Wayne State College of Engineering’s Clean Air Car Race team won the competition with a modified 1971 Mercury Capri dubbed Caprang, for the combination Capri body and Mustang V8 engine. The car introduced an emission control system design now in production in virtually every gas-powered car sold in the United States.
Photo courtesy of Wayne State University

In 1970, as the Clean Air Act established the first federal regulations on car and industry emissions, students and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Caltech organized the Clean Air Car Race – a 3,600 mile marathon from MIT to Caltech – while meeting stringent emissions standards.

“It was an untidy operation that took a heck of a lot of managing,” recalls MIT mechanical engineering professor John Heywood. “It amazed me just how talented and motivated the young people were who organized the race.”

In 1968, MIT and Caltech held an electric car race with MIT’s car heading west toward California, and Caltech’s car heading east. MIT’s car broke down in Arizona, allowing Caltech to win.

Students began to talk of a rematch, and Robert McGregor, the only graduate student, became the de facto leader and was named organizing committee chair for what became the Clean Air Car Race.

The race, open to any college, quickly gained the attention of the National Air Pollution Control Administration, the EPA’s predecessor.

“The federal government was very interested in supporting these upstart students who wanted to show the auto industry that we could actually build a vehicle with the emission controls that could achieve the future standards,” McGregor says.

General Motors provided teams with vehicles to modify for the race or as transports. Ford Motor Co. loaned its mobile laboratory to test emissions in Cambridge and Pasadena.

About 50 universities and a few high schools entered. Most vehicles were modified internal combustion engine cars, but some teams fielded electric vehicles (EVs) powered by massive batteries, hybrid propulsion, and one powered by a gas turbine.

Most entrants crossed the finish line. MIT’s gas turbine car melted the finish line banner with a blast of hot gas. Detroit’s Wayne State University won with a gasoline-engine car that used a tightly controlled fuel-injection system.

“Having a bunch of college kids do something seemingly of their own initiative and trying new creative things really helped show Detroit the way,” Heywood says.

Race participants testified before Congress and state legislatures, explaining that emissions rules were feasible.

Fifty years later, McGregor says the race’s competitive engineering model is still galvanizing young students into action. Student competitive race programs have advanced solar-powered cars, EVs, and more fuel-efficient gasoline-powered cars.

Caltech https://www.caltech.edu

Massachusetts Institute of Technology http://web.mit.edu