles before landing in a cobbled-together International Harvester truck in the 1950s.

When Watson and the team from Cummins came to South Dakota to collect the motor, little of the vehicle remained but the engine, part of the cab and a mismatched front steering column pulled from a Mack truck.

“It’s kind of a conglomeration,” said Dave Goggin, who took over management of the historical collection after Watson’s retirement. “When you start to get back to this vintage (of engine), there just aren’t that many left.”

Curators at Cummins were able to track down the original manufacturing order for the engine from company archives, Goggin said. These records reveal that it was manufactured at Plant 1 in Columbus for installation in a dump truck.

While there were earlier Cummins motors, the HB series forms the basis of all Cummins engines manufactured until the 1980s, Goggin said. Its distant relative, the NH series of motors, is based on the same design and was produced in Columbus until 2002. Variations of the NH engine are still manufactured overseas for the Asian market, Goggin said.

Cummins employees are currently stripping the motor down to individual parts, Goggin said. Until everything can be checked, there are no definite plans to display the motor, he said.

Barring any serious structural failures in the engine block, the engine likely will be fully restored, Goggin said. It might be displayed as a stand-alone model or installed in a period-correct truck for exhibition at auto shows, he said.