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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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Pit Crew

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

Intermediate Driver

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.

Pit Crew

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.


Intermediate 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.

Intermediate Driver

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!



Pit Crew

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.