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How automotive air conditioning went from miraculous to mundane

It was at exactly this time of year in the late 1970s when my family embarked on our longest-ever road trip from our home in New York state to visit relatives in Louisiana. We drove our Plymouth Satellite station wagon, which had the sticky summer combination of vinyl seats and no A/C. The trip took us four days, because by late afternoon my mother and my sister would be complaining so much that we’d have to stop driving and search for a motel with air conditioning and a pool ...

 

Read the full article on Hagerty.com:

https://www.hagerty.com/media/automotive-history/how-automotive-air-conditioning-went-from-miraculou...

Replies (25)

Replies (25)

And yet, most shade tree and home DIYers leave AC non functional as though it doesn't matter.  People will spend time and effort learning and fixing all sorts of systems but leave out the AC.  Some even try and make an effort to make this a bonus with 'I took off the heavy and power sapping AC' as though removing features will make an old car McLaren-like. AC is only a bit more complicated than the radiator, engine cooling and interior heating system, and yet finding an old car where it works is rare.

Pit Crew

Dad was an Oldsmobile factory service representative in the later '50s and onward. He and his fellow reps drove long hours between calls on remote dealers. GM made sure to always equip their company cars with all the bells and whistles- he drove a/c equipped cars as early as 1956. The a/c vents in these cars were hollow cast aluminum  spheres, louvered at the front, open at the back. When swiveled all the way around, the open  end of the vents would hold a can of beer perfectly. These guys would drive all day with a can of beer chilled in the passenger side vent, ready for icy consumption at the end of the day. One of the few perks of working for GM.

New Driver

While I was in the Army in the early '70's and stationed in Louisiana, one of my platoon soldiers bought a lightly used Beetle from it's elderly first owner. Unbelievably, it had A/C and it cooled and dehumidified the cabin very well. Unfortunately, when it was on, one was limited to 45 MPH in 3rd gear, even downhill. And I think the signs are still on I-15 in California near Baker saying "Steep grade. Turn off AC next 5 miles."

Intermediate Driver

You showed a photo of a Nash Rambler with AC, but failed to mention it's importance! One of the first things to come from the Nash-Kelvinator merger of 1954 (which created American Motors Corporation) was compact under-hood/dash auto air conditioning. Prior to that were the trunk mounted systems. AMC revolutionized auto AC with this system.

Intermediate Driver

Forgotten by most - the person who made automotive A/C practical was Walter P. Chrysler. And anybody else remember those huge clear plastic ducts some Cadillacs had in the rear window, leading to the A/C unit in the trunk? Or those A/M Thermador swamp coolers that you hung in the right front window? When I lived in 29 Palms in the 50's if you had a Thermador in the window and two canvas water bags hanging from the front bumper you were officially Mr. Cool. Fun fact - the AMC Ambassador came with A/C standard, yet the Ambassadors that were delivered to the US Army for staff cars had no A/C. Driving around Camp Roberts in July in one of those - not priceless, not fun.  

Detailer

My wife loves to tell the story of the time in the mid '90's when I picked up a super clean '93 Acura Integra LS at a bargain price. After I got it home I gave it the once over only to realize it had no AC! I "assumed" all Acura's had air and we know what happens when we assume!!

Pit Crew

I spec ordered a new El Camino in 1979. I chose the H code, 4bbl 305, 4 speed manual, 3.73 posi, gauge package, cassette stereo, split bench, HD cooling & charging but no AC. The salesman said "you forgot the AC but I got it..." I said NO, don't want it. His response was, "well, I'm just lookin out for ya...it won't be worth ____ when you go to trade it in with a stick and no air...". Going on a job interview one day in 1982 when it was about 98 dgreees and 75 degree dewpoint, I wished I had that AC because I showed up for the interview soaked in sweat. But...as I recall, I sold it privately for almost double what I paid for it back in 88 because of the throwback combo of options and rare 4 speed...

Passenger

My parents (Dad was indeed an engineer) owned a series of engineer-spec Plymouth station wagons to ferry mom and the our gang of 5 kids from Grand Rapids, Michigan to places mostly west and south. The 1969ish vintage Fury III wagon had air conditioning but it would be wrong to think it worked anything like today's systems. At highway speeds, it got very cold but the fan was outmatched by the size of that vehicle. Front seat passengers wore sweaters, middle seats were pretty comfortable and for us in the "way back", well, we would have been better off with the windows open. In stop and go traffic, everyone sweated, it would not have provided you much relief in the NOLA summertime.

Pit Crew

My dad as a vinyl seats, crank windows, AM radio car owner his entire life.  When I was young the family hauler was a Pontiac Catalina wagon.  We lived in the mid-west and I spent many a sweaty hour ensconced in the back of that car.

 

On a solo run back from Indiana to Wisconsin, my dad had an unfortunate accident involving a railroad crossing, barrier, and deep ditch that totaled the Catalina.  Unhurt, but carless, he purchased a used Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser at a lot next to the hotel in which he spent the night after the accident.  The Cruiser was downright luxurious, with cloth seats, power windows, and working A/C!  However, he never turn the A/C on, because it wasted gas.  The sweaty rides continued.

Intermediate Driver

Our 1957 DeSoto Firedome had A/C.

Additionally, dealers all over America were installing after market A/C units on cars where the option was not available or simply too expensive. After market units were substantially less costly and dealers sold/installed them at big mark ups.

