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How German oil companies stopped the U.S. from getting awesome European cars

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We all know "euro-spec" BMWs, Volkswagens, Mercedes-Benzes, and Audis from the 70s, 80s, and 90s that came with more power than the imports that came to the States. Why didn't America get any of those awesome cars? It turns out, like always, it's the Germans' fault.

The frequently stated reason is that the US was tougher on air pollution from cars than Europe was back then, so the top-of-the-line drool worthy M-cars and high-output Benzes never got to cross the Atlantic. But there's more to it than that.


All of these cars were made in a time when West Germany — the Democratic half of post-WWII Germany — was talking itself up as a leader in cutting exhaust pollution, promising even to cut tailpipe emissions by 90% as far back as 1971. Yet, West Germany's lawmakers didn't force any of these promises and force carmakers to builder cleaner fast cars.

We get our inside look into the backroom dealings behind the story from Dieter Drabiniok, a founding member of the German Green Party, who was happy to share the dirty secrets between the politicians in charge of setting new laws on car pollution and the oil industry that they were regulating.


This was one of the deals that typified the lofty rhetoric and gross inaction on the part of the West German government all through the 1970s and the early 1980s. Here's what Herr Drabiniok had to say in a 1984 tell-all speech explaining how lead stayed in German gasoline, the reason why the country's fastest cars never reached US shores:

It was nothing more than window dressing to include the 90 percent reduction of automobile emissions into the Environmental Program of 1971; it was in 1970 that the same administration could not resist the offer, I would like to describe it as an extortion attempt, of the oil industry. In November 1970, The Ministry of the Interior (BMI) invited the representatives of the oil industry to a meeting at the ministry. There, the industry representatives were informed of the intentions of the federal government to reduce the contemporary lead content of 0.45 to 0.6 grams/liter to 0.4g/l by 1972 and to 0.15g/l by 1976.

After hearing this information, the industry representatives took a one hour recess. Upon returning they offered this proposal:

If the federal government will do without its plans for lead-free gasoline until 1982, then the industry sees itself in the position to reduce lead content as desired. If not, the industry does not see itself in the position to meet the new standards.

The representatives of the BMI accepted. They had to recognize that it was not within their power to set their political agenda against the interests of the industry.

It's clear that what the oil industry "saw itself in the position to achieve" was just a power play, and one that the government didn't have the balls or the resources to oppose. This meant that rather than work to make high power cars that could run on unleaded and with catalytic converters, like all cars had to do in America, German carmakers just took the easy way out with cheaper, dirtier performance cars.

All of West Germany's empty lawmaking finally started to come to a close in the 1980s, when voters finally got fed up and set in motion strict Europe-wide standards like the ones in America.


It took a long time for German cars to get their mojo back, but we're finally living in an age of clean horsepower, with the same twin turbo V8s bellowing down the interstate as on the Autobahn. It's a brighter, cleaner, faster world we live in, no thanks to the backroom dealings that seem to so often define car pollution lawmaking.

Dieter Drabiniok's speech can be found in the Heinrich Böll Archive in Berlin: "Strategien der Automobilindustrie (Strategies of the Automobile Industry)" by Dieter Drabiniok, MdB; The Greens in Parliament in Vienna, given on May 11, 1984. From Section B.II.1 und Signature 1154 (1/2). Pages 3-4. The text is my own translation.


Photo Credits: BMWCC-GB, Audi USA, furlined, and Stéphane Rossignol.