Airtemp..... Now, That's Cool!


 In 1934, Chrysler Corporation went into a business far  from its normal expertise; the manufacture of air conditioning equipment. Walter Chrysler first developed an interest in air conditioning in 1930 when he was shopping for cooling equipment for the Chrysler Building in New York. He found the current technology to be expensive and oversized, so he hired Charles Neeson to design better equipment with the help of the Chrysler Engineering staff. They developed a high speed radial compressor that was superior to existing equipment, and  in mid 1934 Walter Chrysler announced that his company had developed the “Airtemp Conditioner.”  He formed the Airtemp Corporation on October 22, 1934, and began manufacturing operations in a former Chrysler stamping plant in Detroit. The air conditioning operation became Airtemp, Inc., a subsidiary of the Chrysler Corporation in August 1935, and was later renamed the Airtemp Division of Chrysler Corporation in September 1938. They just loved name changes, didn't they? In June 1936, Airtemp moved to the revamped Maxwell Motor Company plant in Dayton, Ohio.  In 1937  engineers invented capacity regulators which helped the system adjust to varying loads, and the following year they developed the first self contained air conditioning units. 

Chrysler Corporation was an early advocate of air conditioning. The Chrysler Building in Manhattan was the first fully air conditioned skyscraper. Airtemp Division products also cooled Pullman cars on the nation's railroads in the 1930s, but Chrysler was late in applying what it had learned to automobiles. Packard fielded a pioneer air conditioning unit for 1940, and Cadillac followed for 1941. Though Chrysler supposedly offered the Airtemp system  on some 1941-42 models, none are known to have been sold so equipped. Several have surfaced with ice cube trays in the glove box, but I doubt it had anything to do with air conditioning.

Air conditioning had become more widely available throughout the industry by 1954, and Chrysler's  was brilliant compared with the complicated and cumbersome rival systems of the day. It was the most efficient, and it had the highest capacity available on any automobile. 






Like Chrysler's PowerFlite automatic, the Airtemp system (pix above, 1953 Imperial) was disarming in its operational simplicity. A single switch marked Low, Medium, and High controlled fan speeds. High was capable of cooling a big De Soto or Chrysler from 120 to 85 degrees in about two minutes, and also completely eliminated humidity, dust, pollen, and tobacco smoke. It could also expel those pesky cooking fumes from the guys who wanted to make cheeseburgers in the back seat. Since Airtemp drew  60 percent more fresh air than any other system, it avoided the staleness associated with more primitive rigs. It was also silent and unobtrusive, unlike some of the cars' drivers. Instead of the awkward plastic tubes mounted on the package shelf, as on GM and other setups, Airtemp employed small ducts that directed cool air toward the ceiling of the car, the air then filtering down around the passengers instead of blowing directly at them, a feature that today's car have lost due to cost considerations. 

 Airtemp Division also made notable progress in miniaturization. Its early unit took up little trunk space, and the compressor took up only one cubic foot under the hood. The condenser panel was mounted out of the way, diagonally, in front of the radiator, where it received adequate fresh air without blocking the cooling system. Mob guys loved this system because there was still plenty of room for dead bodies in the trunk, and they didn't have to sweat on the way to the clam house.


    A.C. From The Early Days to 1968

The first car with air conditioning was a Cadillac done by C&C Kelvinator Co. for John Hamman Jr. of Houston, Texas in 1930. (Al Capone also owned one) It was equipped  with a 0.5 hp (0.37 kW) Kelvinator refrigeration unit powered by a 1.5 hp (1.1 kW) gasoline engine. Two flues on either side of the front seat took the air down to a fan, which circulated cool air throughout the passenger compartment. The unit looked like a trunk and fitted compactly on the back of the car.


The development of the automotive air conditioner began in earnest in 1930 when General Motors Research Laboratories conceived the idea of the vapor compression system with R-12 refrigerant. On Sept. 23, 1932 a proposal was made to General Motors management to develop such a system by some guy drenched in sweat who just happened to wander in off the street. The Cadillac Division evinced interest in the proposal. However, it was not until the summer of 1933 that the work started. The cooling capacity of the automotive air conditioning system was determined to be 1 ton i.e., 200 Btu per minute. This estimate was half of the cooling capacity of present systems. There were two reasons for the lower estimate. 

First, the tests took place when the only way to provide cooling in an automobile was by ventilation. In the earlier days of motoring with open body automobiles, no special provisions were required. This changed in 1908 with the gradual introduction of the closed-body automobiles. The only way to keep cool in a closed-body automobile prior to 1940 was to raise an adjustable windshield that opened vertically or to remove the side curtains. The opening of the windshield was restricted to about 0.5 in. (13 mm) so that the passenger compartment was sufficiently pressurized while minimizing infiltration of the hot air from the engine. Subsequently, windows could be cranked up and down for the desired airflow. Also, vents under the dashboard facilitated air circulation. Convertible tops permitted airflow upon being lowered. Really? I never would have guessed.

