This is a story of not only determination but lots of hard work. It’s a reminder that individuals can sometimes make a big difference, even when up against major corporations. Here’s a story about how a brilliant engineer proved General Motors wrong.

How it started

In 1970, Congress passed the United States Clean Air Act which decreed that by 1975 all vehicles sold in the US had to cut down their emissions by 75%. Another part of the act required the phasing out of “leaded fuel.” Leaded fuel is gasoline which contained tetraethyllead, an important valve lubricant and engine anti-knock agent. Needless to say, the car companies were pretty shaken up when the Clean Air Bill was passed. Their immediate concern was that cutting down emissions to just 25% of what they currently were would be extremely difficult – if not impossible.

Then they got a chemist involved

After trying dozens of engine modifications with little success, the car manufacturers considered a device that would chemically alter the pollutants. It was a smaller version of an industrial device called a catalytic convertor. According to Suburban of Garden City, a local Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, Jeep dealer in Garden City, MI, a catalytic converter is basically an emissions control device that converts specific toxic gases produced by combustion (such as in a car) into harmless compounds and gases by forming a “redox reaction.” Bottom line was that they worked and an entire industry was instantly born to make catalytic convertors for automobiles.

Disadvantages

While a solution to the emission problem was exciting, there were disadvantages. First, early catalytic convertors used rare metals and they were very expensive to make. Another consideration is that they restrict the free flow of exhaust, which negatively affects vehicle performance and fuel economy. Another yet another issue was safety. Because early cars’ carburetors were incapable of precise fuel-air mixture control, catalytic converters could easily overheat and ignite flammable materials under the car.

Across the ocean

Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Corporation, had a different approach. He was convinced that he could reduce internal combustion pollutants by burning the air-fuel mixture more completely. No catalytic convertors involved. To achieve this, he designed a “Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion”(CVCC) engine. It is essentially an engine design that uses pre-chambers to ignite a richer fuel mixture, which then propagates to the leaner mixture in the combustion chamber in the cylinder. No catalytic convertors needed.

Meanwhile back in the US

Faced with outfitting all their cars with expensive catalytic convertors, Ford and Chrysler both signed up to license CVCC technology, but not GM. In fact, the CEO of GM, Richard Gerstenberg, stated that they had looked at CVCC and said it was “a technology for little, toy motorcycle engines.”

Eventually, this statement got back to Soichiro Honda. He was stunned by the arrogance of GM’s CEO and took action. He air-freighted a 1973 Impala with a 350 V8 to Japan where he instructed his engineers to design and build a custom CVCC system for it. When finished he had it flown back to Ann Arbor, where it was tested by the EPA. The result wasn’t perfect but the CVCC V8 was still much cleaner than the other engines of the era, and easily passed the EPA’s requirements.

The result

General Motors was stunned that a single man could out-engineer their platoons of their engineers. Soon General Motors was in discussions with Honda about licensing CVCC technology.

Earthgarage – Greener Car. Fatter Wallet.