As with many new technology, there was a time when air conditioning in vehicles was “the newest thing,” an atypical automotive accessory. In fact, did you know that it wasn’t until 1954 that an affordable air conditioning unit could be mass-produced by the auto industry? Let’s hop into the time machine and take a cool trip down memory lane.
The first automotive AC systems came from New York City in the 1930s. The systems, as a 1933 Popular Science article puts it, were custom-installed by a third party and utilized a big compressor mounted under the floorboards, as seen in home refrigerators of the time. These early automotive air conditioning systems were pricey and, as a result, only outfitted in limousines and luxury cars.
The first company to offer AC as a factory-installed option was Packard, advertising the mechanical marvel with the tagline “Forget the heat this summer in the only air-conditioned car in the world.” As you would expect, the company’s system was primitive and, unlike the dash-mounted units of today, had its cooling coil (evaporator) mounted in the trunk, with a fan blowing cold air into the passenger’s compartment.
These early commercialized AC systems were very clunky to use. In order to turn them off, you needed to remove the drive belt from the A/C compressor, and the single on-off switch was on the fan. Worst yet, they were very expensive — purchasing a Packard with AC cost an extra $274 when the average yearly income back in those days was $1,368!
General Motors was next to follow suite with a system of their own, offering 300 Cadillacs with AC in 1941. The system was designed and worked in much the same way as Packard’s but could be operated with controls. Unfortunately, those controls were mounted on the shelf behind the rear seats, forcing the driver to climb to the back to operate the AC.
Chrysler offered air conditioning as a factory installed option in 1942. Called “Airtemp,” its system was similar to the Packard design and — some would say — better than anything on the market at the time. It ran quieter than GM’s units and had flat ducts behind the rear seat that directed cool air toward the car’s ceiling, preventing it from blowing directly at passengers like other systems did.
It wouldn’t be until 1954 that the auto industry would produce an affordable air conditioning unit. GM introduced a new system in its 1954 Pontiacs, becoming the first to offer a magnetic clutch on the compressor that cut off power when the system is not in use.
Ford’s air conditioning development is not as well documented as its Detroit rivals, but the Dearborn automaker was offering AC on many of its vehicles by the late 1950. In fact, its “Select-Aire” system was the first to direct air through the vents below the windshield.
Today, automotive AC systems are a mature, mainstay technology that can be found in over 90 percent of new vehicles sold around the world. They are usually integrated into cabin temperature control systems, efficiently working as part of the cabin’s heating system. On the majority of automobiles, you can set a desired temperature for the cabin and the system will act accordingly by either turning on the AC or the heater depending on the temperature outside.
We would like to thank the Service Management team at Reedman Toll Auto World in Langhorne, PA for their help with this article. Reedman-Toll sells Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep RAM, FIAT, Chevrolet and Subaru vehicles.