President Ronald Reagan was never known as a car guy. But like a cowboy who gives his horse its head, the Reagan administration cut many of the regulatory ropes that had restrained - some say strangled - the auto industry.
His administration also eliminated much of the animosity and antagonism that had marked the industry's relationship with regulators.
Remember that the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were created in 1970 during the Nixon administration, although NHTSA's function dates to 1966 when the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. And the oil embargo that started in 1973 got the Ford administration fired up about fuel economy, creating Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.
But it was the Carter administration that really took things seriously. The result was four years of hard-charging regulatory action.
Joan Claybrook took the helm at NHTSA in 1977. Automakers were horrified because her view was that it was easier and more efficient to regulate 20 automakers than 200 million citizens.
Claybrook, who was dubbed the Dragon Lady by some auto execs, reinstated a passive restraint rule that required equipment to protect drivers who weren't smart enough to wear seat belts. She also required automakers to install bumpers that wouldn't be damaged in 5-mph crashes and cranked up CAFE standards.
Automakers - mostly General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. - howled that it cost too much to comply with the various safety, fuel economy and emissions standards or that they didn't have enough time to develop the technology needed to meet most of them. But many skeptics suggested it was as much a cost issue as anything else.
When President Reagan got to town in 1981, he ordered a full-scale review of federal regulations affecting U.S. industry, including the auto business. He wanted to determine if regulations were cost effective and if they did what they were supposed to do. He promised deregulation.
That was a big boost to morale in Detroit. So was the Reagan economic plan, which included tax cuts and other stimuli to increase sales.
Reagan's regulatory task force found 34 regulations affecting the auto industry that the administration would kill, modify or delay - 17 at NHTSA and 17 at EPA. NHTSA's budget was cut in half. Bumper standards and passive restraints were delayed. CAFE was lowered.
The Big 3 didn't get everything they wanted.
For example, efforts to rollback tailpipe emissions failed in Congress. And Reagan refused to impose import quotas on Japanese automakers at a time when they were gobbling up market share. Instead, the administration backed a system of voluntary restraints by Japanese makers, which did little to change the long-term shift in market share.
Ultimately, Diane Steed, who headed NHTSA from 1983 to 1989, came up with a compromise on passive-restraint requirements after the Supreme Court ruled that her predecessor should not have whacked them.
But the biggest thing that the Reagan administration did on safety was to shift some of the attention away from the vehicle and to the driver. That included initiatives to increase seat belt usage and eliminate drunken driving.
It was a more balanced approach to improving highway safety that evolved into a broader focus on crash avoidance, not just protecting people in a crash.
Most significantly, Reagan's approach was that government and industry didn't need to hate each other or act as if they did.
Many consumer activists, plaintiffs' attorneys, environmentalists and safety advocates say his administration was too friendly to industry. But considering the sad state of the economy and the auto industry when Ronald Reagan took office, his approached worked just fine.