Curbside Classic: 1967 Buick Electra 225 • Lowered NOx

This is a 1967 Buick Electra 225. It appears to be substantially original in all but three respects—two of which are obvious, and the third is interesting. The wheels look to me like some kind of aftermarket item; perhaps someone here can peg ’em.

Hydramatic, power locks, power windows…

…and power brocade that reminds me of similar upholstery in grandma’s ’71 Calais . All this looks very much as built.

One-two-three-four Ventiports! From corner angles like this, the reflection makes the car appear to have three headlamps on the far side.

Tailfins and fender skirts and a full-width tail light, baybay.

Was this one of the cars with the fuel fillpipe hidden behind the low-mounted licence plate, so you had to stoop down to fill it up? I guess it must be; I don’t see a cap or flap anywhere else. An enduring childhood memory: gasoline geysers gushing from ’60s-’70s GM cars. Let the fuel cap be missing or faulty, and gasoline cascaded out every time the driver accelerated. I don’t even want to think about the crashworthiness of this design. It was a dumb location even without a bum or absent cap (or a crash); who the hell wants to get down on the ground just to fill up the goddamn tank? Maybe it was an embodiment of Who cares? Self-serve is for losers, but gas station attendants are people with knees, too. Stylists sometimes need a NO! and a whack upside the snout with a rolled-up newspaper.

Undented, undinged, unrusted. That downswooping side trim goes well with the upswooping beltline, to my eye. Ordinarily I don’t like upswept beltlines—’70s Fords were particularly grotesque in that respect, amongst others—but this one’s okeh by me.

Hot diggity details!

I have a hard time with this car’s drastic lowering. It’s not my car, so my vote doesn’t count and my opinion doesn’t matter. On the other hand, oof. I slammed my car’s suspension so it works less! Much worse functionality and if I’m being charitable, it doesn’t look better. It’s hosey.

And now I’ve got the get-the-hell-offa-my-lawn part out the way, let’s move on to the third deviation. It’s not at all obvious. The only hints are this little decal on the rear bumper…

…and this one on the probably-original windshield:

California’s air was severely toxic in the early 1970s, largely on account of dirty-running cars + sunshine + temperature inversions, so that was the first jurisdiction in the world to begin controlling how much filth automobiles could put out. They took a first whack at hydrocarbon emissions by requiring positive crankcase ventilation on new cars starting in 1961, then in ’66 began enforcing tailpipe emission limits on unburnt hydrocarbons (HC) and carbon monoxide (CO). Automakers met these limits with leaner mixtures and hotter thermostats, but these measures increased the output of nitrogen oxides (NOx)—another direct precursor of photochemical smog—so starting in 1973 they began requiring 1966-’70 models to be retrofitted with a state-approved NOx emission control device, and ’55-’65 models with devices to reduce HC and NOx.

The idea behind the law wasn’t bad, necessarily, but the implementation was a trainwreck. There were a few different kinds of devices put on the market, generally in two categories: exhaust gas recirculation, and vacuum spark advance modification. Both of these are valid strategies for reducing NOx, but even the automakers, with their massive resources, had to hike steep learning curves to figure out how to make them work without demolishing driveability and fuel economy.

California’s law didn’t say anything about fuel economy or driveability, it just said the cars had to have a device installed. To avoid creating a monopoly, the law was designed not to go into effect until a certain number of different retrofit devices from different makers were accredited. So instead of a monopoly, they wound up creating a mad-dash race to the bottom. A company (if we can call it that; maybe just a guy with a warehouse, desk, and post box) called “Air Quality Products” fielded what wound up being the cheapest and most commonly installed device, called the Kar-Kit.

The Kar-Kit kontained two rubber vakuum nipple kaps, a few dekals, and an owner’s information booklet. There was also a vakuum kap specifikation chart informing that the Kar-Kit kame with kaps made of EPDM kompound (shore 60 hardness). Kind of the kompany to kough up this krucial information for konsumers.

Installation konsisted of removing the vakuum advance hose, krushing the karburetor and distributor nipples with pliers (some installers skipped that), installing the kaps on the nipples, retarding the basik ignition timing, and applying dekals under the hood and on the dashboard.

The dashboard dekal—sorry, this is the best I kould find, and I’m not spending $25 for the eBay kit just to get a virgin dekal—warned against driving the kar over 60 mph for prolonged periods.

The underhood dekals advised new ignition timing settings.

The law did not get into piddling trivialities of makes, models, or motors. Neither did the Kar-Kit (except “Do not install on Volkswagen or Porsche”). AQP were able to kome up with universal ignition timing specifikations for all kars in just three lines like this using the simple yet powerful tekhnique of pulling them out of –thin air– thick smog. The same tekhnique was employed in devising that 60-mph figure on the dashboard.

Needless to say, the Kit made the kar run like krap. Kredit where it’s due; some amount of the NOx and HC reduktion was a direkt konsequence of installing the kit. But it’s a fairly sturdy bet a large chunk of the effekt was more of an indirect konsequence; a kar that kouldn’t stay running didn’t pollute so much! Bogus claims (“…without adverse driveability effects…”) in bogus patents aren’t a new phenomenon.

The California Highway Patrol randomly pulled people over to check the NOx device was in place and untampered-with, and to see if the driver had registered the car in an adjoining state despite really living in California. It didn’t take a lot of years for the state to reallocate funds away from the roadside checks and stop requiring new retrofits, but it took many years for them to allow existing retrofits to be retro-unfitted. For quite awhile, California owners of ’66-’70 models grew adept at a yearly ritual of installing the widget, getting the car smogged (that’s Californian for “passing the emissions test”) and then removing the widget for another 364-day period.

I couldn’t tell whether it was a Kar-Kit or some other device this Buick was retrofitted with, nor whether whatever which widget is stil present—this regulatory spasm isn’t well remembered in California, and was always little-known elsewhere, so it’s entirely possible a low-miles California car bought away might still have its hobble installed.

Here (PDF) is more detailed information on the nuts and bolts of the retrofit program.

It’s tempting, from the luxurious position of breathing today’s remarkably clean air, to roll our eyes (which don’t sting) and sigh (which we can do because it doesn’t feel like there’s a belt around our lungs) and bleat about burdensome nanny-state big-government overreach ruining people’s cars and otherwise like that. But California’s air, or what passed for it back then, really was that bad. They had to do something, and they were working from the same substantial ignorance as everyone else in those early days of the science. The solution they came up with was far from optimal, but it was a start; it bought a sliver of reprieve—and every last sliver was desperately needed.