|Tag(s):||automobile, Air Pollution, Detroit, 1970s, Technology, emissions, mechanics, regulation, car|
|Course:||“Fundamentals of Environmental History,” Auburn University|
The 1973 edition of the Chevrolet Emission Control Systems reference manual is a special supplement to the standard mechanic’s repair reference. General Motors produced this manual as a guide for its dealer-level mechanics, who would be tasked with repairing and adjusting emission control systems for Chevrolet owners. The manual contains a host of novel names and corresponding acronyms for parts of the new emissions-control system: Air Injector Reactor (AIR), Controlled Combustion System (CCS), Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR), Coasting Richer System (CRS), and many others. These new technologies represented the industry’s best short-term effort for reducing toxic exhaust gas emissions. However, their acronyms would be liberally intermixed with swear words throughout the 1970s, as both mechanics and their customers struggled to adapt to the new technological regime.
The main problem with 1970s emission controls proved to be the difficulty of keeping them in tune. In the era before inexpensive, compact microprocessors revolutionized engine management, emissions control systems relied on comparatively crude technology. Copious lines of fragile vacuum hoses, complex mechanically actuated carburetors, and hot-burning catalytic converters were virtually impossible to maintain in concert with one another. Datsun equipped its cars with “Floor Temp” warning lights, to keep catalytic converters from igniting the floor carpeting. Other manufacturers warned consumers not to park in tall grass for the same reason. Vacuum carburetors were notoriously devilish devices, with a tendency to produce stalling at the worst possible moments. Newly established emissions testing frequently devolved into shouting matches and frustration. To add insult to injury, these emissions-control systems actually made cars less fuel efficient in the short term, at a time when gas shortages and embargoes were menacing the land. In short, the 1970s proved to be an inauspicious time to own a car, or to be a person that worked on them for a living.
As Kevin Borg writes in Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America, mechanics bore the brunt of consumer criticism of the new technology. When the cars of the 70s stumbled and stalled in traffic, their drivers naturally blamed the men responsible for maintaining them. Auto mechanics were forced to choose between tuning their customers’ cars to meet emissions standards, or to run well in everyday use. The Chevrolet Emission Control Systems manual is a relic of this era of hard choices, and a reminder of the difficulty of introducing complex technological systems quickly.