These ventilation systems were rudimentary, as they did not filter dirt, dust, pollen or insects from the air, so the quality of the air circulating through the passenger compartment was poor. This really didn't matter because the passengers only took a bath once a week and didn't smell very good anyway. Beginning in 1940, there was a gradual acceptance of fresh air heaters. And soap. With this advance came an improved method of summer ventilation that was provided by a cowl ventilator. Later, the car heater blower was used to increase ventilator airflow since the air inlet for the heater was located in the ventilation duct. Perhaps the earliest attempt at developing a mechanical comfort cooling system for a vehicle is attributable to William Whiteley, who in 1884 suggested placing blocks of ice in trays under horse drawn carriages and blowing air inside by attaching a fan to the axle. Really, he did that. Unfortunately, the intake was a bit too close to the horse's exhaust, and the air that sometimes came inside the carriage wasn't that great.

Tests to determine the cooling capacity were conducted in recirculation rather than in ventilation mode. Second, during the course of the tests, the car temperature was sought to be lowered by no more than 10°F (5.6°C). At that time, it was believed that if the difference between the outside air and the conditioned air temperature exceeded 10°F (5.6°C), the occupant of the conditioned space could experience a thermal shock upon emerging into the outside air. During the remainder of the 1930s, the work on automotive air conditioning culminated at General Motors with the development of a prototype self contained unit that was installed in the trunk of a 1939 Cadillac. While General Motors was still evaluating its trunk mounted unit, Packard  developed a complete air conditioning system for summer cooling and winter heating. This all weather air conditioning system  was offered at $274.00. 

Between 1940 and 1942, Packard equipped 1,500 automobiles with air conditioning. The air conditioning system was made available on the closed body models of the 120, Super Eight 160 and Custom Super Eight lines. Not to be outdone, the Cadillac Division of General Motors introduced air conditioning on its 1941 models, installing it on some 300 cars. Although it was ballyhooed as a great luxury item, drivers had two major complaints. First, there was no provision for outside air. Smokers in the car made the air fetid and unbearable. Secondly, there were no interior controls. To shut off the system, the driver had to get out of the car, open the hood, and remove a belt. It isn't clear whether this was a fan belt, or the one holding up his pants. The system also produced drafts in strange places, (oops) and the front seat usually did not receive sufficient quantities of cool air. With the rear mounted evaporator, sometimes  condensed water dripped over the rear seat passengers. This problem persisted into the1950s as exemplified by a highly publicized incident when Mamie Eisenhower's dress was stained by dripping condensation in an air conditioned Cadillac. GM had decided early on to call this the "Pee on Me" system, but changed their minds.

Before World War II, approximately 3,000 American cars were equipped with air conditioning. Most of the units were installed in expensive luxury cars sold in the Southwest. This trend continued well into the 1950s. World War II  put a damper on automotive air conditioning growth as complete facilities were turned over to the manufacture of military vehicles, aircraft and naval vessels. After the war ended, air conditioning growth resumed with Cadillac advertising a new, high tech feature called air conditioning controls. However, there was still one problem. The controls were mounted nearly 6 ft (1.8 m) from the driver's seat on the rear package shelf. You either had to put up with constant flow, or you had to have very long arms. By 1947, independent manufacturers began installing air conditioners on all makes of cars, creating a large aftermarket business. This business was centered in Texas, although several important manufacturers were headquartered in Michigan. 

ARA was the first aftermarket manufacturer starting business in early 1949. Cheap cooling aids like louvered aluminum solar screens and evaporative coolers were also marketed for those who could not afford the factory installed or aftermarket units, or deodorant. The window mounted evaporative coolers, known as swamp coolers, became quite popular, especially in the southwest where the humidity is low. They were operated with water or ice and a fan that could be plugged into the cigarette lighter. 

The 1950s may be characterized as the decade of the comeback of automotive air conditioning. Neither the pre-war Packard nor the Cadillac system survived because of the aforementioned problems. It was not until the 1953 model year that automotive air conditioning staged a comeback, and this time it  flourished. That year General Motors, Chrysler, and Packard each introduced a practical system that sold for approximately $600. The Frigidaire system built for General Motors was available in all Cadillac and Oldsmobile lines, as well as in Super and Roadmaster Buicks. The Airtemp system built for Chrysler was optional on the Imperial. You guys who had New Yorkers were out of luck, I guess. For Packard, it was available only in the Cavalier and Patrician lines, as well as in the rare Derham Formal Sedan conversions. During 1953, about 29,000 cars were shipped with factory installed air conditioning.

In 1953, Harrison Radiator Division of General Motors developed a revolutionary air conditioner that could be mounted  in the engine compartment. This was a much more efficient design and was the subject of the U.S. Patent No. 2,831,327. After much negotiation, Harrison Radiator won a contract to produce the new air conditioner for Pontiac in 1954. In 1954, Nash joined the select group of carmakers offering factory installed air conditioning. One of its most striking features was an all season air conditioning system called the All Weather Eye. Nash already had what many experts considered the industry's best heating and ventilating system called the Weather Eye.


