Cold Comfort: History of Automotive Air Conditioning, Part 2 – The Aftermarket

As I detailed in Part 1 of this series, Packard, Cadillac, and Chrysler all dabbled in automotive air conditioning between 1940 and 1942. Well, more like cautiously stuck their toes in the water, as they all used the same third-party Bishop and Babcock A/C system (as opposed to designing their own systems in-house).

As these systems were expensive (about $5,000 in today’s money) and primitive (the only way to turn off the system was to remove the belt from the compressor), sales were understandably slow. Unfortunately, World War II intervened, which prevented any further refinements on the B&B system, as well as precluding any automaker from developing their A/C system.

After the war ended, the major manufacturers were concentrating all their effort on resuming production and developing their first post-war cars. The B&B A/C system was effectively obsolete, and engineering resources were too scarce to apply to a limited luxury item like air conditioning. Besides, Detroit was selling every car they could make to meet the pent-up post war demand, so they didn’t really need a gimmick like A/C to sell more cars. As a result, the next car with factory air wouldn’t come out of Detroit until 1953, well over a decade after Bishop and Babcock installed their last system.

Rod Barclay covers this period of automotive A/C history very well in his seminal book Boy! That Air Feels Good! According to Mr. Barclay, there were three major reasons for this factory A/C gap (in addition to the reasons listed above).

First Every major car manufacturer was located in a northern climate, where summers were short and relatively mild. Most were in Detroit, but even the independents outside of Detroit were in moderate climates (Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana, and Nash in Kenosha, Wisconsin). Thus, air conditioning was viewed as an option with limited regional appeal.

 

Furthermore, many automakers already had separate refrigeration divisions (such as Frigidaire in the case of GM, or Kelvinator at Nash). While this theoretically gave them expertise to draw upon (which would help down the road the future), it also gave them enough information to know that A/C systems are highly complex and potentially dangerous, and require constant maintenance by highly skilled technicians using specialized tools. From this experience they knew that any automotive system would likely be temperamental, and the associated warranty costs would be astronomical until the kinks got worked out. Yet such a system would also have to be simple and safe enough for the grease monkeys in the dealer’s service department to work on. A tall order, to be sure.

One final reason had nothing to do with technology. Air conditioning and refrigeration at the time was a highly specialized trade, requiring special training and equipment. Moreover, it was heavily unionized, like many trades in the day. Dealerships would have been loathe to add specialized equipment and new classes of union labor to meet these needs, especially to support only a small handful of cars.

With all these headwinds, it is little wonder that no major auto manufacturer was in a rush to get back into the A/C business immediately following the war. Nature abhors a vacuum, so as is often the case in America, entrepreneurs and do-it-yourselfers will rush in where bigger manufacturers fear to tread, and automotive air conditioning after World War II was no exception.

From here, we need to leave Detroit and head to the steaming cauldron of Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, which would become the center of gravity of the aftermarket automotive air conditioning industry for the next several decades.

 

First out of the gate was Automobile Refrigerated Air-Conditioners (A.R.A.), formed in 1948 by O.P. “Obie” Leonard. Mr. Leonard (along with his Brother  Marvin) were the owners of Fort Worth-based Leonard Brothers Department Store. More pertinent, he was also a former owner of one of the few pre-war air-conditioned Packards. Dismayed that manufacturers offered no longer offered A/C systems for their cars, Obie Leonard decided to start building, selling, and installing his own systems.

 

Early Frigikar system

Next up, we have Lone Star Cadillac in Dallas, who sold many of the air-conditioned Cadillacs produced prior to World War II. With no air-conditioned cars coming from the factory after WWII and demand for the system still high, in 1949 Lone Star started building and selling their own units. Business was so good that in 1950 Lone Star spun off the business to focus on auto air conditioning beyond those just moving through its dealership, forming Frigikar. In 1953, Bert Mitchell (an engineer who worked on the original Bishop and Babcock system with Packard), purchased Frigikar. He used his Packard connections to arrange for sales and installation through Packard dealers.

