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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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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...   

New Driver

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

Pit Crew

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.


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

Pit Crew

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!

Intermediate Driver

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 !

Pit Crew

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.


“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?

Intermediate 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.