Fifty years ago, the Clean Car Race from Massachusetts to California wasn’t supposed to include Canada at all.
“It was supposed to go through Cleveland originally,” says Douglas Venn, 73. “A guy with a battery company decided to change it to Toronto so he could make it an international race and get his batteries known in Canada too.”
The 3,600-mile (5793-kilometre) race from MIT in Boston to CalTech in Pasadena, Calif. in August 1970 was a competition between universities to see who could make the best time in a low-emissions car.
One winner would be chosen from the best cars in five categories: modified traditional internal-combustion engines, hybrid electrics, pure electrics, steam engines and gas turbines. The cars had to be built by students.
"Pollution was the buzzword of the day," says Venn, who was a 23-year-old University of Toronto engineering student interested in steam-powered cars when he heard about the race. "As news of the race spread, there were more than 40 entrants from, I think, 35 universities."
Sparked by government rules
To qualify, cars had to meet or beat the U.S. government’s upcoming pollution-emissions standards, which required cars to cut tailpipe emissions by 90 per cent by 1975. At the time, car companies said the target was impossible to reach in just five years.
There were two Canadian entries - from the U of T and St. Clair College in Windsor. In January 1970, Venn asked a professor if the U of T could build a car for the race, which would run from August 24-30. Venn had hoped for a steam engine, but the team convinced him that one couldn’t be built in time. Instead, in just seven months, a team of engineering students built a natural-gas-and-electric hybrid with gull-wing doors and tail lights shaped like Canadian flags.
They faced fierce competition. Sensing a PR opportunity, oil, gas and car companies donated cars, provided financial support and helped heavily with some student entries.
“Lee Iacocca was with Ford then, and he wanted to prove that the standard internal combustion engine was all you needed,” Venn says. “So when the race said it was open to students only, he got two of his full-time carburetor engineers enrolled at Wayne State University – where they built a very sophisticated fibreglass-body Capri that ran on unleaded.”
Popularity for Miss Purity
Unlike some other school teams, which used modified production cars for the race, the U of T team built their entry, named Miss Purity, nearly from scratch.
“Nobody at the U of T was into car design, but I had a cousin who was a student at OCAD who was very good at it, and he came up with the shape,” Venn says. “We bought a totalled three-month-old Chevy Chevelle for a song, and we stripped it down and took the parts that we needed.”
The team stripped down a Chevy V8 engine from a different car so it would run on propane. For extra power, the electric motor kicked in. Regenerative brakes recharged the ten 12-volt batteries hidden under the side body panels, which opened to add water to the batteries as needed.
“If we really wanted to, we could shut off the propane engine and drive all-electric, which we did a few times,” Venn says. When the engine wasn’t running, there was no power steering, “so you had to have really strong arms,” Venn says.
To pay for it, two university foundations chipped in. The team also reached out to companies who provided everything from the tires to the fibreglass.
General Motors provided $3,000, a van and a Chevelle station wagon to use as chase cars.
The race itself was met with international press coverage – and the unique Canadian car often got mentioned.
“There was a big banquet at the start at MIT, and we were asked to deliver the invitations to the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts in our car,” Venn says. “It was interesting that they asked the Canadians.”
As the cars took off for Toronto, the New York Times ran a wire story with the headline “42 Cars in Antipollution Race Are Off to Clean Start.”
In Toronto, the entrants paraded down University Avenue and stopped at City Hall.
"It was unbelievable – there were thousands of people," Venn says. "The Ontario government was superb – at this time vanity licence plates didn't exist yet, but they gave us special plates that said UT1."
The first charging network?
While Miss Purity didn’t need to plug in to charge, the two pure electric cars did, For them, there were charging stations set up every 97 km along the route, including the stretch in Ontario.
For Miss Purity, the drive was relatively smooth, Venn says. Well, except for when the engine threw a rod outside St. Louis.
“All of a sudden, our dream was shattered,” Venn says. “But [we] towed it with the Chevelle to a Chevy dealership and pleaded for help. The guy said no problem and gave us a bay for the day – we had to take out the whole engine and the transmission.”
They missed two legs of the race but caught up with the rest of the race in Odessa, Texas.
“We got to Odessa around midnight, and they were having this big party – everyone was surprised that we’d kept going,” Venn says.
While the Canadian car wasn’t the winner, the Environmental Protection Agency showcased it at the first international clean-air congress in Washington D.C. in November 1970.
“We took the car in a big box van, and they wined us and dined us while the car sat out on this big stage,” Venn says. “GM wasn’t happy because they wanted their electric car to get all the attention.”
The rebirth of Miss Purity?
After the race, Venn and his teammates went on to build an electric car.
“We thought we’d go into business, but we didn’t have the deep pockets that Elon Musk eventually had,” Venn says. “We built a couple of them, ran out of money, and then I had to get a real job.
A year or two after the race, Miss Purity was sold to the National Research Council in Ottawa for a dollar, Venn says. A couple of years back, some of the original engineers started looking for the car. They found it under a tarp in an Ottawa yard and have been restoring it since.
They'd hoped to be done this summer. Now, because of COVID-19, Venn doesn't think the car will be ready until at least next summer.
So why bring it back? It's a small part of Canadian history, Venn says, For a brief time 50 years ago, the car, the race and the need to protect the environment all got a lot of attention.
"For a few months, we were talking about public responsibility," Venn says.
In 2020, does the car hold any lessons for the future ahead of us? It should remind us that we've long been capable of solving problems that still keep greener cars off the road. Technology isn't what's holding us back.
“I think we’ll ultimately become electric, but we still have limits right now – things like having enough chargers for everyone to use,” Venn says. “So I think hybrids are going to keep being a good bridge so people can transition.”
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