A scant and diminishing few of you reading this might recall the dark days of the early and mid 1970s—dark at least for automotive enthusiasts, who were convinced that the seven-decade-long history of increasingly interesting—and fast—automobiles was over forever, thanks to OPEC embargoes and the rising influence of commie environmentalists who thought all Americans should have access to clean air and water. Executives from the Big Three stood before Congress and swore they would go bankrupt if forced to install catalytic converters on their vehicles. In 1975 a base Chevrolet Corvette’s 350 cubic-inch V8 produced a wheezing 165 horsepower, and the venerable MGB was choked down to 68—exactly the same as a 750cc Honda motorcycle of the day.
Not all manufacturers simply wrung their hands and complained. Honda produced its CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) four cylinder engine for the Civic, which handily met all proposed pollution requirements without a catalytic converter. When the CEO of GM sneeringly dismissed the technology as suitable for “a toy motorcycle engine,” Soichiro Honda bought a Chevy Impala and had it flown to Japan, where his engineers designed, built, and installed CVCC cylinder heads on its V8, then flew it back to Michigan—where it passed EPA requirements without a catalytic converter. GM’s CEO immediately apologized and asked to license the technology. Actually he did neither.
In any case, aside from a few bright spots (Porsche managed to retain much of the 911’s performance by adding engine capacity and keeping weight down, not to mention introducing the Turbo version), the future looked bleak.
For truck buyers the situation was similar. Although emphasis on 0 to 60 times was minimal, fuel economy was an issue, with single-digit averages commonplace (actually single-digit averages had been comonplace all along, but with gas prices skyrocketing from 30 cents per gallon to 80, it started to hurt).
I was reminded of all this when I came upon an image of a road test of a Chevrolet C-10 pickup from a 1974 edition of Pickup, Van, and 4WD magazine. The truck’s 350-cubic-inch V8 produced just 145 horsepower and a surprisingly meager 250 lb-ft of torque (torque was generally less affected by pollution controls than horsepower, but apparently not in this engine). The truck took 12.6 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph with a three-speed automatic transmission, and averaged a wince-inducing 9.8 mpg in “normal driving.” Also, astonishingly, the weight capacity on the tested model was only 760 pounds including passengers (although options could boost that to 1,360). And this was a two-wheel-drive truck.
How far we have come, and how silly seem the predictions that reducing pollution spelled the death of performance. Consider the 2016 Chevrolet Silverado Crew Cab tested by Car and Driver. Its 5.3-liter (325 cubic-inch) V8 produces 355 horsepower—well above the one horsepower per cubic inch figure that was the Holy Grail in (completely unregulated) 60s muscle cars—and 383 lb-ft of torque. With an eight-speed auto it propels the truck to 60 in just 7.2 seconds (quicker than that 1975 Corvette), yet the testers saw 15 mpg in normal driving. (Other half-ton trucks are now achieving significantly higher fuel economy figures; I cited this review because its subject was the closest I could find quickly to a direct descendant of that C-10.) This on a four-wheel-drive truck capable of hauling 2,130 pounds and towing over 10,000. Need I add that it produces a fraction of the pollutants that ’74 truck did? And is vastly more comfortable and safe?