Blame Nixon

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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. '73 SD-455 GTO

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.SD-455 engine

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.'73 SD-455

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.dick

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).EPA pic

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.

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  1. I don’t like what happened to cars, however, I like to breathe clean air and have clean water.The EPA for all its tyranny has to a certain extent saved from ourselves.The industries sure didn’t give a damn and as far as this Clean Coal BS, ask the people on the Dan river what they think about piles of coal ash.Everything in moderation the engineers have proven we can have our cake and eat it too.The most ridiculous thimgs they are foisting on us nowadays are the Facebombs and the The vehicle lack of control idiot box.

    • The EPA was a government power grab as a result of government’s own failure.
      The reason pollution was so bad was because government sided in early pollution cases against property rights with the polluters and failed to do its job and protect the commons. The courts decided that those suing had to prove whatever was spewed caused them harm. It took decades for science to advance to show this. When it did, people got angry. Now government had to find a way to get people to put down the pitchforks and protect the markets for its friends. Enter the EPA which now decided who gets to pollute and how much.

    • Kevin,

      “EPA for all its tyranny has to a certain extent saved from ourselves.”

      What they did in the early 70’s was require an air compressor to pump clean air into the exhaust.

      This did a couple of things.

      It required more fuel to be burned to drive X amount of miles.

      Burning more fuel caused more pollution.

      However the tailpipe emissions were diluted so the appearance of less pollution was achieved.

    • What the EPA did right out of the starting gate was to lie about DDT. Their fabricated, junk science case against the insecticide resulted in millions of people dying agonizing deaths from Malaria in 3rd-world countries, whose governments did not have the resources to do their own analysis and took the EPA at its word.

      Now they lie about needing to “clean up” the last fractions of a percent of emissions, they lie that it’s about clean air and water, and they lie about needing to control CO2.

      Really the entire idea of administrative law is rotten at its core. Agencies like the EPA, that short-circuit the legislative process, should not be permitted to exist at all.

        • I couldn’t say since I’ve not dealt with diesel vehicles. It is likely part and parcel of making automotive diesel engines complex and fragile rather than enjoying the anvil-like solidity and longevity most of them – aside from the GM/Olds 350 – used to have.

  2. Let us also, not forget, “Tricky Dick” as he was also known, was the corrupt bastard that took our currency off the “Gold Standard”. Thusly making it possibly and easy for the foreign owned, central “Not Federal Reserve Bank” and the US Treasury Department to collude, print currency not backed by gold, spend that fiat money, then stick the “American Tax Payer” with the debt! (In other words, ROB UC BLIND, to the tune of over 18 TRILLION, since 1975.) May Richard Nixon, along with Woodrow Wilson, (Federal Reserve Act of 1913) burn in hell for all eternity.

    • On the the gold window, the Brenton Woods standard, which was the last to link between the dollar and gold but not a gold standard, Nixon was put in a box by LBJ and not by stopping the Vietnam war earlier himself. LBJ had so much money created to pay for the Vietnam war and the great society that foreign countries were redeeming paper dollars for gold and there wasn’t enough gold. The gold was draining quickly. Nixon’s action was more of consequence, a quick bit of first aid to stop/slow the bleeding. The wounding was done before he took office. Now price controls and other things, those were Nixon’s fault or at least the people that employed him.

      If there were a time machine question of what one event I would change in history to make the world a better place it would be preventing Wilson from being elected. It might not work, maybe someone worse comes along on that time line, but the pile of corpses that starts with Wilson entering world war one is damn hard thing to make worse.

      • Not to mention the income tax, along with the Fed as mentioned above. Good call on WWI Brent, the European powers had pretty much exhausted themselves and were ready for a truce until Wilson intervened and tipped the balance against the Germans while prolonging the war for another year and setting up the hot mess of endless wars we have to this day.
        What is it with these pathological liars promising to keep us out of wars and then doing the exact opposite? Must be a job requirement for el Presidente, I can still remember LBJ promising he wasn’t going to “send American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing” in Vietnam; guess he forgot to pass that info on to my draft board, the rat bastard. Here’s hoping there’s a special spot in hell for all the slimy pols that clamor for war while staying thousands of miles away from any real danger – I’m talking to you Lindsey Graham.

  3. Nixon, Clinton, George Bush II and Obama are proof that there’s no difference between conservative and liberal once they’re in office. Too much power in the hands of a single person.

    Hell, even Jefferson abused the constitution. Where’s the justification for the Louisiana Purchase? Did France even have the right to sell land they just claimed without checking with the people who were already occupying it?

    It is interesting to note that much of the restraint put on the president was only really adhered to by tradition and precedent (by the president himself, not by any other oversight), only because there’s little motivation to enforce even the minimum limit spelled out in the constitution, aside from the 2 term rule. And power grabs are generally applauded by the populace (or at least as reported by the media), so there’s little risk to taking action that oversteps their bounds.

    Obama’s FCC decides to heavily regulate the Internet, likely causing an entrenchment of the status quo for the foreseeable future, in return for a stable customer base and the easily calculated ROI that comes along with it, the established ISPs will happily pay a fee or tax (passed along to customers) and put up with whatever bullshit rules passed along. The real losers will be the content creators, who won’t have the clout to make sure their content remains “lawful” in the eyes of Uncle. One man’s opinion is another man’s bullying.

    Most of us no longer vote. The “landslide” victories are only proof of the homogeny of the United States have nothing to do with popular vote.

