Today, we take air conditioning (AC) in automobiles for granted because the systems are on virtually every car on the road. However, there was a time when air conditioning in cars was “the newest thing” and an unusual automotive accessory. Let’s hop in the way back machine and take a look.
The first automotive AC systems came out of New York City in the early 1930s. According to a 1933 Popular Science article, these systems were custom installed by a third party. They utilized a large compressor mounted under the floor boards that was similar to those found in home refrigerators. These early automotive air conditioning systems were expensive and they were only outfitted in luxury cars and limousines.
Packard was the first company to offer AC as a factory-installed option. They advertised this mechanical marvel by stating “Forget the heat this summer in the only air-conditioned car in the world.” Unlike the dash mounted units today, the cooling coil (evaporator) was located in the trunk with a fan blowing cold air into the passenger compartment. In order to turn the system off, you have to remove the drive belt from the A/C compressor. The only on-off switch was on the fan. One of the major issues that slowed adoption of AC at this time was simply cost. To purchase a Packard with AC cost an additional $274 at a time when the average yearly income is $1,368.
General Motors was next. In 1941 Cadillac produced approximately 300 cars with AC, which like the Packard, was located in the trunk. These systems also had no compressor clutch so the only control was by shutting the fan on and off. Cadillac improved on this after World War II by developing controls. The only drawback to this “improved” system was that the driver had to climb into the back seat to operate it, as the controls were mounted on the shelf behind the rear seat.
Lakeland Chrysler of Greenville, PA, a full-service Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer, says Chrysler offered air conditioning as a factory installed option in 1942. Called “Airtemp,” it was similar to the Packard design and three 1942 DeSotos with this system are still known to exist today. Some considered the Chrysler “Airtemp” system a better design because it ran quieter and unlike the GM system, it had flat ducts located behind the rear seat that directed cool air toward the ceiling of the car. This preventing the air from blowing directly at passengers like the other systems did.
It wouldn’t be until 1954 that an affordable air conditioning unit could be mass produced by the auto industry. GM first equipped its 1954 Pontiacs with this new system. It was the first to offer a magnetic clutch on the compressor, so when it was not in use, no power was needed.
Not much has been documented about Ford’s air conditioning development, but by 1956 AC was offered on most Ford models. Ford’s “Select-Aire” system was the first that directed air through the vents just below the windshield. Ford also offered a dealer-installed air conditioner called Polar-Aire which was a stand-alone hang-on unit.
Today, automotive AC systems are a mature technology and are installed on 95% of the cars sold in the United States. They are usually integrated into cabin temperature control systems so that they work with the cabin heating system. On many automobiles, one can set the temperature one desires the cabin to be at and the system either turns on the AC or the heater depending on the outside temperature.