Emissions, anyone?

During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, many American cars earned the term “land yacht” for their immense size and the way that they would roll around when they approached their natural enemy: the corner. But along with their immense size and power came their ability to use fuel like it was going out of style. Power-train size had to be large in order to propel these beasts down the road. Even my own personal car has a rather large and thirsty 5.2 liter V8, and it was considered mid-sized in 1980’s standards! But with the environmental movement in the 70’s, many American cars had to change the way that they engineered their vehicles. They now had to meet new emissions regulations, and automakers were nowhere near ready.

green1974 Chrysler Imperial

First, we have to understand what is coming out of the tailpipe to know what has to be controlled. Up to 1975, cars didn’t have any sort of emissions equipment. The engine produced exhaust containing nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons, and other gasses that are neither good for humans nor the environment. These gasses then traveled through the pipes, and then became nature’s problem.  In 1970, Congress finally realized that there may be an issue with just emitting these gasses into the atmosphere.  So they pass “the first major Clean Air Act, requiring a 90 percent reduction in emissions from new automobiles by 1975. Congress also establishe[d] EPA, giving it broad responsibility for regulating motor vehicle pollution. New cars must meet a 0.41 gram of hydrocarbons (HC) per mile standard and a 3.4 grams of carbon monoxide (CO) per mile standard by 1975” (epa.gov). These new regulations made many engineers’ wonder how in the world they would be able to achieve these emissions standards. They were able to do it, but it wasn’t very pretty.


The old ways are always the best ways! Well, that was the theory that many manufactures had, anyway. What they ended up doing was taking their existing V8 engines, and tried to “filter them” using new technology such as catalytic converters, and it worked! Kind of. In 1975, “the ‘first generation’ catalytic converters are built, significantly reducing vehicle emissions. Unleaded gasoline is also introduced because lead in gasoline may cause disintegration of catalytic converters. This results in dramatic reductions in ambient lead levels and alleviates many serious environmental and human health concerns associated with lead pollution” (epa.gov). This is great, right? Seems to be, but the early technology was crude, and the big V8s from the 60’s were not used to having this new restriction in the exhaust system. It would be many years before the catalytic converter was perfected to allow for both decent power and cleaner emissions. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction, and something had to be done before our environment disintegrated around us.

But in all honesty, even though American auto manufactures were able to get their vehicles to meet these emissions standards, they were still using big V8 engines to run them, and even though they were burning cleaner, they were still quite thirsty. In the 70’s and 80’s, Americans didn’t really want such large vehicles anymore. Fuel was getting ever more expensive, and the general population knew that the new emissions controls on American vehicles were choking them out, and many ran rather poorly. For the first time in America, imported cars became more popular than domestic ones. Imported brands such as Honda, Toyota, and Datsun, became common place in the American market. Japanese companies were building cars that were much more high tech than the American ones, and were much more green and efficient (for the time) than its American competitors. In the 1980’s, American car manufactures were struggling. They were struggling to adapt to the changing market all while trying to fix what they were causing. The environmental movement was in full swing, and Americans finally knew that something had to be done.

Were the early emissions technologies crude? Yes. In fact, many mechanics and owners would disable the emissions controls because they would rob so much performance that some American cars couldn’t even get out of their own way. Other companies took advantage of our crumbling auto industry, and began to bombard America with cars that they actually wanted. Thus why every 3rd car in a parking lot is either a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry. Eventually, American manufactures figured out what was happening, and the engineers hit the grindstone hard.




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