Cold Comfort: History of Automotive Air Conditioning, Part 3 – Post-World War II

(first posted 6/3/2017)       After seeing the explosion of the aftermarket air conditioning sales in the early 1950’s, Detroit decided to get back into the factory air conditioning business in 1953.

At first glance, little appears to have had changed from their prewar offerings. Air conditioning was still only available on high-end models: Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Buick at GM, Chrysler, DeSoto and Lincoln at their respective makers. The systems, now made in-house instead of by Bishop and Babcock, were still trunk mounted. These early A/C systems still ran independently of the heating and defrosting systems. And the systems still ran continuously, requiring removing the belt to disengage the compressor.


1953 Cadillac Air Conditioner. Note the clear ducts delivering cooled air to ceiling mounted diffusers.


However, upon closer examination, one could see incremental improvements being made. The 1953 Cadillac Frigidaire setup, pictured above, featured clear plastic tubes to carry cooled air into the headliner, where it could be better distributed throughout the cabin. This also prevented the rear window from fogging up. This improvement would quickly be copied by other manufacturers for their trunk mounted systems.


1953 Chrysler Airtemp system

And while the B&B system only recirculated interior air, all the 1953 OEM systems blended in outside air with the recirculated interior air, drawing in the fresh air through scoops near the rear window like the one pictured above.


1953 Chrysler Airtemp System

All of the 1953 OEM systems were far more powerful and effective than the pre-war B&B system, sporting larger grilles, blowers, and compressors. The Chrysler Airtemp system was the most powerful of all the early systems, sporting a massive 3/4-ton, dual belt V4 compressor, pictured above.


In 1954, the number of companies offering factory air expanded. Not wanting to be left behind in the luxury car game, Packard offered its first system since 1940. Packard, being too small and financially strapped to develop their own system, sourced their system from Frigikar (which was headed by former Packard engineer Bert J. Mitchell).

Harrison patent filing

At General Motors, there were actually two competing internal divisions working on automotive air conditioning. Frigidaire, who created the trunk-mounted system described above, and Harrison, a division better known for making radiators. Harrison, using their radiator and cooling system experience, designed a condenser with enough airflow that would allow the condenser to be mounted in front of the radiator, while still allowing enough air to reach the radiator for proper engine cooling. They also greatly reduced the size of the compressor, evaporator, and other components, permitting them to be mounted in the engine compartment for the first time.


1954 Pontiac with Air Conditioning. A/C controls are at the top of the dash, heater controls are in the middle

Pontiac was the first to use the Harrison system, making the option available starting on their 1954 eight-cylinder models. The Harrison system was not a fully integrated system: The A/C still operated independently of the heater, and with separate controls and air outlets for each system. No matter: The Harrison system was far superior to the Frigidaire system, and it would soon be adopted across the GM line. In a bit of corporate one-upmanship, Harrison eventually took over all the automotive air conditioning duties for GM, while the Frigidaire name was relegated to home appliance use.


However, the big news in 1954 was the introduction of the Nash All-Weather Eye system, the first cowl mounted fully integrated heating and cooling system. Having the heat and air conditioning system combined meant that they could both be operated by a single set of controls. This also allowed for heated and cooled air to be blended together, and allow the production of air at just about any desired temperature.


Nash-Kelvinator Patent Filing

The idea for fully integrated air conditioning was not new. Nash-Kelvinator actually filed for a patent in 1938, which was granted in 1942. Obviously, World War II intervened, preventing Nash from doing anything with the patent. However, this work did give Nash a head start, allowing Nash to be first to market with the first truly modern climate control system.

This was also the first system to incorporate an electromagnetic clutch on the compressor, allowing the compressor to be engaged and disengaged without having to remove the belt. This essentially set the template for modern automotive HVAC that is still in use today. At $395 (about $3,500 today), it was hundreds of dollars cheaper than the less sophisticated systems from GM, Packard, or Chrysler. And Nash made A/C available across their entire product line, from their entry-level Rambler to the top of the line Ambassador. Automotive air conditioning had truly arrived.


1955 Hudson Air Conditioning Brochure

1955 was the year that factory air conditioning finally went mainstream, being available for the first time on new cars from Chevrolet, Ford, Hudson, Mercury, Studebaker, Dodge, and Plymouth. Sales were low at first (892 Plymouth and around 400 Chevrolets sold with A/C in 1955), but A/C was now available to anyone who wanted it. Dodge and Plymouth used the trunk-mounted setups, as did Mercury. However, Ford and Chevrolet both used front cowl mounted systems, with Chevrolet using the Harrison system that Pontiac had started using a year earlier. The switchover to 12V electrical systems made it easier to use electromagnetic clutches, so most systems started sporting these as well.

For 1955, Studebaker offered a trunk-mounted unit (most likely the same Frigikar system used by Packard), for their V8 powered cars as both a factory and dealer installed option. Interestingly, they made it available as a retrofit to 1953 and 1954 V8 sedans as well, as shown in the ad above.


1956 Studebaker President with Factory A/C (note clear ducts on rear parcel shelf)

By 1956, improvements were occurring rapidly, as most manufacturers were now on their second-generation systems. By now, many had switched over to integrated cowl mounted systems (after having just appeared for the first time two years earlier). Studebaker was one of the few manufacturers still offering trunk-mounted systems.


1957 Continental Mark II. Ceiling mounted diffusers for trunk-mounted A/C system.

By 1957, the only manufacturers still using trunk-mounted evaporators in 1957 were Lincoln, Continental, Studebaker, and Packard (whose 1957 cars were just rebadged Studebakers). By 1958, even these holdouts had switched over to cowl-mounted A/C units. meanwhile, the 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham became the first car with standard air conditioning. The Modern Era of automotive air conditioning had truly arrived.