Innovator in diesel technology

During the first half of the 1900s, diesel engines became an important and prioritized product area for Atlas. But despite technical innovations, such as the reversible engine, diesel production never became a sustainably profitable business.

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Large diesel engine, manufactured at the Sickla workshop, 1900–1920.

After acquiring manufacturing rights in 1898, Atlas soon discovered – in common with many other license holders – that the diesel engine was far from reaching finished development. This would require long and expensive development. But the company was fortunate in its recruiting of engineers. Engineer Jonas Hesselman, with his constructive imagination and practical view of production and economic matters, would have major significance for developmental efforts. Under Hesselman's leadership, Atlas was able to present the first fully Swedish diesel engine in 1901. The produced engines were small and with low weight in relation to output and fuel consumption – a significant contribution to development of the diesel technology.

The world's first reversible engine

But when production got under way, there were no customers. It was not until 1902 that Atlas received a proper order – for 15 engines. This was much due to the efforts of Marcus Wallenberg, who was a devoted marketer of the new engine. Through Hesselman – a renowned and brilliant chief designer – the engine's teething problems were resolved. Among other things, he invented new valves and a new fuel pump so that fuel consumption was significantly reduced at the same time as the weight was lowered. He also made the engine reversible, which meant that the engine could change its direction of rotation when shifting from forward to reverse and vice versa. This entailed that the engine could now also be used in ships. The first ocean-going ship in the world with this reversible engine was the three-masted schooner Orion, with a 60-hp diesel engine from Sickla. When the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen journeyed to the South Pole in 1911 with the research ship Fram, he chose engines from Atlas Diesel. After this successful expedition – Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole – the name of the engines was changed to Polar. The engines now became larger. In 1916, two Polar engines were delivered with a combined 3,300 hp to the Norwegian tanker Hamlet. These were the world's most powerful diesel engines built to date.

Internationally recognized product

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Atlas Diesels vice president and senior engineer Herman Pyk took 1931 the bold step of entirely focusing operations on two-stroke engines.

Operations dramatically expanded before the First World War. The stationary engines had been further improved and the marine engines had become a proven and internationally recognized product. Towards the end of the war, export had gained major importance – more than 50 percent of production was sold abroad. Sales of diesel engines went well until the depression of 1921. Profitability dropped thereafter. An additional reason for low profitability was that the company so intensely, and at such high costs, devoted itself to development.

Investment that went wrong

In 1931, Atlas vice president and senior engineer Herman Pyk took the bold step of entirely focusing operations on two-stroke engines, a decision that had disastrous consequences. The future for bus, tractor and automobile engines was instead in four-stroke engines. Moreover, the competition had become tougher for medium-sized marine engines. Both from Bolinders and shipyards such as Kockums and Götaverken. To be able to retain production, several measures were taken to find new application areas for the diesel engine. These included the manufacture of rail motor coaches for diesel-electric operation and a switching locomotive for the Swedish State Railways. But this was not a profitable line of business either. The final solution came in 1948, when Atlas Diesel received an offer from Nydqvist & Holm in Trollhättan to take over production. This was the same company that 30 years previously, had taken over locomotive production from Atlas. Over a period of 50 years, Atlas had manufactured a total of 5,447 engines with a combined horsepower of 1,000,000.