The American automobile industry has loved Uncle long time now. But it was not always so – at least, not to the extent we’ve come to accept as normal.
There was a time – some of you will remember it – when the car companies would actually resist government intrusions into their business, even going so far as to attempt end-running some of Uncle’s edicts. A story (true) comes to mind that will give you an idea how far we’ve come since then.
It was 1972 and GM’s Pontiac division – which back then still had an engineering division that designed and manufactured Pontiac engines – was trying to figure out how to keep the muscle car alive. Washington – and the insurance mafia – had been systematically working toward the extermination of powerful cars via the one-two punch of impossible-to-meet (while maintaining high power) emissions edicts and impossible-to-pay insurance premiums. You probably know this part of the story.
Pontiac management did something inconceivable in today’s corporate car culture: They brazenly ignored Uncle.
Under development was a new high-performance engine, known internally as the Super Duty 455. This engine shared a superficial commonality (its displacement, a function of its bore and stroke) with the existing line of Pontiac 455 engines (in those days, engines were known by their cubic inch displacement rather than by liters, as today). But it was an entirely different – a new – engine. Unique block (heavily reinforced and with provisions for dry-sump oiling, making it race-ready for those so inclined), special heads and valvetrain. Here’s where it gets interesting.
Rather than do the modern thing and submit the new engine for certification – that is, emissions (and noise) compliance, both necessary (legally speaking) before an engine could be mass produced and sold to the masses – Pontiac simply included the SD-455 in the already-certified 455 engine family … and hoped Uncle would not notice. And for a short time, he didn’t.
The engine almost made it to a dealer near you – in 310 (SAE net) horsepower form. For those of you jaded by modern car horsepower numbers, 310 may not seem like much but in late 1972/early 1973 it was huge.
Epic, in fact.
As was the performance of prototype SD-455 Firebirds and Trans-Ams… and (yes, it’s true) GTOs. Pontiac had intended for this engine to power all of its performance models, not just the one (Firebird/Trans-Am). One magazine even did a feature article on an ostensibly pre-production ’73 SD-455 GTO… and was hugely embarrassed later on when Pontiac announced there would never be a production SD-455 GTO.
Anyhow, the prototypes were running low 13 second quarter miles on street tires – and 12s on drag slicks. This was serious performance, even by today’s standards. And production cars were about to become available for sale to anyone who had the cash. This was an audacious one-finger salute directed Richard Nixon’s way. It was Nixon, you see, who decreed the EPA into existence and it was the EPA (and NHTSA) that were riding the ass of the car industry generally.
Well, someone squealed or word got out and Pontiac got in big trouble. The SD-455 program became embarrassing and a liability. It was too late to outright cancel the engine without causing Pontiac even more embarrassment – as well as possible legal problems, given orders had been taken and there would be lots of unhappy customers to deal with. But the engine was detuned (milder, Uncle-complaint camshaft) to 290 hp and the program was killed. Pontiac would sell already built engines – there were not many – but only in the Firebird line and for just as long as the supply lasted (which was less than two years). The SD-455 engine – arguably the very last true muscle car engine – was available for the ’73 and ’74 model years and that was it. And you only got one if you knew someone – and had deep pockets, wide open.
Back to Nixon.
As indefensible as the recent hog-troughing performed by GM and Chrysler (now a subsidiary of Fiat, courtesy of your taxpayer dollars) may be, outrage should be tempered by history. Uncle – in the form of Tricky Dick – effectively killed the U.S. car industry by summarily decreeing that large cars with V8 engines must go right now – and be replaced by smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. This was not said or done explicitly. But it was done, nonetheless, via emissions control legislation and fuel efficiency legislation – both of them issuing forth from Richard Nixon’s EPA, a federal agency “the people” never consented to, either directly or via their representatives.
Nixon – a kind of prototype Decider – simply decided.
Then his minions – the unelected bureaucrats within the agency – began to legislate. Or what amounted to the same thing, since their regulations and mandates now had the force of law. It has been thus ever since. No one questions the fundamental legitimacy of this coupe d’ etat (just as no one – or very few – question the coupe d’ etat that replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution, but that’s another rant).
The U.S. car industry suddenly – literally, almost overnight – faced the politically decreed premature obsolescing of vehicle types (full-size/RWD) and engines (big V8s) long before the investment in their design and tooling and so on could be amortized. At the same time, they were compelled to rush-rush not-yet-ready (because rush-rush-engineered) smaller cars and engines into production because these cars passed muster with Uncle – and also because such cars were now necessary to compete with the Japanese upstarts, who had been given a leg up by our Uncle and their Uncle (the Japanese government). The Japanese embraced cartel capitalism much more fully – and earlier – than Americans did. Fleets of Datsuns and Toyotas and Hondas were shipped over, initially sold at a loss to further cripple the Americans while establishing a beach head and then driving inland.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Just like the SD-455.
And a car industry that builds cars for customers, according to their wants – as opposed to in accordance with what the government decrees.