Pit Crew

In 1978 I purchased a 1973 Pontiac Grand Am with the 400 cubic inch V8, four barrel carb, four speed manual, duel exhaust, 3.23 10 bolt positraction rear & auto temp a/c!  The automatic temperature control worked very well and was like the systems GM installed in the higher end Buick’s, Cadillac’s and Oldsmobile’s. That automatic feature had several benefits, in the summer, it would automatically go into recirculate mode and switch to fresh air when the cabin was cooled enough.  In winter, the blower would not operate until the coolant was at least 120 degrees (you didn’t want it blowing ice cold air on you or your windshield!). And in the spring or fall it would automatically adjust & blend heat & a/c for perfect comfort.  I think GM’s Harrison radiator division and ACDelco make the best HVAC for vehicles.  I have a 1995 Z28 (25 years old) that is R134A and blows ice cold.  I also have a 2004 Cadillac DeVille DTS that has 210,000 miles and the a/c has never been touched (I wish I could say that about its Northstar engine!) and the digital tri-zone (driver/passenger/rear) works flawlessly.  Even my $100 winter beaters must have fully functional air conditioning, no exceptions.

New Driver

I remember Dad taking us to Disney World for the first time in 1971-72. Driving all the way in his behemoth Buick Lesabre. (There were six of us in there.)  When he had to put the A/C on I remember him saying that the gas gauge moved like the second hand on a clock! LOL! Glad gas was cheap then! Oh and yes he had the 7.5 Liter 455.

Pit Crew

Jeep Renegade Sport can still be purchased without standard a/c

New Driver

A couple of factoids of interest:

The fastest way to spot AC in the mid 50s were that pair of space-age transparent plastic pipes leading up the edges of the rear window.  I think they were the output tubes for the trunk-based condensors.  But they were definitely status symbols.

My father (a dealer) made me more discriminate when he pointed out that my 78 320i BMW had only recirculating AC, not "fresh-air" the standard of the American industry.  I figured that out pretty quickly in my-Marlboro Man days.  But anything after those green-house 2002 BMW days was welcome.

Pit Crew

Soooo...our 66' Merc Park Lane/428 and our 69 Sedan Deville, both with excellent functioning AC are rare? The Merc still has R12 in the system. Yikes!

Intermediate Driver

Actually, Imperial started having a/c as standard equipment in 1954, not 1972, and was the first car model to have a/c as standard equipment.

Pit Crew

My dad ordered a new 1964 Skylark hardtop with A/C (and manual steering, but he was plenty strong).  I thought that it was great to cruise in the cool, showing off for my neighborhood friends, and strangers sharing the highways; I don't know if Dad felt the same or not.  Funny thing, then, that when I got older, I started rarely using the A/C in my cars, and also started driving convertibles.  I still rarely use the A/C when by myself; I just prefer the windows open.

Intermediate Driver

My wife has a 1974 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow that has an A/C system that, like everything in the UK is either under-engineered, like Lucas electrics, or totally OVER engineered, like the A/C system in the Rolls. A very expensive car to repair, when the A/C stopped working, she only drives it in cool weather. 

Pit Crew

In 1967 I worked for a Sear Auto Center.  A fair chunk of our business came from installing aftermarket air conditioning units.  

New Driver

On the days that you need it, and for defogging, AC is wonderful.

But, where they locate the evaporator so that it can't be cleaned, or easily changed out, is my gripe. Most cabin filters are before the evaporator, where they need to be to hopefully protect the evaporator and heater core. But then you, and your family, end up breathing not so nice bacteria and fungus laden vapors  (the "dirty sock" smell) from a dirty evaporator.

Does any car have an easily cleanable (and inspectable would be nice) AC evaporator?  

Passenger

I recall a co-worker back in the early 1980's insisting that he did not want air conditioning on his new Toyota (he wanted the best mileage possible IIRC).   He actually paid extra to have it removed since it was already installed.   As he was driving his prize off the lot he noticed the dealership's sign said "Free Air with each new car purchase!"    So he paid extra to have something removed that wouldn't have cost him anything.    And this was in Dothan, Alabama, where the summertime heat and humidity is suffocating.

New Driver

I just found a can of 35 year old  R-12 which I used to top off my 1988 Mustang GT.  The instant on thermometer showed 31 degrees coming out of the central register.  It is arctic cold!

New Driver

No mention of the refrigerant change (due to CFCs) that according to some sources has cost us 10 degrees of cooling in some vehicles. Ice cold AC in a 74 Monte Carlo... anything 90s plus I have been in not so much.

 

I get why the refrigerant change, just seems odd that no progress has been made on a next-gen refrigerant to get us colder again. Would be a selling feature I would think?

Detailer

I have a BMW E46 M3 CSL which fits into the lightening model. The car is available fully spec’d with air con etc to which you are then offered delete options to save weight and become more track focused. Thus they have hit on the clever strategy of charging the same price but supplying less whilst at the same time appearing to tailor the car specifically to you. If they had chosen to offer it as base with ad ons they would have made less profit and the buyer would have got a cheaper car. Marketing eh!

Pit Crew

Yes the trip from hell. 1964 Dad bought a new grand prix no a/c! We went from Encinitas, CA to Washington DC after school let out. Many stops to sight see along the way. After roasting for days we ended up in Nashville at my uncles. He had a new Electra with a/c of course so I rode with him while we were there!

New Driver