Cold Comfort: 1953 Chrysler Airtemp Air Conditioning

After having covered most of the early GM and FoMoCo factory A/C systems, I’ll be turning my attention next to Chrysler, who made some truly interesting systems over the years. For today’s, installment I’ll cover Chrysler’s first postwar system, the Airtemp system first seen in the 1953 Chrysler and DeSoto models.

1953 was a banner year for automotive air conditioning. After making a brief appearance in 1939, A/C went on a long hiatus until 1953. In this year, Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, and Lincoln would all launch factory A/C systems, along with Chrysler and DeSoto (remember that Imperial wouldn’t become a separate brand until 1955). I’ve previously covered the Cadillac and Lincoln systems, so today it is Chrysler’s turn in the cold seat.

1938 Chrysler Airtemp Ad

1938 Chrysler Airtemp Ad

By 1953, Chrysler Airtemp was already a well-established brand in the commercial and residential cooling space, having entered the market back in the 1930s. So it seemed natural to bring this expertise and brand name to their automotive effort.

Like the 1953 Lincoln and GM systems, the Chrysler Airtemp system utilized a trunk-mounted evaporator with fresh outside air inlets on the rear fender. The inlet grilles on the Chrysler look tidier than the chunky scoops that Ford and Lincoln employed to draw in fresh air.

Like these other early trunk-mounted setups, the evaporator both discharged cooled air and recirculated inside air through the rear parcel shelf. Unlike GM and Lincoln, Chrysler did not use ceiling mounted diffusers with clear plastic ducts to distribute the air, and instead discharged the air right into the parcel shelf. To avoid freezing the rear passengers’ necks, cold air was discharged through the center register, while the outboard ones were used for air return (opposite from Lincoln and GM systems).

Unlike the GM and Ford systems, the Airtemp used two condensers, as shown above. One in front of the radiator, and one behind the front bumper. The one in front of the radiator was rather spindly, likely to minimize the impact on the existing cooling system.

The Chrysler system was also unique among early systems for using R-22 as a refrigerant (as opposed to R-12 that everyone else was using at the time). R-22 works at higher pressures than R-12, and is therefore almost exclusively used in residential and commercial systems: Indeed, this is the only automotive application of R-22 I’ve ever seen. The engineers who worked on the automotive Airtemp system must have selected R-22 based on their previous familiarity with the refrigerant based on their work on household and commercial Airtemp systems. Note the use of flared fittings in the pictures above and below. R-22 can be corrosive under certain conditions: This and the higher pressures used by R-22 dictated this type of fitting over traditional O-ring fittings.

Check out that massive compressor!

As a result of using R-22, the compressor on the Airtemp is massive: a V4 unit requiring two belts and displacing a healthy 10 cubic inches (164 cc). This thing must have really eaten into gas mileage and performance when it was running, which would have been all the time since there was no electromagnetic clutch. As with all early A/C systems, the belts would have had to have been removed in order to turn the system off. As a result, contemporaneous accounts indicated that Chrysler’s was the most effective of all the 1953 A/C systems, a claim that I will likely be unable to independently verify in my lifetime.

The system was controlled by a single three-position blower switch to the left of the steering wheel (the off position only turned off the blower, and not the compressor). The temperature setting was preset at the factory and required a trip to the dealer to adjust(!).

Adjusting the blend of fresh and recirculated air requires stopping the car, opening the trunk, and flipping a damper.