Cold Comfort: World’s Most Optioned 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

 

I’ve already briefly covered the GM Harrison air conditioning system in the third part of my original Cold Comfort series. This unusually heavily optioned 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air that I found at a recent car show gives me the perfect opportunity to dive into this system in greater detail.

While the 1965 Ford LTD is frequently brought up as the beginning of the end of luxury cars (or at least mid-market cars), this exceptionally loaded 1956 Chevy makes an interesting argument that the “democratization of luxury” started occurring at least a decade earlier, containing features like power windows and power seat that even Cadillacs were still being delivered without at the time.

 

But that’s not why we are here: Lets get back to the star of this piece, the factory air conditioning. In the early 1950’s, GM had two divisions that were dallying around in automotive cooling: Frigidaire, who developed the trunk mounted setup that first appeared in the 1953 Cadillac, and Harrison Radiator Division, at the time better known for making radiators than air conditioners.

Unlike the trunk mounted Frigidaire units used by Cadillac and Buick, the Harrison system was mounted under the cowl and fully integrated with the heater. This allowed the blending of heated and cooled air, enabling air to be supplied at just about any temperature. It also sported an electromagnetic clutch and a thermostatic switch to facilitate cycling of the compressor, which the Frigidaire system was lacking.

 

Harrison also developed what would eventually become the industry standard A/C compressor for the next several decades. If you look at early A/C compressors, not surprisingly you see a wide variety of configurations and displacements: Two and four-cylinder, inline and vee configurations. Harrison designed a two-cylinder unit that would prove to be extremely rugged, durable, and flexible. It could be mounted horizontally, vertically or any angle in between. It could be run clockwise or counter-clockwise, and could be cast out of iron or aluminum. It could even be to compress gasses other than Freon, and was frequently used as an air compressor.

Harrison shopped their system internally to Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile. Despite clearly having a more technically advanced setup, Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile went with the Frigidaire system in 1953. I’m not sure why they chose the Frigidaire over the obviously superior Harrison setup, other than internal GM politics.

Left out of the initial negotiations, but hungry for an air conditioning system of their own, Pontiac approached Harrison about using their system Pontiac’s 1954 models. GM relented, but there was a catch: They had to use a Frigidaire compressor.

Unwanted by GM, Harrison licensed its compressor design to companies like York and Tecumseh. This compressor would go on to be used by a wide variety of companies in their factory A/C setups well into the 80’s, including Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes, Porsche, International, AMC, Jaguar, Volvo, as well as commercial trucks, RVs, and boats. If you’ve ever lifted the hood of a Non-GM vehicle over 30 years old with factory A/C, chances are you’ve seen this compressor.

Chevrolet made the Harrison system (with Frigidaire compressor, natch) available to customers starting in 1955. As you can see from the photo of the 1956 feature unit above, the Frigidaire compressor looks nothing like the Harrison unit that would eventually become the industry standard for decades to come.

 

So in 1955, Chevrolet marketed what was essentially the Harrison system under the Frigidaire name. Seeing the system they developed sold under the Frigidaire name must have raised some hackles with the Harrison folks, but the Harrison name at the time didn’t have the brand recognition of Frigidaire.

In 1956, Chevrolet added a dealer installed underdash unit to go with the factory installed setup. To add insult to injury, Chevrolet applied the Frigidaire name to the factory installed system, and the Harrison name to the hang on unit, even though both systems used the same Frigidaire compressor.

Interesting fact: Prior to 1956, Frigidaire A/C compressors featured a shutoff valve that allowed the compressor to be used evacuate the system (no external vacuum pump required). This was eliminated in 1956, meaning that an external vacuum pump was required to evacuate the system (much like modern systems).

 

 

Back to the featured car:  It clearly has a modern condenser and fittings, however the gargantuan compressor and accumulator appear to be original. You can see the large box in the upper left containing the evaporator, heater core, and blend door.

 

 

Inside, conditioned air was discharged into the passenger compartment through two panel vents mounted on the outboard sides of the dash. Paltry compared to the modern plethora of front and rear seat vents most cars have today.

While Harrison got slighted early on, they ended up having the last laugh. Harrison would go on to design most of the compressors and air conditioning systems for GM, and eventually get their name recognized as such. The Frigidaire name would be sold off by GM in 1979, no longer the valuable brand that it once was.