A Modular Ecosystem That Evolved Around A Simple Diesel Engine

High volume commodity products are a foundation of hacking, we’ve built many projects around popular form factors like NEMA 17 stepper motors, 608 bearings, and 280 DC motors. Their high volume led to lower cost, which further increased popularity, and the cycle repeats. A similar thing happened to a style of single-cylinder diesel engine in China, and [Jalopnik] takes us through an exploration of these “Tuo La Ji” (tractor) machines.

Like many popular standards, circumstances elevated this style of engine to become more popular than its peers. Judging from the pictures, the idea is similar to NEMA 17 in that the core essence is a bolt pattern and an output shaft. Different manufacturers offer various capabilities within this space, and a wild assortment of machinery evolved to take advantage of this class of power source.

It starts with a set of wheels and handlebars to create a walk-behind farm tractor, something pretty common around the world. But this particular ecosystem grew far beyond that to many other applications, including full sized trucks with off-road capability that would embarrass most of the genteel SUVs cruising our roads today. They may not be fast, but they only needed to be faster and have longer endurance than beasts of burden to be effective as “a horseless horse”.

Due to factors such as poor crash safety, absence of diesel emission controls, and affordability of more powerful (and faster!) vehicles, these machines are a dying breed. But that won’t change the fact there was a fantastic amount of mechanical hacking ingenuity that had sprung up around this versatile engine building simple and effective machines. Their creativity drew from the same well that fed into these Indonesian Vespas.

Photo by [Brian Holsclaw] CC BY-ND 2.0

20 thoughts on “A Modular Ecosystem That Evolved Around A Simple Diesel Engine

  1. Those engines are just less reliable clones of polish “Esiok” S320 engines introduced in early 60s and still produced by Androia-Mot in Andrychów. See https://andoria.pl/silniki/

    Another intresting fact about Andoria: HMMWVs used by Polish army are undergoing engine swaps to 4CT107 engine because those are cheaper to maintain and more fuel efficient.

  2. “absence of diesel emission controls”

    Ironically, these low-end diesel engines aren’t all that bad for emissions. Because they’re naturally aspirated, they run at relatively low pressures and make less NOx, and because they don’t have elaborate multi-point high pressure injectors, the soot particles they produce are much bigger in size – so the smoke settles down faster and it’s less dangerous to breathe. It’s not healthy, but it’s more comparable to smoke from a wood fire or a smoky lantern.

    The particles come out because the fuel in a diesel engine is never fully vaporized into gas before it’s ignited. The fuel burns as a very fine mist, which always leaves some unburned particles that ran out of oxygen and left a little kernel of soot.

    “Better” diesel engines emit particles that are very tiny. The emissions are measured in milligrams per cubic meter, so burning the fuel more completely gives you better results – so the designers make the fuel injectors put out smaller droplets, which leave a smaller soot kernel, which reduces the particulate mass and gets you through the emissions regulations – but it does not really reduce the number of particles coming out of the engine.

    There’s still smoke coming out, but it’s made of such small particles that you can’t see it, and being very small the particles float around for much longer. These particles are harder to catch by catalytic converters or filters, and they are no longer caught by the lungs but dissolve into the bloodstream through the lungs, which causes a whole host of different health problems, such as increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

    Gasoline engines produce these particles as well, but since the fuel is turned to vapor before it is ignited, there’s about 50 times fewer particles in the exhaust.

  3. Actually that photo shows the “truck-like’ vehicle that evolved a little later. The engine on the 2-wheel tractor is the one that was used on SO many applications. When I lived in China a saw the two-wheel tractors often in the fields on on the country roads with a cart behind them. An intermediate version became the “drive to town, drive in the fields” version with a seat and some kind of roof. Here’s one I saw in Hunan province about 6 years ago:
    http://www.internationalschoolphotos.com/China%20Workers/#ChinaWorkers–49.JPG
    It has a radiator, whereas the very early versions, often used on air compressors and irrigation pumps had a tank around the cylinder that was open at the top and an occasional bucket of water slowly boiled off as cooling.
    …more photos and the wooden fishing boat version when I find them….
    Regards, Terry King
    …In The Woods in Vermont, USA
    terry@terryking.us

  4. My dad an uncles bought a stationary version of this engine and used it for a big-ass band saw, to turn logs into planks. I still remember the huffing and puffing of that little engine and the way it smelled (diesel and sawdust). The engine was mounted on a concrete foundation and when it was working you could fell the ground shaking 10-20 meters away. To fire it up when the weather was cold, we would light a diesel soaked cloth and put it near the air-intake, so it would pull hot air. Never got to see the maintenance on it, but there was a lot of tweaking and brute force cranking involved to start it.
    There was also a lighter version of that engine mounted on a “chassis”, driving 2 wheels and with handlebars. you could attach all sorts of farming equipment to it: plows, trailers, grass cutters. I saw all this equipment in the Chinese brochure that came with the engine, cause in my country they were not available.

    1. Curious what features made you qualify it as “a stationary version” of the engine. As far as I can tell, they were flexible designs that could be used in mobile or stationary applications interchangeably. I’d love to learn how they might have been optimized for stationary tasks.

  5. Seems these things were startes as walking tractors. In the Western world there are some walking tractor manufacturers that make these system with a petrol or diesel engine bolted to a smal chassis with a gearbox with a PTO and wheels. Normally a tiller is bolted to the chassis and gets power from the PTO, but it’s possible to use other systems and even link a little trailer like these. https://www.giardinaggio.it/attrezzature/motocoltivatori/motocoltivatori-bertolini.asp

    One could mix and match with some extent between different makers, in some case adapter plates have to be used, but aren’t used outside farms and fields, because in Europe aren’t roadworthy. On the other hand four wheel tractors and crawlers too are roadworthy and have license plates so they could be used on normal roads, and there’s an huge ecosystem of compatible parts.

  6. As a matter of fact I own one, used to power a 15kw generator in Putao, N Kachin State (the photo for this piece is from Burma BTW). Most of these engines are good or bad copies of the Japanese Yanmar, which is a copy of several Brit or German originals. The bitch I have is that we cannot figure out a way to automatically throttle the thing when the dynamo is running under load (it’s synchronous). Yes, a headlight came with the engine. Years (40 years) back in Korea we GIs called these tractors “one-eyed dragons”.

  7. So, in the title photo, is the cab and box the engine is attached to…
    built for those engines, or different vehicle that had “lost” its drivetrain?
    It looks a bit too “neat” to be just a truck body that was found laying around.

    1. I believe your first instinct is correct and vehicle chassis in the title photo was designed specifically for this engine form factor. As an earlier commenter stated, such chassis are a recent development. Earlier applications were more ad-hoc. I chose this picture because it showed how the form factor became so entrenched everything else evolved around it.

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