Saturday, August 2, 2008
History of Auto Air Conditioning
As the "Dog Days Of Summer" approach my area of the world, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I can't help but appreciate the comfort and convenience of air conditioning...especially in my car. That got me to thinking as to when auto air conditioning first made its appearance.
I found that the first car with an air conditioning system was the 1939 Packard. It consisted of a large evaporator, called a cooling coil which took up the entire trunk. The only control was a blower switch. Packard advertised this mechanical marvel by stating "Forget the heat this summer in the only air-conditioned car in the world."
In 1941 the Cadillac division of General Motors produced approximately 300 cars with air conditioning, which like the Packard, was located in the trunk. The big drawback with Cadillac's air conditioning system was that there was no compressor clutch, which meant the the air conditioning pump would be on whenever the engine was running. To alleviate this, the car's owner had to go under the hood and remove the compressor belt...very inconvenient. Cadillac improved a bit on this after World War II by developing air conditioning controls. The only draw back to this "improved" system was that the Cadillac owner had to climb into the back seat to operate it as the controls were mounted on the shelf behind the rear seat.
Chrysler offered air conditioning, on a limited basis in 1942. It was similar to the Packard design and three 1942 DeSotos with this system are still known to exist. Chrysler made it's "Airtemp" air conditioning system available for it's luxury cars starting in 1953.
It wouldn't be until 1954 that an efficient and affordable air conditioning unit could be mass produced for the auto industry. Credit for that goes to the Harrison Radiator Division of General Motors.
GM first equipped it's 1954 Pontiacs with this new system which used a magnetic clutch, so when it was not in use, no power was needed to drive the compressor. This improved performance and fuel economy...no delving under the hood or into the back seat with this system.
It was noted by some however, that the Chrysler "Airtemp" system was a better design because it ran quieter and unlike the GM system which had plastic air distribution tubes mounted on the shelf behind the rear seat, Chrysler's system had small, flat ducts located behind the rear seat that directed cool air toward the ceiling of the car, preventing the air from blowing directly at passengers. By 1955 Chrysler's "Airtemp" system was available on all it's car models.
Not much has been written about Ford's air conditioning attempts, but by 1956 air conditioning was offered on most Ford models. Ford's Select-Aire was a factory installed system and early models directed air through the vents just below the windshield. In 1958 Ford's air conditioning system was redesigned and cooled air was now rerouted through vents below the dashboard. Ford also offered a dealer installed air conditioner called Polar-Aire which was a stand-alone hang-on unit.
As comfortable as air conditioning was, it wasn't a frequently ordered accessory until the late 70's, when it became the reliable and efficient system we are familiar with today. It is estimated the 90% of cars manufactured today have air conditioning.