History of Air Conditioning in Cars

On a hot day what is the first thing you do once your car is started? You crank up the air conditioning. However what most take for granted today has not really been around all that long; at least not in a standard way.

1The history of air conditioning in cars all started with the 1939 Packard Motor Car Company’s fleet of vehicles. That year was a first for air conditioning and saw the oversized unit take up the entire trunk and run cold air through overhead vents that were inside of the vehicle. This was not only inconvenient because it took up the entire trunk space, but there was also no way to control the temperature or to shut the unit off from within the car itself. That meant that if it got too cold the driver would have to pull over and pop open the trunk to shut the unit off.

While the breakthrough technology was made optional the cost dissuaded many buyers as the $274 extra price tag was a lot in those days (about the equivalent of $4,200 today). The high price tag combined with the inefficiency and inconvenience of the system prompted Packard to discontinue the option just two years later in 1941.

The air conditioning unit would see limited use on and off over the course of the 1940s and early 1950s until a revolutionary system took shape. In 1954 the American car company called Nash-Kelvinator was the first to put in an efficient and cost effective front end air conditioning system into their Nash Ambassador for that model year.

This new unit saw a fully integrated heating and cooling unit be mounted in the engine compartment thus leaving the truck space wide open for luggage, groceries, or anything else the owner needed it for. This compact system was the first on the market to offer controls right on the dashboard and also the first on the market to cool off the passengers of the vehicle by way of dash mounted vents as opposed to the overhead vents of the previous bulky models.

In 1954 GM used the basic design of Nash and offered air conditioning as an option for all of its Chevrolets and Pontiacs that had V-8 engines. The only difference with GM’s system was that they introduced a way to control the distribution of the cool air that flowed through the vents. The basic design that Nash pioneered is still the same today and only modifications have been made along the way to develop what is on the market today.

Soon all the car makers began to offer air conditioning as an option and in 1960 20 percent of all cars in the United States had air conditioning. Then in 1968 AMC made air conditioning history when they made the cooling system standard for all AMC Ambassadors for the model year.

That lead to other car manufacturers to follow suite and by 1969 about 54 percent of all vehicles sold were equipped with air conditioning. Soon these numbers rose as the automobile industry quickly realized that the air conditioning system would not only keep the occupants comfortable but it would also help with the resale value of their vehicles.

These days it would be a true abnormality to buy a car that didn’t come standard with air conditioning. From bulky and expensive to compact and affordable, the system that keeps you cool on a hot day is now thankfully here to stay.

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