A week ago, stories flooding the media recalled the days of the First Energy Crisis, which began on October 16, 1973, because of the Arab Oil Embargo. These stories often enlarged upon the current positive belief that America is finally on its way to real energy independence. But, sadly for readers, far too many of those columns confused or omitted hard facts from that period. Others ignored the factual realities of today’s energy picture, thereby distorting where we really stand as a country critically dependent on refined fuels.Let the Reader “Fact-check”What I found most shocking was that, in discussing how the First Energy Crisis changed the auto industry’s landscape forever, the Automotive News — the bible of the auto industry — got so many things wrong.Among the things Automotive News highlighted as major changes that the 1973 oil embargo caused to the auto industry was the “ruined reputations” of Detroit; the paper blamed the rush to market of Detroit’s poorly executed small cars, “such as the Cadillac Cimarron and the Lincoln Versailles.” In reality, years before the oil embargo GM and Ford had introduced their Vega and Pinto; and these cars had inflicted grave damage on Detroit’s reputation long before the Arabs shut off the oil spigots. The Cadillac Cimarron came out after the Second Energy Crisis, which was triggered by the Iranian Revolution in 1979.Then the paper blamed the First Energy Crisis for the rise of pickup trucks and SUV sales, a fad that didn’t go into overdrive until the 1990s. The Automotive News asserted that, as automakers made cars smaller and smaller to accommodate the CAFE fuel economy standards, this forced families into these larger, but far less fuel-efficient vehicles. Really? Probably not. As early as 1985 the Chevy Suburban was named the National Car of Texas. But in that year GM, Ford and Chrysler all still built full-sized station wagons, and the big hit of that period was actually Chrysler’s new minivan. Moreover, while the SUV craze was already gearing up in the early 80s, with vehicles such as the Chevy S-10 Blazer, that vehicle was nowhere near as roomy or functional as a full-sized sedan of that period. Then the article blamed the First Oil Embargo for leading to the death of “muscle cars” as auto companies struggled to meet new fuel economy standards; but there isn’t any truth in that, either. The Clean Air Act of 1970 laid out very stringent rules and deadlines for lowering the emissions output of the nation’s automotive fleet. It was that law that led to the de-tuning of vehicles’ engines — combined with mandatory new smog-controlling equipment, starting in 1973 — that ended the first era of muscle cars in America. In fact, the muscle car was killed and buried by federal legislation fully three years before the oil embargo.The Automotive News wasn’t the only outlet to completely blow the facts of what was happening in 1973. The International Business News claimed that “the 1976 Chrysler Cordoba was rated 11 mpg and even that was low for the midsized segment by mid-70s standards.” In fact, the official rating for the Cordoba’s mileage was 12 mpg highway; and, in an August 1976 test, Motor Trend coaxed 16.2 miles per gallon out of Chrysler’s new “lean burn” V-8. As for IBT’s contention that the Cordoba’s rated mileage was low for that period, the Oldsmobile Cutlass with a 350 V-8 was rated about the same at 12.9 mpg highway.Unintended Memory Loss?Untold publications, even Time, reran photos of lines of automobiles at gas stations, suggesting that this was a direct result of the oil embargo. But in fact, long lines of motorists waiting to refuel had not been uncommon in America for nearly a year before the Arabs decided to punish nations that supported Israel in its 1973 war. Those gas station lines had actually started forming in late 1972 and were already nationwide by the summer of 1973 — and the cause of that problem was the Nixon Administration’s price controls. One of those government-mandated prices existed for old oil, or oil already discovered and being pumped; new oil was allowed to bring a higher price on the market. Price controls were intended to foster more oil exploration, but it was their unintended consequences we felt: Seeing the price disparity, many oilmen and companies simply shut down their old wells. That alone led to shortages of gasoline, hence the long lines at gas stations that had nothing to do with the embargo. In fact, the correct story was on the nightly news long before our imported oil stopped coming.More and LessOne publication did simply lay out known and verifiable facts, so the reader could determine whether we are better off today than in the summer of 1973, and that was USA Today. The downside? In 1973 the U.S. had 35 billion barrels of known oil reserves, as compared to 26.5 billion in 2012. Our oil production in 1973 was 9.21 million barrels per day, as compared to 6.49 million barrels last year. Our imports of oil in 1973 totaled a meager 3.24 million barrels per day, but that figure had grown to 8.53 million barrels per day in 2012 — and this after four decades of plans to make us energy independent. Gasoline averaged 36 cents per gallon 40 years ago, $3.62 a gallon last year.But there was one truly incredible and extremely positive statistic in that series of numbers comparing 40 years of energy in America, and it’s the most shocking figure of all: We’re using only 1.1 million barrels of oil per day more than we did forty years ago, despite our population growth. This leads us to an inescapable conclusion: To become truly energy independent, it’s not just how much more energy we can find and exploit, it’s equally how much less energy we can use per person. Leaner and MeanerIt was the auto companies — albeit with a great deal of pressure from the federal government — that found ways to make our cars far less polluting over the past 40 years, at the same time more than doubling the national automotive fleet’s fuel efficiency. Automotive engineers, from Detroit to Tokyo and on to Germany, are the unsung heroes behind the technology gains that allowed these achievements. Today most four-cylinder engines have as much horsepower or more than our old V-8 engines of the mid-70s did, and they get triple the mileage. As for acceleration? That previously mentioned 1976 Chrysler Cordoba V-8 took almost 9.3 seconds to go 0 to 60 in its speed tests. That was a painfully long time to enter a freeway, yet no one complained. Today a Honda Accord with a V-6 can manage the same feat in just 5.6 seconds, while Car & Driver showed that the Accord’s four-cylinder version could do the same in just 6.6 seconds.I was truly disappointed to see how many publications got the First Energy Crisis wrong, just as disappointed as I was to see overstated how far people believe we’ve come in new energy production. But on balance, the best story is the automotive engineering advances that have given us breathtaking acceleration with half the cylinders we needed 40 years ago and far superior fuel efficiency. That would have happened with or without the First Energy Crisis — but, if the government hadn’t forced it on us, maybe nowhere near as fast. © Ed Wallace 2013
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: email@example.com, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.