 

1960’s Vintage Mark IV System

But the biggest player by far in the Dallas-Fort Worth auto air conditioning scene (and eventually the United States) was the John E. Mitchell company (no relation to Bert Mitchell above). Robert V. Anderson, an engineer in Oklahoma City, started Mark IV in the early 1950’s. The Mitchell Company in Dallas was his metal fabricator (as well as for A.R.A. and Frigikar). Not content making components for other air conditioning companies, the Mitchell Company acquired Mark IV to focus on making and selling its own A/C systems.

Collectively, A.R.A., Frigikar, and Mark IV would become the “Big 3” of aftermarket automotive air conditioning for the next 30 or so years.

So how were these companies able to succeed where Detroit had previously failed? For starters, they started in a southern city where there would be natural demand for their product. Second, these companies initial products were essentially knockoffs of the Bishop and Babcock system. While the B&B design had numerous shortcomings, it was still better than nothing, which is exactly what the automakers were offering in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

 

Early Mark IV Trunk Mount System – Similar in design to pre-war B&B system

 

Because they were copying the B&B design, engineering costs were minimal, which allowed the systems to be sold relatively inexpensively. This in turn allowed the DFW Big 3 to go after a much larger market. While Detroit’s prewar A/C efforts targeted the upper end of the market (Cadillac, Packard, and Imperial), the DFW Big 3 aimed solidly for the fat midsection of the market. Furthermore, while the prewar efforts were obviously targeted at selling new cars, the units from the DFW Big 3 could be retrofitted to just about any car with a trunk and rear parcel shelf. This meant that everyone who owned car was a potential customer.

 

Frigikar president Bert Mitchell often used his own wife and son in his ads, like the one above.

 

As a result, the popularity of automotive air conditioning exploded. By the early 50’s, The DFW Big 3 had sold and installed tens of thousands of units, enough to raise the interest of the automakers. that there might be a profitable market for factory air conditioning after all. Based largely on the success of the aftermarket, Cadillac and Chrysler reintroduced factory air conditioning in their cars in 1953. By the mid 1950’s, factory A/C was available from every major manufacturer.

The reentry of Detroit into the automotive air conditioning business did little to slow the sales of aftermarket A/C. If anything, it helped sales at first, as the automakers raised interest and awareness of the option with their own advertising efforts. As the vast majority of cars on the road and in showrooms didn’t have factory A/C, there was still a huge opportunity for aftermarket air conditioning. However, by the 1970’s, as factory A/C installation rates exceeded 50%, demand for aftermarket systems began to dwindle. Soon demand tapered off to nothing, and today air conditioning is standard on virtually every car and truck.

So whatever happened to the Dallas Big 3? A.R.A. founder O.P. Leonard sold the company in 1954 (probably seeing the writing on the wall). However, ARA is still around today, and they still manufacture OEM A/C components and aftermarket A/C systems (albeit for transit and agricultural use).

Frigikar was purchased by Cummins in 1963 for $8.4 million. Cummins rebranded the product line to “Frigiking,” to reflect the revised focus on commercial truck cooling. The Frigiking name is currently owned by ProAir, which specializes in air conditioning systems for busses, military vehicles, fire engines and ambulances.

 

Of the Dallas Big 3, The John E. Mitchell company had perhaps the most interesting diversification strategy. While improvising a solution using a Mark IV A/C unit to replace a broken soda fountain at his Kansas Dairy Queen, Omar Knedlik unwittingly invented frozen soda. Knedlik patented the solution, and partnered with the Mitchell company to manufacture and franchise the systems, for which they coined the name ICEE. ICEE was eventually spun off, and is still around today. The same cannot be said for the John E. Mitchell company, which has a rather interesting history of litigation and licensing disputes with co-Founder Robert V. Anderson that could fill an entire CC article itself.

Eventually, the success of the aftermarket in selling air conditioning to the masses created a market too big for Detroit to continue to ignore. I will have much more to say about Detroit’s post-war A/C efforts in Part 3 of this series. See you then!