The biggest carmaker in the world today, Volkswagen, cheated to comply with strict EPA emissions regulations. Back in the 1970s, the biggest carmaker in the world, GM, had a different strategy: claim the EPA’s standards could not be met. It looked like it would work, until little Honda stepped in with one of the boldest challenges to the status quo in the history of the automotive industry.
This is a story of hubris, determination, emissions, an Impala, and, of course, the amazing Soichiro Honda. It's a reminder that innovation can beat strength, and that the most defining characteristic of any giant is not its size, but it's susceptibility to cleverness.
I'm sort of amazed we've never officially talked about this here on Jalopnik, because it's an amazing story. It's a story you may have heard before, but it's absolutely worth repeating.
The most often cited version of the story is one retold by a former sales rep of American Honda's motorcycle division, a man named G. Duncan. Here's the background: it's 1973, and Honda is about to release their CVCC-engined Civic.
CVCC stands for "Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion" and is, essentially a design that uses prechambers with spark plugs to ignite a richer fuel mixture, which then propagates to the leaner mixture in the combustion chamber in the cylinder. That's a simplification, but the end result is that Honda was able to build engines that met the strict new emissions regulations in the US without the use of heavy, power-robbing, expensive catalytic converters. This was a big deal.
It was such a big deal that Ford and Chrysler had both signed up to license the technology. But not GM. In fact, here's what the CEO of GM, Richard Gerstenberg, said of Honda's technology:
"Well, I have looked at this design, and while it might work on some little toy motorcycle engine…I see no potential for it on one of our GM car engines."
Eventually, this statement got back to the head of Honda, Soichiro Honda. For those of you unfamiliar, Soichiro was an amazingly gifted engineer and a very determined man, starting Honda in a wooden shack making add-on engines for bicycles and eventually turning it into one of the biggest motorcycle and automobile manufacturers in the world. The hidden message here is you don't fucking call his engines "little toys."
Clearly interested in "one of our GM car engines," Soichiro bought a 1973 Chevy Impala with a big-ass 5.7L V8 and had it air-freighted to Japan. I think you can see where this is heading. Honda instructed his engineers to design and build a CVCC system for the GM V8, and that's exactly what they did: they replaced the intake manifold, cylinder heads, and carburetor of the engine so that it used Honda's CVCC technology. He then had it flown back to Ann Arbor, where it was tested by the EPA.
And you know what? It worked. The system Gerstenberg had derided as only suitable for "some little toy" engine allowed the big, thirsty V8 to pass the new EPA emissions requirements without a catalytic converter. Horsepower remained at 160 HP, and some tests even showed a slight fuel economy improvement. You can see the whole test here, and just for fun, here's the EPA's conclusions:
It wasn't 100% perfect, of course — NOx emissions were still higher than a catalyst-equipped car, but even so, the CVCC V8 was still massively cleaner than most other engines of the era and easily passed the EPA's requirements. Here's the high-speed results, for example:
So, let's just recap: CEO of GM talks some shit about Honda's technology. The man who founded Honda hears it, and instead of releasing some pissy statement to the press, gets a car from GM themselves and makes it better than they could do themselves. And he lets the EPA prove it.
Then, I imagine, he drops a mic and walks offstage.
Soichiro, you badass.