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

Evaporative Cooling

Window-mounted evaporative "Swamp Cooler"

Window-mounted evaporative “Swamp Cooler”


Of course, the best way to stay cool in a car (short of actual air conditioning) is probably an evaporative cooler, colloquially known as a “Swamp Cooler” due to the damp, clammy air they produce.  These were little more than a simple ram-air tunnel with a tank of water that absorbed heat when it evaporated, typically mounted to the passenger window. Evaporative cooling works best in dry climates, where even today it is still sometimes employed for residential cooling. You can read more here on Paul’s post on evaporative coolers.

1955 JC Whitney Evaporative Car Cooler Ad

1955 JC Whitney Car Cooler Ad


These window-mounted units could be quite effective under the proper conditions, and were very inexpensive, as shown in the 1955 JC Whitney ad above. A simple ram-air model, which only worked when the car was moving, cost just $14.35 (about $140 in today’s money). For about twice the cost, you could get a model with a blower that allowed it to work at any car speed, conveniently available in both 6 and 12-volt models.

While external window-mounted swamp coolers were the most popular form of evaporative cooling, the window was hardly the only place to mount them. Here is an evaporative cooler that mounted on the transmission hump. It looks very similar to those portable evaporative cooling “Personal Air Conditioners” that are currently being advertised all over the place, just slightly larger in size. Motor Trend supposedly tested it and awarded it with its Seal of Approval in 1959, whatever that means. Given the simplicity of the physics and equipment involved, there is no reason to doubt its effectiveness.

The award for the most complex automotive evaporative cooler certainly must go to this Smiley Air Conditioner, pictured above from an ad in the April 1955 Motor Trend magazine. Despite the name, it was a water evaporative cooling system, not a refrigeration system. My Google searches for this company came up empty, so I suspect that few of these “Air Conditioners” were actually sold. Given that this unit cost $250 ($2,400 in 2020), one could step up to an actual “knee-banger” hang on A/C system for not too many dollars more.

Finally, we have this system. Ice has been used for cooling since at least ancient Roman times, who imported ice and snow from the Alps to a frigidarium for this purpose. So it is no surprise to see that ice was employed in automotive cooling, as in the Scott Aire system above (from a 1960 issue of Motor Life magazine ad). Who hasn’t dreamed of cooling themselves off with a giant block of ice on a hot day?

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