Introduced in 1938, it provided summer cooling and winter heating with a single knob control and disconnected the compressor when it was not in operation. There was no need to manipulate multiple controls with All Weather Eye. The entire Nash unit was located under the hood. 

The Nash unit weighed only 133 lbs, which was half the weight of the Oldsmobile unit and half the weight of most of the people who bought Buicks. The cost of the Nash unit was $395, which was $199 lower than the cost of the Oldsmobile unit. The additional savings included the cost of a heater for Oldsmobile. For the 1954 model year, about 36,000 cars had factory installed air conditioning. A bigger boost occurred in 1955 when seven more car makers listed air conditioning as an option. Chevrolet completed the General Motors stable of factory installed air conditioned cars. Chrysler made it available on De Soto, Dodge and Plymouth. Ford introduced it for each of its marques. Hudson and even Rambler could be bought with factory installed air conditioning. In all, car factories throughout 1955 installed some 118,000 air conditioners. This amounted to 1.5% of  total car production. The last American car to offer air conditioning was Studebaker with its 1956 models at a cost of $459. 

In 1957, all Cadillac Eldorado Broughams were air conditioned, making it the first model to list air conditioning as a standard item. The penetration rate for  factory installed air conditioning reached 3.7% with 228,000 units sold at an average price of $435. The under the hood units cost approximately $355, while the trunk units sold for $420. 

The big slump in the automotive industry during 1958 had affected  air conditioning sales.  Installations dropped nearly 15%. However, the penetration rate for air conditioning increased to 4.6% of all 1958 models built. At American Motors, the penetration rate dropped considerably due to discontinuation of the more luxurious Nash and Hudson lines. Starting in 1958, American Motors concentrated on the better selling economical Rambler line (smart move, huh) with the total cost of the car including air conditioning of less than $2,000. Ford produced a number of surprises during the 1959 model year, like cars that would actually stay running. For the first time, its factory installations exceeded those of Chevrolet by a wide margin, making it the leader for that model year with 65,796 units. In the arena of luxury cars, the traditional leader Cadillac fell back to second place with Lincoln taking over the lead and keeping it for many years to come. The total number of air conditioned cars made by American companies reached the million mark in 1959. 

The popularity of automotive air conditioning soared in the 1960s with the number of air conditioners installed in American cars nearly tripling from 1961 until 1964. Air conditioning for trucks was becoming a much demanded accessory. The debut of the Big Three's compact cars was the most exciting news out of Detroit for the 1960 model year, but air conditioning was not offered on them. Nonetheless, its popularity grew with the buyers of the larger cars that year.
 The total number of units sold in 1960 was 422,638. 

During 1961 some cars began passing the 50% penetration rate for air conditioning. Lincoln led with 64% penetration rate followed by Cadillac at 52% and Imperial at 51%. More than 8% of all the 1961model cars had factory installed air conditioning. Corvair introduced air conditioning to the compact class on its 1961models. There were 2,978 built with it. The demand for compact cars started showing signs of moving from economy to luxury. Factory installed air conditioning on Corvair jumped in the 1962 model year to a total of 7,651. Falcon joined the cool-car club equipping 2,900 of its 1962 models with air conditioning. An industry  penetration rate of 11% was reached with over 750,000 air conditioned cars. Both Chevrolet and Oldsmobile full size models were the first to exceed the100,000 unit mark, pushing Cadillac from its leadership position. During the 1963 model year, Ford set the air conditioner price at $232 for Falcon and Comet, which was the lowest list price ever for this  option. It helped both models to double their sales. In 1963, Corvette became the first sports car to feature air conditioning. For all the 1963 cars, the air conditioning penetration rate reached 14% and the total number of air conditioned cars exceeded the one million mark for the first time in a single model year. 

Installations in 1964 increased to more than 1.4 million units. Thunderbird entered the over 50% air conditioned group with more than 23,390 units. Also during that year, Buick factory installations surpassed those of Oldsmobile for the first time. During 1965, Buick's Riviera reached the 70% penetration mark while Lincoln hit the 90% mark. As the demand for air conditioning grew, production increases created manufacturing economies and prices bottomed out in 1965. The range was from a low of $252 on the Mercury Comet to a high of $650 on the Imperial. 

In 1966 Oldsmobile launched the Toronado, which became the first model to pass the 50% air conditioned mark in its first year of introduction and reached a penetration level of 74%. Other models passing the 50% air conditioned mark that year were the full size lines of Buick and Oldsmobile. Industry wide the number of factory installed air conditioners reached a level of 2.5 million. In addition, an estimated 575,000 aftermarket air conditioners were installed on old cars by dealers and auto shops. In 1967, almost two out of every five new cars had factory installed air conditioning. Full size Pontiacs exceeded the 50% air conditioned mark and so did full sized Dodges and Mercurys. More than 97% of Cadillac's newly redesigned Eldorado, which debuted in 1967, had factory installed air conditioning. By 1968, the demand for air conditioning had reached such a crescendo that some carmakers installed it as a standard accessory on their more expensive models. 

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