The Clean Air Car Race turns 50
In 1970, Berkeley Engineering students envisioned low-emission cars of the future
This summer, as thousands of Americans drive their lower-emission cars on the nation’s roads and highways, very few of them are aware that this month marks the 50th anniversary of a seminal event that paved the way to the invention of their vehicles.
On August 24, 1970, Berkeley’s College of Engineering students participated in the Clean Air Car Race from MIT in Boston to Caltech in Pasadena. The competition had begun in 1968 as a challenge from a Caltech student to an MIT student: Build an electric car and arrive at our campus before we can get to yours in our electric vehicle.
The following October, the competition was opened up to any college that wanted to participate the next summer. All engine types were allowed to compete: electric, steam and turbine power, as well as a few classes for vehicles with internal combustion engines — liquid-fueled, gaseous-fueled and hybrids.
The rules were simple: Each vehicle must have four wheels, accommodate at least two average-sized adults, be able to maintain a minimum speed of 45 miles per hour over level ground and — most critically — had to meet the upcoming 1975 federal emission standards.
“We proved to the world that even a bunch of college students could [meet clean air standards], using existing technology and five years before the official deadline.”
— Bak Chan
“In those days, the air pollution was terrible,” remembers Bak-Ying Chan (B.S.’70 ME, M.B.A.’79), driver for Cal’s propane team. “There was already a lot of talk about lower-emission vehicles. We wanted to prove that at least the potential existed to make cars that emitted many fewer pollutants than those coming off of Detroit’s assembly lines.”
Two four-man teams from Berkeley Engineering began working on two 1970 Plymouth Satellite sedans provided by the university’s garage: one that would be powered by propane and the other equipped with a regular combustion engine running on unleaded gas, which wasn’t yet sold at gas stations.
The project, led by professor Robert Sawyer — now the Class of 1935 professor of energy emeritus — took two academic quarters. “Propane was already a low-pollution fuel,” Sawyer explains. “The propane-powered car optimized this by introducing exhaust gas into the carburetor, which dilutes combustion and reduces nitric oxide.” The unleaded gasoline-powered car had two exhaust manifold reactors as well as synchronized air injection into the exhaust ports and exhaust gas recirculation, with a net reduction of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide.
“The most challenging part of building our car turned out to be finding the parts and getting the support of suppliers to make the changes we’d planned,” says Floyd Sam (B.S.’70 ME, M.S.’71 ME), leader of the propane team. “We had very little financial support, so donations were critical. We were then able to build the vehicle using the skills and knowledge we’d learned in college and from personal mechanical experience.”
On August 24, some 50 cars from colleges around the country began the 3,600-mile, seven-day run from Cambridge to Pasadena, making overnight stops in Toronto, Ontario; Detroit, MI; Champaign, IL; Oklahoma City, OK; Odessa, TX; and Tucson, AZ. From each team, two members rode in the race car and two in an escort car. Unleaded gas and propane were supplied along the way. In Detroit, all vehicles underwent collective testing at the Ford Motor Plant, and all the participants stayed at dorms provided by local universities.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Seeing the huge scale of this event, bringing together students from across the country, was very special.”
— Peter Venturini
The race attracted both local and national media attention, including a two-page spread in Life magazine. Hosting cities celebrated the teams with parties and receptions along the way. Chan, who had immigrated from Hong Kong, remembers being treated to a Shakespeare play and getting his first taste of buffalo steak. “The whole experience was inspiring to me,” he says. “Being a fairly new immigrant, I didn’t know a lot about autos — I didn’t even see a small car until the age of seven. But, especially in Texas, you could drive for hours, it was so huge and flat. I got the sense that this was a great country.”
Eight hours and fifteen minutes short of a full seven days, Chan was the first to cross the finish line at Caltech in the Berkeley-built, propane-powered Plymouth. After two days of emission tests conducted by the state air resources board, the overall program winner was declared from Wayne State University, a 1971 Mercury Capri run on lead-sterile gasoline.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Peter Venturini (B.S.’70 ME, M.S.’71 ME) who worked on the team that built a modified internal combustion engine run on unleaded gasoline. “Seeing the huge scale of this event, bringing together students from across the country, was very special.”
After retiring from Berkeley, Sawyer went on to chair the California Air Resources Board as a political appointee of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, helping to launch California’s Climate Change Program (AB36) and programs that promoted a transition to electric vehicles.
“The logistics of executing this whole project from start to finish tested us at every step. Rethinking what happened — what we did right and what we could have done better — never left me throughout my long career.”
— Floyd Sam
The Cal team participants — which also included Darrel Erickson, Scott MacDonald (B.S.’70 ME), Wayne Paulsen (B.S.’70 ME) and Charles Simkins B.S.’71 ME) — pursued careers across a variety of fields, but none of them ever forgot the lessons of the Clean Air Car Race. “The logistics of executing this whole project from start to finish tested us at every step,” says Sam. “Rethinking what happened — what we did right and what we could have done better — never left me throughout my long career.”
“Personally, this event was instrumental in my decision to spend my professional career addressing the adverse public health consequences of air pollution,” Venturini says. “I spent almost 35 years at the California Air Resources Board, working to reduce air pollution in California and around the world.”
The impact of what they’d achieved stuck with the entire team. “In the Clean Air Act of 1970, auto companies were suddenly required to meet certain standards by 1975,” Chan says. “The Big Three manufacturers complained that it wasn’t practical. But we proved to the world that even a bunch of college students could do it, using existing technology and five years before the official deadline.”
Now, of course, the electric vehicle has taken hold as the car of the future. Was there any inkling back then that this would be the direction of the auto industry? Chan, who was an early adopter of Tesla, says no. “There were several electric vehicles in the race, but they didn’t perform well. Their teams were allowed to start the race two hours ahead of everyone else, because the technology just wasn’t there. I’m glad it has advanced now, but we sure didn’t see it coming.”