Cold Comfort: 1991 Jeep Grand Wagoneer – Last Mass-Produced Vehicle Without Integrated Air Conditioning?

I saw this 1991 Jeep Grand Wagoneer on an auction site not too long ago, and what caught my attention was the hang-on style factory air conditioning system. I thought these were largely extinct by the mid-’70s or so, but apparently not so in the case of the SJ Jeep Grand Wagoneer, which was produced until 1991.

You probably already knew that by 1991 the SJ Jeep Grand Wagoneer was a rolling dinosaur, between its carbureted V8 engine, wing windows, and flat side glass, to name three reasons. You can also add 1970s era HVAC to that list of reasons.

1994 Jeep Wrangler A/C system

1994 Jeep Wrangler A/C system

But first, to answer the question posed by the title, no the SJ Grand Wagoneer was not the last vehicle with factory hang-on A/C. Based on my limited research, that honor probably belongs to the 1996 YJ-body Jeep Wrangler, pictured above, although I’m sure our readers will likely point out later examples. But the Wrangler at the time still mainly targeted offroaders and was infrequently equipped with A/C, while the Grand Wagoneer was targeting luxury buyers, and had air conditioning as a standard feature. The fact that such a primitive A/C system was still being offered to luxury buyers as late as 1991 is fascinating to me.

Let’s travel back to late 1962 when Kaiser introduced their brand new Jeep Wagoneer. It is widely considered to be the first Sport Utility Vehicle, and was really far ahead of its time, with such features as an overhead cam engine, optional independent front suspension, and most interestingly for our purposes, optional air conditioning. The Wagoneer was likely one of the first trucks of any kind to be available with factory A/C.

1965 Jeep Option List

1965 Jeep Option List (A/C in the bottom middle).

Still, in those early years, the take rate for A/C wasn’t very high. My extensive Google image searches for a surviving 1963 Wagoneer equipped with A/C came up empty. The option only warranted a single line of text in the 1963 brochure – A/C wouldn’t even be worthy of a photo in the brochure until 1965.

1968 Jeep Wagoneer with factory air conditioning

Like many A/C systems in the early 1960s, the Wagoneer’s factory air was in the form of an add-on unit that could be installed either in the factory or dealership. The system was installed in the dashboard giving it a somewhat integrated appearance, albeit at the expense of losing the center glovebox (the speaker grille took up the passenger side of the dashboard). While it may have looked integrated, it was very much a separate system with its own separate controls, blower, and air outlets.

1984 Jeep Grand Wagoneer air conditioning system with separate controls.

After taking ownership of Jeep in 1970, AMC gave the Wagoneer some long-overdue updates, including the air conditioning system. They relocated the air conditioner from the dashboard to a slim under-dash system, but otherwise left it separate from the heater and defroster. This change allowed for A/C-equipped vehicles (which were becoming a larger percentage of sales) to retain their center-mounted glove box, and afforded vents on the sides of the dash (not just the center). But make no mistake, this was still a fully separate system, with its own controls blower and temperature controls. This system, with only minor modifications, would serve the Grand Wagoneer for the next several decades.

AMC took one last stab at updating the Grand Wagoneer’s woefully outdated A/C system in 1986, and I must admit that those wily engineers came up with some pretty clever lipstick to put onto their pig. The heater controls were now centrally mounted so that they could be operated by the passenger, but the real trick was that the A/C and heater controls were combined, even though the actual systems themselves were not.

1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer with unified heater and A/C control panel. Note the fresh air organ stop still present by the steering column.

Even though the A/C system was still not integrated, they unified the controls to give the appearance of an integrated HVAC system, with some electronic and mechanical trickery. When the top slider is in the A/C position, the fan switch controls the blower motor on the A/C unit, while the blower on the heater is off. When in any other position, the fan switch controls the blower on the heater core, which had its own separate resistor, while the blower on the A/C stays idle.

Similarly, the temperature slider had two different functions, depending on whether the air conditioning or heater system we active. In A/C mode, the lever controlled a potentiometer to regulate the compressor cycling, the only way to control the output temperature since you couldn’t blend in warm air from the heater core. In heat or defrost mode, the temperature lever operated a blend door in the heater core like a conventional heater. For fresh air, you could pull on the two organ stops on either side of the steering wheel which opened cowl-mounted fresh air intakes on the driver and passenger sides, exactly the same as on the 1963 model.

This integrated control setup was a clever cheat, and maybe even fooled some buyers into thinking the system was truly integrated, but it still had the limitations of a dual heat and A/C setup. As previously mentioned, there was no way to blend warm in with the air-conditioned air, so temperature control was limited to adjusting the fan speed and cycling the compressor. This also precluded the possibility of any kind of automatic climate control system, commonplace in luxury vehicles by 1991. Furthermore, there was no way to direct air-conditioned (and dehumidified) air through the defrosters, which reduces their effectiveness at defogging the glass in humid environments (think a warm rainy day when there is wet gear inside).  And of course, there was no way to have air coming out the vents the same time air is coming out the floor or defroster.

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