Most gearheads will gladly present the Cummins 6BT (also known as a 12-valve Cummins) as second to none in the pantheons of reliability and, in fact, the best diesel engines ever made. The reason is simple. The Cummins 6BT uses the simplest design of mostly mechanical components, rather than a complicated electronic build. Besides the reliability afforded by such simplicity, the Cummins 6BT’s simple design creates ample potential for impressive power.
The 5.9-liter version was the first-ever diesel engine to power a full-size pickup truck in lieu of the large V8 gas-powered mills. This is the most popular engine for the B-Series pickup trucks. By 1989, the turbocharged 12-valve Cummins 6BT appeared in the guts of just about every Dodge Ram pickup through 1998.
The Cummins 6BT was just the beast to propel the Ram, thanks to its super-impressive torque at low revs and throughout the engine speed range. Not only that, but the Cummins also afforded superior fuel economy compared to Dodge’s own gasoline-fuel V8 engines. It was first produced in 1984 to power agricultural machinery but eventually got widely applied to light, medium, and even some heavy-duty trucks and buses.
Cummins 6BT Engine Brief Overview
The 6BT belongs to the Cummins B Series family of American-made diesel engines produced since 1984 for multiple applications for on-road and off-road and light and medium-duty vehicles. It was first manufactured in North Carolina before getting made in plants around the world, including the UK, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico.
The B-Series Cummins engine has seen three generations with various displacement capacities delivered in straight-four and straight-six formats. Perhaps, most gearheads associate Cummins engines the most with the Dodge Ram pickup trucks as well as the 23/44-seater British-made Dennis Dart and the 64/90-seater Alexander Dennis Enviro400 school buses.
The 6BT comes in the straight-six configuration with a turbocharged 5.9-liter displacement, with a cast-iron block and head and a 12-valve OHV valve mechanism. This is the reason the 6BT is often referred to as the 12-valve Cummins. One of the primary distinguishing features of the B-Series from earlier Cummins engines is the cylinder bores that are now machined directly into the block instead of the wet liners.
It also differs from other Cummins versions by using a shallow one-piece head. Furthermore, the B-Series Cummins used Bosch direct-injection engine technology, eliminating the need for glow plugs, unlike other diesel engines of that time. It didn’t use belts and chains either, but had a timing kit at the front of the engine.
The Cummins 6BT Is Still The Best Despite Its Flaws
As stated earlier, the Cummins 6BT engine featured a cast-iron cylinder head and block, effectively forming the foundation for its incredible reliability. You wouldn’t look in the engine bay and get confronted by an assortment of electronics – just the basic mechanical pump and injector for the average Joe to easily get around. It also means the engine could do just fine with less than high-grade fuel quality. Something else this engine will always get credit for is its quick start, regardless of the weather conditions.
However, the Cummins 6BT is still a man-made machine with flaws, starting with the clogged heater grid between the air pipe and intake manifold. It’s just a matter of time before the grid gets coated with soot, ultimately restricting the intake manifold’s ventilation. The symptoms often reveal themselves in a delayed start or even the engine dying at idle or low revs. Expectedly, the fuel economy will take a hit too.
The grill heater installed in the intake manifold in lieu of glow plugs ensured the engine could start quicker in cold weather conditions. Besides the heater grid’s tendency to clog over time, 12-valve engines are vulnerable to Killer Pin (or KDP). This is when engine vibration pushes back the steel locating pin pressed into the block next to the bolt between the timing gear and the fuel pump gear.
In the unfortunate chance that this pin falls between the timing gears, it could cause catastrophic damage involving the mixing valves, brake pistons, and timing gears. However, things are highly unlikely to get that bad since there are cheap solutions to forestall the “Killer Pin” hazard.
Why The Cummins 6BT Is King Of Diesel Engines
The Cummins 6BT’s tremendous torque at low revs and throughout the engine speed range, plus its established reputation for reliability and durability, are a combination that earned it the de-facto title of the best diesel engine ever made. Interestingly, the 6BT holds this recognition despite having a much larger and more powerful successor – the Cummins 6.7-liter ISBe engine.
Remember how we noted earlier that Dodge used the Cummins 6BT as an alternative for its own gasoline V8 engine? According to Chrysler press releases from the Detroit Public Library’s National Auto Historic Collection (transcribed and published online on Allpar.com), Dodge chose the Cummins 6BT over its own mill to power the Dodge Ram pickup trucks to meet increasing demands for low-down torque for heavy-duty applications.
We can’t sign off without discussing the power output. The Cummins 6BT is a water-cooled, turbocharged 5.9-liter four-stroke inline-six diesel engine that made between 160 and 215 horsepower between 400 and 440 lb-ft of torque. We never said it was a cheetah. Cummins paired the engines with transmissions such as the Chrysler 47RH (four-speed automatic), the New Venture NV4500 (five-speed manual), and the GETRAG G360 (five-speed manual).
Apparently, the engine has found its way into various other vehicular applications, ranging from buses to marine vehicles and electricity generators. If there was ever an unstoppable engine, the Cummins 6BT is the one.
Sources: Wikipedia, MyMotorList, Slashgear