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Hagerty Employee

Fifty years ago, the government decided to clean up car exhaust. It’s still at it.

Even as he sat down to sign the most sweeping environmental protection law in the nation’s history, Richard Nixon couldn’t help taking a swipe at one of his enemies. Notably absent from the signing ceremony for the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act was Edmund Muskie, the Maine Democrat who had steered “that Muskie bill” through the Senate and who was expected to run for president against Nixon in 1972. Muskie said he hadn’t been told the bill would be signed that day.


Though the political intrigues were soon forgotten, the revisions to Title 42, Chapter 85 of the United States Code are still making an impact 50 years later. The law Nixon signed on December 31, 1970, forever changed the vehicles that Americans bought and drove, and it continues to do so today. It gave the newly created Environmental Protection Agency the regulatory bludgeon it needed to make cleaner air actually happen. And where it came to automobiles, the EPA effectively handed that bludgeon to a small group of engineers and regulators in the smoggy suburbs of Los Angeles. If you own any car built and certified for sale in the United States after 1975, it has their fingerprints all over it. “I was kind of astonished at the power that I had,” recalls Steve Albu, who spent 31 years helping set emissions standards for the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a state regulatory body that ended up having an enormous role in setting the course of the nation’s auto emissions laws. “I didn’t really understand what I was getting into.”


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Intermediate Driver

A great article, good history of where we've been and where we're going, it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 6 months in regards to emissions


Adding CO2 is nothing more than a bureaucrat lifetime, job insurance, mandate!
It is incredible hubris to think that mankind is changing the weather, unless adding 5 billion more souls to the planet, could make a real difference. The amount of resources in time, people, and money for 1% reduction is NOT helping the world or the economy. Maybe LA should have limited the amount of people, businesses, and infrastructure so they didn't get so congested. When the car exhaust is cleaner than the air used to run it, just maybe the eco-nazis have gone far enough in LA, or Gary IN.

Intermediate Driver

In Washington State they ended the emissions testing last year. The publications noted that the goals originally set in the 1980's had been met.

I was surprised a few times when the cars I had tested passed. Even the Factory Five Cobra my dad built had no trouble.


I lived in LA smog and I'm still here. 40 years later. Here means not in LA. I think Government handling of anything simply shows its stupid and incompetent behavior.


Advanced Driver

The most appropriate word in the article was used at the beginning; "Bludgeon".  Lived in California in the 80s and came to despise CARB, which made owning a car (which was a '72, and therefore only 9 to 18 years old during my stay) miserable.


And thanks again to Government (inflation and regulation), a car that cost 3 to 4000 bucks new in the late 60s/early 70s now costs north of 30 to 40000 bucks.  Meanwhile a new computer costs less than ever, fits in your pocket, and can make a phone call.

Hagerty Fan
Not applicable

The worst crime Nixon committed wasn't watergate. It was his vision of thousands of unelected government thugs and con artist that has made the EPA the largest criminal syndicate in U.S. history.

Intermediate Driver

Great article!  Well-researched and informative.  Should be on the reading list of every voting citizen in the country.


As both an automotive enthusiast and an environmentalist (maybe one of a dozen or so on the planet?) I well recall Car & Driver's constant editorializing, snidely and loudly condemning federal attempts at emissions control and auto safety.  It's nice to see Bedard has finally come around to realizing that today's cars are cleaner, safer, more reliable, a better value, and even more fun--not to mention cheaper (in real dollars)--than ever before. 


Yes, it took some time for auto makers to stop whining and start putting our excellent engineers to work developing the amazing technologies we have today; but the concept of "invent what we need" was proven to be the right idea.  The federal regulators were right, and the nay-sayers--in both the industry and the automotive press--were wrong.


As for us hobbyists who love tinkering with the technology of pre-regulation machinery, thankfully we still can own, work on, and drive the character-laden (read slow, guzzling, ill-handling, unsafe, uncomfortable--but decidedly beautiful and soul-satisfying) sports and muscle cars of the 50's and 60's we love so much.  Best of both worlds, I'd say.


Again, kudos, Mr. Robinson, for this fascinating look at the history of auto emissions regulation in America.  This is journalism at its very best!




As a car enthusiast, and someone who'd like to leave a liveable planet for my progeny, I thank Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, the EPA and CARB for their forward thinking innovation. And marvel at how paradigms have shifted in the GOP in fifty years. 


