Last time we talked about the huge pile of Road & Tracks I’m reading, we were in 1988, a year in which cars were finally getting better after nearly two decades of regulatory hell.
The next two, the ones I’m going to talk about today, give us the early portion of the crusade to make cars worse. We will do this by immersing ourselves in two Road & Track magazines from the early 70’s, the January and February 1971 issues.
These are not optimistic magazines, and a good portion of the writing is aimed at trying to justify why, to get cleaner air, you need to burn more fuel. In a nutshell, the reason for this is that the automotive industry was not technologically prepared for the emissions legislation that was forced upon them. Do-gooder lawmakers, of course, simply said: “The auto companies just don’t want to invest in this, we should regulate it anyway.” And they did.
The upshot is that fuel economy went to hell because cars actually had to burn MORE gas to lower emissions (thermodynamics make this necessary). This means carbon dioxide emissions (greenhouse gasses, anyone?) went up, and contributed to our current global warming mess. Overeager and under-informed legislators, as usual, proving once again that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
But all of that was in the future. In 1971, even the extremely well-informed automotive press had no idea what the consequences might be. Their technical editors were more concerned with whether the internal combustion engine would be viable beyond 1975 when the new laws took full effect. Yes, that was a real concern. In the end, as we know, the engine survived, but at a horrific cost to consumers… and now to the environment.
That situation actually gave birth to the most interesting parts of these magazines. While it’s fun to read about the launch of cars that either went on to make no mark whatsoever on the marketplace or, to the contrary see what the press were saying about vehicles that are now classics, it’s absolutely fascinating to read about the new technology which could power cars if the Otto engine did bite the dust.
The two big alternatives, as seen in 1971 were the gas turbine and the Wankel. Though the Wankel was, at that time, worse in emissions, it controlled oxides of nitrogen (NOx) better than the internal combustion engine… and these were tougher to engineer out of the Otto engine than other pollutants were for the Wankel. So maybe…
The most memorable article of this pair is a long piece explaining the Wankel engine. Good stuff.
Another thing that I enjoyed about these two is that the “& Track” portion of the magazine was much meatier than in the eighties, and it’s wonderful to read about the Can Am as a series that was taking place even then as opposed to looking back at it from our nostalgia as something unique and awesome the likes of which we’ll never, sadly see again.
Finally, the weird notes to my reading. These mags are nearly fifty years old, so it’s interesting to see what kind of lives they’ve led. While in decent condition, my copies have had the classified section carefully cut away by some earlier owner as well as one article: a piece about the 1971 Duesenberg replica. Which is probably the strangest article to remove. Why that piece, when there is so much stuff about original cars in there? I’ll probably never know.
Finally, the strangest thing of all is that these editions have the price in Swedish Krone on the cover. That, the UK and US currency. Why Krone? Maybe because it was a big market… but no Deutsch Marks, French Francs or Lire… Weird.
All in all, it’s very fun to read these, especially to see what the world was like fifty years ago, and to compare this mature magazine with the early ones where you got maybe thirty pages of articles copied from other publications.
Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is Jungle Lab Terror, a thriller set in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, the Darien gap. If you dare, you can buy it here.