When you mention the EPA and automotive performance in the same sentence, most people who love cars will cringe and shudder, awakening hideous visions of smog-control plumbing that made engines look like rhino intestines and 5.7-liter V8 Firebirds making an anemic 155 HP. But the truth is the EPA is the unsung hero of modern speed.

Yep, that EPA. The Environmental Protection Agency that President Nixon, of all people, proposed way back in 1970 and that most of us normally think of as the big wet blanket that takes all the fun out of cars. That's the conventional gearhead assessment of the EPA: sure, thanks to them the air in LA is still a transparent gas and not a gritty sky-chili, but the way they neutered our glorious, massive-engined muscle and performance cars was unforgivable.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize just how backwards we have it. Cars today are by far more powerful, more efficient, and better performing in nearly every possible metric — and a hell of a lot of why is thanks to the EPA and all those damned rules.

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Hear me out. Prior to the EPA's emissions and fuel-economy standards that came around in the early-mid '70s, there were plenty of American high-performance cars to pick from. A 1967 GTO, for example, had a 6.4L V8 that made a brawny 360 HP. After that first real generation of EPA emission and economy mandates went into effect, we ended up with cars like the 1974 GTO, which made a comparatively embarrassing 200HP from its 5.7L V8.

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Those are the sorts of results most of us think of when we think about smog-control equipment on engines. But what we have to remember is that now we live in an era where you can buy a car with an engine less than half the size of that '67 GTO that makes 5 more HP.

So, the question is, what happened? How is it that engine power and efficiency only grew gradually for so many years, and then rocketed up so dramatically in the past two decades?

The answer is the EPA.

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Think about how modern cars are able to do what they do so well: they're using a vast array of technological innovations, things like variable valve timing, direct injection, turbochargers, advanced engine control computers, lightweight materials and composites, advanced aerodynamics, electric-hybrid drive systems, advanced 8 and 9-speed automatic transmissions, and much more. Almost all of these technologies, regardless of when they were initially developed, didn't find widespread use or real development until the strict EPA regulations made their use necessary.

The EPA was like the military school a fed-up parent sends their no-good kid to to shape up. The emission and MPG standards were certainly harsh, and carmakers whined and cried like the biggest, hairiest babies you can imagine when the rules first came out. They said they weren't ready, that the cars built under these regulations would suffer, and they were right: those were the American cars of the Malaise Era.

The reason they weren't ready is that before the EPA came along, they never had any need to be efficient, really. Sure, there were occasional experiments with fuel injection (1957, Corvette) and turbocharging (1962, Corvair) but those tended to be isolated novelties. For the most part, Detroit produced cars with engine technology that barely changed since the '30s or '40s, and as long as they kept making them big enough, the general buying public never cared enough to complain.

Hell, look at automatic transmissions from the 1950s to the 1980s: in those 30 years of development, the average automatic transmission went from a two-speed to a three-speed. Three decades to basically add an overdrive. In the past 10 years, we've seen automatic transmissions double the number of gears, and have a host of other innovations that now make them more efficient than manuals, an unheard of concept back then.

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Regular car buyers didn't know direct injection from a lethal injection, and most didn't care. If it was just about money, there wouldn't have been much incentive at all to really try and push the internal combustion engine to its limits of power, efficiency, and emissions — buyers just didn't know enough to care.

But the experts at the EPA did. So the EPA applied that missing pressure, and as a result, even if it took 40 or so years, the auto industry sure as hell stepped up and made it work. And the good news is, because of the economy and efficiency and clean-air focus of the EPA's rules, the benefits are now felt all across the car spectrum.

And here's the other thing about the EPA — they believed in the American car industry during a time when no one else, even the industry themselves, did. They didn't tell the automakers how to get the MPG and emissions results they wanted (well, aside from the catalytic converter, but if you were smart, you could skip that), they just told them what they had to hit, and trusted they'd figure it out.

And they did. The 70s were hard, sure, but by the 80s they were starting to get it and performance was creeping back into cars, the 90s saw things really mature, and from the 2000s on, the results have been downright astounding.

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Car crash safety has improved dramatically as well, though the NHTSA has always taken a much more specific-and-regulation heavy approach, burdening car makers with a lot of byzantine rules for things like, say, lighting that often hold progress back. A more EPA-like approach — specify the desired end result, and let the car makers figure it out — could be much better.

Cheap, economy cars now routinely have around 150 HP and get 30+ MPG on the highway; cut those figures roughly in half and you'll have the specs of a pre-EPA economy car. And those same innovations in efficiency, designed to squeeze as much power as possible from the smallest possible engine, also work for performance cars as well. That's why we now have 1200 HP Veyrons and a new hybrid, insanely fast Koenigsegg that's a direct result of technology developed to get as many miles out of a gallon of gas as possible.

Would anyone have bothered with pursuing this kind of tech if the EPA (and the EPA's analogues in other countries) hadn't made the rules that forced car makers' hands? I don't think so — at least not to the degree we're at today in such a relatively small timetable.

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So the next time you hear something about the EPA, rethink that gut-level rage. The truth is they may be the hardest-core group of hot-rodders that we've ever known.

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(Thanks to Tom for putting this idea in my head!)