Equally, keeping my old cars in tune, and applying technology where you can, helps even the handful of miles each are driven annually.

New vehicles? Heck, my daily wagon is a ULEV, hits sixty in under six seconds, is two and a half tons, is full time AWD, and gets 30mpg on the highway. My sixties muscle cars are long on personality, but we've come a long way.

Try going 100k on spark plugs in my 409 Impala. 

New cars are sterile, but they really are good at transportation.


I also remember a C&D article from about 25 years ago when they drag raced a '64 tri-power GTO and a 6 Cylinder Honda Accord. The Accord was faster to sixty, the quarter, and 100....


It was a given cars could and should be more efficient and cleaner. But the way all this was executed was in a fashion that forced many Americans into horrid vehicles for nearly two decades and at a price to consumers that many can’t afford. 

In fact if you look today these laws have driven the truck and SUV market while killing the sedan and coupe market. 

Americans as a whole have not loved small FWD cars. They bought them as automakers forced them into them. Then it happened they started to migrate to trucks in the 80’s and soon after the SUV. People like and want the size and utility. They like a full frame vs a small car that had a small trunk and struggled to carry 4 people in any comfort. 

My father owned a new Chevelle every year and never needed a truck as his car did it all. The roof was heavy steel that could carry plywood. The trunk carried a ten speed bike. The interior carried six people. 

These laws also forced automakers into a time line that forced us into years of carbs that were horrid before the automakers went to a better fuel injection that did not work right till computer tech was available to deal with it. 

As with government this whole process was the cart before the horse. You can promote improvement but you can’t force it with out a cost and we all paid the cost. Just look at the late 70’s and much of the 80’s and the forgettable throw away cars.


I see California doing the same mistake on the EV models by forcing them again. The Automakers are doing much to make them appealing to all but they still have a ways to go. If they can make them affordable and appealing by 2035 is still a guess for the average buyer to suffer. Then they have to worry about where the electricity will come from. 

This whole thing needed to be done together and not a force idea of political force. You didn’t  see congress telling NASA how to get to the moon did you? That program worked well as they worked together. 

The future is going to be a train wreck as the far left has taken to the New Green Agenda that fails to take consideration for the consumers while saddling them with the cost and liabilities of the results of their plans. 

Today emissions is a political tool and we saw it 8 years ago when the EPA took it upon themselves to decide the laws passed by Congress and Senate were not written to their standards and the reinterpret them to their own causes. They decided that if you raced a Mustang never driving it on the street you could not modify it at all. SEMA pushed the RPM act to prevent these Renegade activist from taking the law into their own hands.

Depending on the election we will see more of this and it will cost us much of our income and it could cost us out hobby.


The day is coming Pebble Beach may not happen as they prevent any internal combustion in California for any reason. You may like to wax your car and in many places that is all you will be able to do as they will prevent any ICE from being run.


I work in the performance aftermarket and I am on the front lines of this. I have met with senators and even a governor over this and most support our hobby while others don’t.


Not saying how to vote but if you love your automotive hobby you had better know where the people you vote for stand.


We all want clean air and today it is as clean as it has been in nearly 150 years. But like everything else we need to all work together and guard against activist from dominating the scene. There is room and time for all of us. 

The only thing that bailed us out was electronics and automotive computers. That was the difference between a 180 HP Corvette to the ZR1. But look at how many years and poor vehicles we had to suffer to get there. 

All that needs to be said is Lean Burn. Anyone who experienced that in the 70’s knows what that mean. 






Born in the early 60's  in Orange County, CA I very much remember the "Smog Alerts" when we couldn't go outside and play.     We couldn't see the local foothills, and the larger San Gabriel range were visible a couple times a year.    Black oil slicks of oil in the center lanes of all freeways (still that way to some extent is why there are so many accidents when it does rain and the oil washing away makes the roads very slick), but Closed crankcases helped that.   The air quality is so much better today than it was when I was a kid in the 60's and 70's.    As a kid and young driver lamented the stricter standards that strangled our new cars performance, but in '77 when I started driving, there were still so many muscle cars that could be bought for $500-1,000 we clung to them for a few more years.   ('67 Camaro RS Convt for $500 and '65 GTO Convt for $400 to name a few).  By the late 70's and early 80's, new cars could barely get out of their own way.   BUT, it worked and did force manufacturers to produce better, cleaner products.    I left SoCal in 2006.   When I go back, I'm always amazed the the clear air and ability to see city skylines, mountains, and coastline.    The cars and trucks are much cleaner today, and if no one has noticed, we are in a Muscle Car Renaissance not seen since the 60's.    We can now buy new 400-700 horsepower gasoline cars WITH A WARRANTY!  And the performance of a mid-sized family sedan or SUV with say a turbo 2.0 liter today is better than the sedans and station wagons of the 60's and 70's with standard engines.  Electrics will be another level, although we do need acknowledge we still need to make the electricity and have the infrastructure to deliver it...   

