The earliest motor vehicles may have revolutionized family and individual travel, but comfort was not exactly a priority. No windows meant cool rides in the summertime if your vehicle was capable of the 15mph top speed, but you’d better bundle up in the wintertime. Then, when automakers started closing up cabs, things got really heated. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. And as car ownership increased, so too did the need to keep one’s cool behind the wheel.
Initial attempts at keeping closed-cab vehicles cool involved placing vents in car floorboards. But this just sucked more dirt and dust than cool air into the car. So, carmakers took a cue from one William Whiteley. Back in 1884, Whiteley had experimented with cooling horse carriages by placing blocks of ice in a holder beneath the carriages and blowing air inside via a fan attached to the carriage’s axle. Automakers tried a similar approach with a bucket placed near a floor vent.
That worked for a while, but real progress came with the 1939 Packard. Nash Motors (later American Motors) had just developed the first actual automotive refrigeration system using a large evaporator / cooling coil that took up the entire trunk space, and Packard made it an option in 84 of its cars produced that year, for an extra $274. The next year, car air conditioners (better known then as Weather Eyes or weather conditioners) were available factory-installed.
But the new luxury feature actually lacked a luxury or two, as the only control was a single blower switch and it had no thermostat. Nor was there a compressor clutch, so the pump remained on as long as the engine was running. Shutting the air conditioning system off meant popping the hood and removing the belt. The next big thing in auto AC came with the end of World War II, when Cadillac touted its new high-tech model with controls mounted on the rear package shelf. Of course, that meant a climb into the back seat, but progress is progress.
By 1941, the love affair was over and it would be another decade before air conditioning show up in production cars again in 1953. The Chrysler Imperial’s Airtemp was the top AC model, with a single low-medium-high, dashboard-mounted switch.
Still, air conditioning in cars wasn’t widely used until the 1970s, by which time multiple advances had made auto ACs more efficient, user-friendly and mass-producible. In fact, a 1971 New York Times front page story declared air conditioners a death knell for the convertible: “In the age of air-conditioning, real air has lost its value.”
We here at E3 Spark Plugs think that’s a bit of a stretch. Based in sunny Florida, we love our ACs and wouldn’t dare buy a car without one – especially in August, National Air Conditioning Appreciation Month. But we also love to drop the top on a well-kept classic convertible and feel the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair, too. Progress rocks, but nostalgia reigns.