    • Eric G – be assured that the Sioux, Mandans, and Paiutes could have cared less WHICH European power claimed THEIR hunting grounds…as long as they got sufficient “fire sticks” (before the Amazon product), ammo, powder, tools, and “Fire Water” to engage their tribal rivals back in 1803. In this case, Jefferson DID have the authority, and the Louisiana Purchase was duly ratified by the Congress, IAW the Constitution.

      Certainly what has transpired since would likely have disappointed Jefferson and the Founding Fathers.

  4. I guess everyone noticed Nixon immediately began using a Maverick for his presidential Limo. As in everything gummint, two sets of rules.

  5. Back in the days when I was actively working on 55 mph repeal issues, pre internet days, I was researching ITE documents and all sorts of publications on the 55 mph speed limit.

    I don’t have it anymore, but I got a hold of some summaries of conversations with then Transportation Secretary Volpe talking about the idea of a national speed limit of 55 mph back in 1972 with insurance companies and the National Safety Council. Of course, the energy crisis happened in 1973-74, which gave impetus for Nixon’s infamous bill.

    I have no doubt that Nixon was an enemy of freedom and an enemy of the automobile.

    It was Rickelshaus’ EPA that was the first to require that oil companies sell unleaded gas and also forced car companies to make engines that burned it. As a result, in 1971 net horsepower dropped about 25-50 HP from the prior highs.

    That was bad, but the implementation of CAFE absolutely choked the life out of engines for a long while. It wasn’t until about 1987 when engine horsepower totals started to recover across the board. In 1986, Cadillacs were making 125 HP.

    Nixon was a dark figure for a dark period of the motorcar. I’m afraid that we might be entering another era like it. Horsepower for mainstream cars that don’t use turbos is dropping.

    • Yes sir,furthermore the net hp loss wasnt just because of changing from gross to net..It was because all engines changing and lowered compression,different carburetors,different heads,cam,crank…that zapped power !

      People compare a 1969 engine to a 1972 but they were totally changed,the power loss wasnt just because it was changed to net..i have seen this printed time and time again and people talk about a 69 engine then say well it really had XXX hp as thats what the 1972,73.74,75 etc version had lol..

      Sad what the Government always does to our cars,they ruin them and ruin our lives..But they b.s people into thinking its better for us lol,its not ! Nor is it cleaner..Like the airbags that deply and large chunks come flying out and killing people,yeah thanks Gubberment !

      • Ditto on the 69 engines, a 69 350 seemed like it had 50% more power than a 73 model and talk about anemic, why did they even bother putting a 70s model 250 six cylinder in a pickup?

  6. Seems the FCC “voted” to regulate the internet today. Timely article.

    But your right about the bureaucracy becoming the real legislative body. Its INSANE that we allow the folks “enforcing” the laws to be the ones also writing the laws. And yes, they are laws. You will get in trouble even if its “only” a regulation.

    Would you allow your local police department to create your towns ordinances? Of course not, that’s crazy, but it’s exactly what is happening in DC. I won’t be surprised if it does filter down to more local bodies like that. Mark my words.

    Unelected and Unaccountable. I voted for no one from the EPA and FCC.

    All laws are supposed to come from the congress, not some office drone on K street.

    If the FCC rules are allowed to stand, its the beginning of the end for sites like EPauto.

    • Same applies to ‘Executive Orders.’ The job of the President is supposed to be to enforce the laws passed by Congress – not make them up.
      And I know, nobody consented to the Constitution, but if they would restrict themselves to that it would be a lot better that it is.

    • ” I voted for no one from the EPA and FCC. ”


      But whoever you did vote for… had no real problem with the existence or basic methods of EPA/FCC/etc. And the people actually assuming elected offices certainly have no such problems — or things would be different. Nixon is unimportant; the personages of sequential tyrants are trivial to the malicious overall process of subjugation.

      What did you really think you would accomplish by voting at all?

      Voting is merely the “Suggestion Box” for serfs. You cannot escape your serf-status by voting.
      Has the “precious” right to vote even slightly slowed the growth of tyranny here?

      • Agree, Cyrus.

        Voting is an ingenious method of legitimizing tyranny by giving the appearance of consent. Most people never question this basic tenet of democratic authoritarian collectivism. Which is fundamentally no different from “Dear Leader” despotisms. After all, does it really matter whether your life is under the thumb of one tyrant whom you can’t vote for vs. revolving multitudes you’re allowed to vote for?

      • “Voting is merely the ‘Suggestion Box’ for serfs. You cannot escape your serf-status by voting.” Precisely, Cyrus. As I similarly tell people: being able to vote on who your overseer is, does not make you less of a slave. The sole purpose of voting in the USSA is to create the illusion that the people have a say in what the government does.

      • Ditto on the 69 engines, a 69 350 seemed like it had 50% more power than a 73 model and talk about anemic, why did they even bother putting a 70s model 250 six cylinder in a pickup?

  7. I have been thinking that my next classic car purchase will be a GM “Colonnade” body. Besides the ’73-’75 Hurst Olds, my favorite 70’s GM car is the ’77 Pontiac Can Am. Imagine how hot a SD 455 powered Can Am would’ve been!

      • I liked the Grand Am a friend had, an ’83 that would haul the mail and never break a sweat….a nice ride to boot. Another friend had a Bonneville, about a ’73 or so. It had a cam change and with those 2-1 rear gears or close to that, would do exotic speeds for extended periods. He removed the back seat, stuffed in about 20 wetbacks on the border and made it to the south plains in just a few hours a couple times. He was very young and invincible but finally realized the error of his ways. But it was one of those things he just had to get out of his system I guess.


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