Volkswagen's History Of Emissions Deception Dates Back To The 1960s

We’re still in the throes of Dieselgate, that smoky, messy tale of Volkswagen’s disturbingly clever gaming of the EPA’s testing and emission regulations. But it’s not Volkswagen’s first time playing fast and loose with claims about emission controls, as we learn in two examples from the 1960s and ‘70s.

Safer Motoring was an independent British Volkswagen-enthusiasts magazine, and I happened to get ahold of a copy while in VW’s Autostadt Museum. The May 1967 issue I found happened to have the following article in it:


It’s a strangely prescient article discussing the difficulties of selling cars in America, with particular emphasis on the United States’ increasingly strict emissions-control laws.

While the major American companies were struggling to build complex, expensive systems to clean up their exhaust, Volkswagen seemed to have a different plan, saying:

Holy crap — perfected? That’s pretty amazing. I mean, it’s one thing to have some good ideas, but perfecting a smog-control device? That’s huge.

Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem to agree with VW’s bold statement there, with VW’s closest major emissions improvement was probably adding a filtered fuel expansion tank in 1971, and an EGR valve system to the Beetle in 1972. Both are decent, important tools to help reduce emissions, but neither is even close to being a “perfected” device.


Even more prescient of VW’s current situation, the trade-offs of smog-control devices are made clear in this little article as well:

“Motorists owning cars with this equipment complain about poor performance and fuel consumption. This is said to be especially noticeable among small cars such as the Volkswagen.


Both of those things — poor performance and fuel consumption — are the exact things VW was trying to avoid, at the expense of more pollution, with their EPA-cheating ECU ‘defeat device.’

And speaking of ‘defeat devices,’ all this Dieselgate madness has another, even more direct precedent, from 1973. Back in 1973, the EPA’s emissions regulations were still fairly new, and most automakers were having trouble meeting these new requirements, and getting a little desperate.


Chrysler, for example, got called out by the EPA for using defeat devices in their cars, and so did Volkswagen. In fact, VW had to pay a $120,000 fine to settle with the EPA. This has been mentioned before by other sites, but so far I hadn’t been able to figure out exactly which Volkswagens were fitted with the devices.


The devices were both temperature-controlled. At low temperatures, one device disabled “an emission control system” and another “modifies the fuel-air ratio in the carburetor.”

So, what cars were these on? My first guess would that these sorts of devices would have to be on VW’s new water-cooled cars, the Passat (Dasher here) or Golf (in America, Rabbit). I knew it wasn’t on a Beetle or Ghia — I know my own ‘73 Beetle, and it only had an EGR valve and fuel expansion canister to handle emissions. It’s not a Type III, which was fuel injected. So what was it?


Well, according to this article’s somewhat oblique description:


So, look at that:

“bus-like panel trucks, station wagons, combination vehicles, and campmobiles.”

Those are all models that refer to the VW Type II, maybe better known as the Microbus. VW called their windows-and-seats bus a ‘station wagon’ for years, and ‘combination vehicles’ or ‘Kombis’ are well-known bus types as well. These buses had just started using the Volkswagen Type 4’s new more advanced air-cooled flat-four. I’m still puzzled why the Type 4 line itself wasn’t included in the list of affected cars.


I bet VW wishes they’d made that ‘perfected’ smog device after all.

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