Pit Crew

The only thing the government is really good at is taxation.

Intermediate Driver

Terrific article - comprehensive and perceptive!  Still lots of whining from the dinosaurs, but the results have absolutely been worth it.  Now, one could certainly question the current regulatory structure - two Federal and one state agency all doing essentially the same job, with the state agency largely given control of national auto energy policy.  Do the ends justify the means?  Maybe.

Pit Crew

Excellent historical perspective.  I lived and worked in Orange County in the mid to late 1970’s and remembered the days, even weeks when all workers were encouraged to stay indoors at all times due to the smog alerts.  The air was brown and one could barely see anything beyond 5 miles.  I no longer live in California but visit family at least twice a year.  In the last 25 years, I don’t recall experiencing any smog alerts even though the population and traffic volume has increased exponentially since the ‘70s.   The evidence speaks for itself.  Without legislation that is meant to protect public health, corporations have no incentive nor desire to allocate funds to do so.  Though far from perfect in its implementation, I applaud all who were behind the efforts to clean up the California air.

Pit Crew

wonderfully informative

Intermediate Driver

Thank you for the interesting and well researched article. I was one of those " leave our cars alone". I hated what they did to muscle cars , well all cars. Now that I am well into my 60s I am realising that this is all real and this article put into perspective what I used to complain about. And, I've learned to work on " new cars" and enjoy and appreciate them. It took the engineers time to get it right but cars now are truly. Better  then ever in every way. And we still get to enjoy our classics. Life is good!


reminds me of the ciggies.

Initially I saw docs advertising them in print (not sure if I remember on TV, if it wuz it hadda be a B&W tv !). Now they're against.  

Kids ripped off anything they didn't understand "Get rid of that smog stuff, it kills the performance." (when it added to the very same - MPGs and pep). Yes, we have come along way baby (Virg Slims advert) and I hope the EV changes come, improve.  I've said it here before - if the full info was contemplated (social. financial, health, environmental, etc, etc) I don't think the automotive industry would have been developed !

Intermediate Driver

I'm with RobertLLR... I try to be environmentally friendly but I certainly love my '66 LeMans.  I was a kid during the 70's (only 4 years younger than my Pontiac!), so I grew up with both cool pre-regulation cars and the utterly boring, smaller, cleaner cars.  I've always been a GM gal, but I would fully admit that what killed US cars during those years was the lack of imagination by car makers, not the regulations per se.  The Europeans and Japanese made terrific (even if occasionally boring) cars that were fast and fuel efficient.  By the time our car makers finally caught on, the others had completely taken over the market.


I confess that my present "winter banger" is a GM-sold SAAB.  She's fast and pretty dang efficient, even at her advanced age.  When she goes, I'll get an actual GM model again, and I will certainly consider fuel efficiency.  The more efficient that car is (and the more often I take the bus to work!), the less guilty I feel for driving the Pontiac!  It's all about balance.

New Driver

“The modeling shows that classic cars don’t contribute that much to smog due to limited use”—  I'd love to get a look at that modeling, or studies that support the assertion, in order to be able to refute those who want to ban classics. Source?

Advanced Driver

Interesting article...  As someone who has several older cars, a 67, 87, 89 and 2005...  In my "barn" technically it is a large garage, I have a CO monitor as I have to drive my cars in and out of my garage, sometimes I have to let them run to diagnose something.    With the 67, With the Large Garage doors open, just starting and letting the car sit for what seems less than 60 seconds I notice that the CO will slowly inch up on the built in digital gauge.    However I never see it move with my 87, 89, and especially not my 2016 which you can barely even know it was running based on smell... 
New cars are really very good for emissions in comparison to what they were 50 years ago.