Honda Smacks Down the American Car Industry

American Car Industry

This is a story of engineering hubris and determination. It’s a reminder that a key defining characteristic of any company is not its size but its ability to innovate and persist.  Here’s the story.

It started in 1970:

In 1970, Congress passed the United States Clean Air Act. In discussions for over a year, the act decreed that by 1975 all vehicles sold in the US must cut their emissions by an astounding 75%. Not only that, another part of the act required the phasing out of fuel which contained tetraethyllead, an important engine anti-knock agent. Needless to say, the car companies that made US automobiles were shaken up. Their immediate concerns were that this would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the timeframe allotted.

First it was cats:

A catalytic converter is an emissions control device that converts toxic pollutants in engine exhaust gas into less toxic forms by catalyzing a “redox reaction” (an oxidation and a reduction reaction).  Today there are two types of catalytic convertors. “Two way” convertors combine carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons to produce harmless carbon dioxide and water. Today, the service department at Patrick of Schaumburg, a local Hyundai dealer in Schaumburg, IL, tells us that all the cars today have “Three way” convertors.  These convertors do what the two way convertors do but also reduce toxic oxides of nitrogen.  The installation of catalytic convertors in the exhaust pipes of cars was a way to meet the stringent 1975 standards demanded by the Clean Air Act.

They aren’t perfect, though:

While a solution to the problem was exciting, there were downsides. First, early catalytic convertors used rare metals and they were very expensive to make. Another consideration is that they restrict the free flow of exhaust, which negatively affects vehicle performance and fuel economy. Another issue was safety. Because early cars’ carburetors were incapable of precise fuel-air mixture control, catalytic converters could easily overheat and ignite flammable materials under the car. Despite these disadvantages, the American car industry ramped up to install catalytic convertors on all their 1975 car models.

Across the ocean:

Soichiro Honda had a different approach. For those of you unfamiliar with the gentleman, Soichiro Honda was an amazingly gifted engineer and a very determined man. This was a fellow, who working in a wooden shack behind his house, started making add-on engines for bicycles in Japan pre-WW II. In just a few decades Honda was one of the biggest motorcycle and automobile manufacturers in the world.

Soichiro Honda was convinced that he could reduce the pollutants that were exhausted from internal combustion engines by burning the air-fuel mixture more completely. To achieve this, he designed a “Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion” engine (CVCC). It is essentially an engine design that uses pre-chambers with spark plugs to ignite a richer fuel mixture which then propagates to the leaner mixture in the combustion chamber in the cylinder. A brilliant idea.

The result:

While many American built cars were outfitted with expensive, power-robbing catalytic convertors by 1975, Hondas imported into the United States were “cat-free.” The lesson here is simple. Sometimes a refusal to accept what the experts deem as truth can lead to ground breaking innovation. Always keep your mind open to new ideas.