Regulating Hot Rod Emissions: Past, Present, and Future
Section by Jim McFarland
Government regulations continue to filter into the hot rod community. The purpose of this article is to provide a chronology of events helpful to understanding the current regulatory landscape and then look into the future of what enthusiasts can expect. You will become aware of the role enthusiasts can play in this process, in addition to steps that have been and are being taken by the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) on behalf of the users of their products. The material is current, precise, and intended to explain issues helpful to maintaining the future of hot rodding.
It has been approximately 40 years since the government agency that became California's Air Resources Board (CARB) first met with specialty aftermarket parts manufacturers. The agency had become aware that non-stock, emissions-related aftermarket parts were being installed on California vehicles and wanted to establish guidelines for their use. About a dozen specialty parts manufacturers attended the meeting that was convened by the agency setting "design limits" based on the most robust parts options available from the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM or new vehicle manufacturers). In other words, if an OEM offered any versions of "high performance" parts as options to stock counterparts, emissions-related specialty aftermarket parts would not be allowed to exceed the design criteria of higher performance OEM components. For example, multiple carburetors, dual exhausts, camshaft specifications and similar limits to other such aftermarket parts would be the rule.
Moving into the 1970s and '80s, enthusiasts began to see and experience the impact of OEM emissions controls. Federal emissions standards imposed on the OEM were mandated in shorter time periods and included the downsizing of piston displacements, reducing vehicle weight, redesigning engine packages, and making companion changes requiring years to accomplish. As a result, we entered the emissions "band-aid" era involving short-term modifications the OEMs could make in order to meet required standards. Air pumps, carburetors with limited adjustments, exhaust gas recirculation, catalytic converters, rear gear changes to reduce on-road engine speeds, and comparable "quick fixes" were imposed on consumers and enthusiasts, the net effect being both a real and perceived reduction in prior vehicle performance.
At the enthusiast level, emissions controls were perceived as performance-reducing components. It would be another 10 years before redesigned engine packages with computer controlled electronic fuel injection (EFI) and higher overall combustion efficiency would restore "high performance" to the OEM community while meeting even more stringent emissions and fuel economy requirements.
Even during these years, and flying somewhat under the radar, there was the need for specialty aftermarket parts manufacturers to begin adapting to new OEM technologies. Failure to do this impacted two areas in particular. One dealt with attempts to develop products with consumer value, in the face of much more daunting engineering tasks. The other was the requirement that certain emissions standards be met, because by this time both the CARB and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were aware that improperly designed emissions-related parts could take an otherwise certified vehicle out of compliance.