1970 Clean Car Race: How college teams helped bring about emission limits on new cars (and show up Detroit) after the first Earth Day.

Life magazine centerspread of 1970 Clean Air Car Race entries

Life magazine centerspread of 1970 Clean Air Car Race entries

Enlarge Photo

When it comes to changing the world, never count out a bunch of college students with pens and wrenches.

In response to growing demands to clean up the air, particularly from automotive exhaust pipes, and growing pushback from automakers, a bunch of college students banded together in 1970 to prove they could make cars cleaner than Detroit could.

It was the first year of Earth Day, the year that Congress Passed the Edmund Muskie Clean Air Act, which required that automakers cut harmful air-quality emissions by 90 percent in time for the 1975 model year. As recounted in a story in Hemmings Motor News (in 2014), the automakers strenuously objected, saying they couldn’t make such improvements in so little time.

 

1970 Clean Air Car Race Winner Wayne State University Mercury Capri - Wayne State

1970 Clean Air Car Race Winner Wayne State University Mercury Capri – Wayne State

Enlarge Photo

In August that year, 40 teams took to the road to prove them wrong.

They left the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., on August 24th, heading for the CalTech’s campus in Pasadena, Calif., six days later.

The cars had to meet three main criteria: They had to be able to carry two average-sized adults; they had to be able to maintain 45 mph on level ground; and most of all, they had to meet the upcoming 1975 tailpipe standards.

Each car would undergo emissions testing three times along the route: in Cambridge, before leaving MIT, in Pasadena at the end, and in Detroit where more thorough testing would be performed at automaker labs.

The winner was calculated based on a complex mathematical formula heavily weighted toward emissions scores, but it took more than a clean engine and finishing the race to win.

Entries fell into six classes: electric, hybrid, liquid-fueled internal combustion (including gasoline and methanol), gaseous-fueled internal combustion (including propane and compressed natural gas), steam, and turbine power.

Compared with the green-car technologies of today, the field looked wide open.

Although the race was only open to college teams, corporations sponsored many of them, and some controversy developed when four Ford carburetion engineers going to night school formed a team at Wayne State University.