Cold Comfort: How People Kept Cool in Cars Before Air Conditioning

Over the past several years, I’ve detailed much of the early history of automotive air conditioning in my Cold Comfort series of posts. However, air conditioning did not really become commonplace until the 1970s: Prior to that time, more than 50% of cars were still sold without A/C. So how did all these people keep cool? Let’s take a look.

Made in the Shade

The first order of business in staying cool in a car is to keep sunlight off of you. This was not a trivial concern back in the early days of the automobile, when all cars were open cars. In 1903, Packard commissioned a vehicle to be driven from San Francisco to New York to demonstrate the reliability of their cars. During the desert part of the journey, the drivers fitted an umbrella to the car to shield them from the unrelenting desert sun, pictured above, making this one of the earliest examples of automotive passenger cooling.

Studebaker Accessory Venetian Shades

Studebaker Accessory Venetian Shades


As cars became enclosed, the need to block sunlight became reduced, but not eliminated. Studebakers famed “Is it coming or going” 1947-52 Starlight coupe featured a back seat surrounded by a dramatic wraparound rear window. Alas, this rear glass was fixed, which must have made it a miserable place to ride in the summer. Studebaker apparently realized this and offered as an accessory the Venetian shades pictured above, which would be the forerunner of the rear and side louvers that would become ubiquitous in the 1970s and ’80s.  

Sun visors were another very popular way to shade the interior of the car. They peaked in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, and can still be frequently seen on period cars at car shows.

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