Automobile air conditioning

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1953 Chrysler Imperial with factory trunk mounted "Airtemp" system

Automobile air conditioning (also called A/C) systems cool the occupants of a vehicle in hot weather.


A company in New York City in the United States, first offered installation of air conditioning for cars in 1933. Most of their customers operated limousines and luxury cars.[1]

The Packard Motor Car Company was the first automobile manufacturer to offer an air conditioning unit into its cars, beginning in 1939.[2] These air conditioners were manufactured by Bishop and Babcock Co, of Cleveland Ohio. The "Bishop and Babcock Weather Conditioner" also incorporated a heater. Cars ordered with the new "Weather Conditioner" were shipped from Packard's East Grand Boulevard facility to the B&B factory where the conversion was performed. Once complete, the car was shipped to a local dealer where the customer would take delivery.

Packard fully warranted and supported this conversion, and marketed it well. However, it was not commercially successful for a number of reasons:

  • The main evaporator and blower system took up half of the trunk space (though this became less of a problem as trunks became larger in the post-war period).
  • It was superseded by more efficient systems in the post-war years.
  • It had no temperature thermostat or shut-off mechanism other than switching the blower off. (Cold air would still enter the car with any movement as the drive belt was continuously connected to the compressor—later systems would use electrically operated clutches to remedy this problem.)
  • The several feet of plumbing going back and forth between the engine compartment and trunk proved unreliable in service.
  • The price, at US $274 ($4,692.12 in 2014 US dollars), was unaffordable to most people in post-depression/pre-war America.

Subsequently, the option was discontinued after 1941.[3]

Chrysler Airtemp[edit]

The 1953 Chrysler Imperial was the first production car in twelve years to actually have automobile air conditioning, following tentative experiments by Packard in 1940 and Cadillac in 1941.[4] Walter P. Chrysler had seen to the invention of Airtemp air conditioning back in the 1930s for the Chrysler Building, and had ostensibly offered it on cars in 1941-42, and again in 1951-52, but none are known to have been sold in the latter form until the 1953 model year. In actually installing optional Airtemp air conditioning units to its Imperials in 1953, Chrysler beat Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile which added air conditioning as an option in the 1953 model year.

Airtemp was more sophisticated and efficient than the complicated rival air conditioners of 1953. It recirculated, rather than merely cooled, the air inside the vehicle, and it was also the highest capacity unit available on an automobile. It was also simple to operate, with a single switch on the dashboard marked with low, medium, and high positions, which the driver selected as desired. The system was capable of cooling a Chrysler from 120 degrees to 85 degrees in about two minutes, and of completely eliminating humidity, dust, pollen and tobacco smoke at the same time. Since it relied on fresh air, and drew in sixty percent more of it than any contemporary system, Airtemp avoided the staleness associated with automotive air conditioning at the time. It was silent and unobtrusive. Instead of plastic tubes mounted on the package shelf as on GM and on other cars, small ducts directed cool air toward the ceiling of the car where it filtered down around the passengers instead of blowing directly on them, a feature that modern cars have lost.[4]

Nash integrated system[edit]

Logo on a 1957 car with AMC factory installed air-conditioning system

In 1954, the Nash Ambassador was the first American automobile to have a front-end, fully integrated heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning system.[5][6] The Nash-Kelvinator corporation used its experience in refrigeration to introduce the automobile industry's first compact and affordable, single-unit heating and air conditioning system optional for its Nash models.[7][8] This was the first mass market system with controls on the dash and an electric clutch.[9] This system was also compact and easily serviceable with all of its components installed under the hood or in the cowl area.[10]

Combining heating, cooling, and ventilating, the new air conditioning system for the Nash cars was called the "All-Weather Eye".[11] This followed the marketing name of "Weather Eye" for Nash's fresh-air automotive heating and ventilating system that was first used in 1938.[10] With a single thermostatic control, the Nash passenger compartment air cooling option was described as "a good and remarkably inexpensive" system.[12] Entirely incorporated within the engine bay, the combined heating and cooling system had cold air for passengers enter through dash-mounted vents.[8] Nash's exclusive "remarkable advance" was not only the "sophisticated" unified system, but also its $345 price that beat all other systems.[13]

Automatic climate control[edit]

Most competing systems used a separate heating system and an engine-mounted compressor, driven off of the crankshaft of the engine via a belt, with an evaporator in the car's trunk to deliver cold air through the rear parcel shelf and overhead vents. General Motors made a front mounted air conditioning system optional in 1954 on Pontiacs with a straight-eight engine that added separate controls and air distribution. The alternative layout pioneered by Nash "became established practice and continues to form the basis of the modern and more sophisticated automatic climate control systems."[14]

Growth in demand[edit]

Air-conditioning for automobiles came into wide use from the late twentieth century. Although air conditioners use significant power; the drag of a car with closed windows is less than if the windows are open to cool the occupants evaporatively. There has been much debate on the effect of air conditioning on the fuel efficiency of a vehicle. Factors such as wind resistance, aerodynamics and engine power and weight must be considered, to find the true difference between using the air conditioning system and not using it, when estimating the actual fuel mileage. Other factors can affect the engine, and an overall engine heat increase can have an impact on the cooling system of the vehicle.

The innovation was adopted quickly, and by 1960 about 20% of all cars in the U.S. had air-conditioning, with the percentage increasing to 80% in the warm areas of the Southwest.[15] American Motors made air conditioning standard equipment on all AMC Ambassadors starting with the 1968 model year, a first[16] in the mass market with a base price starting at $2,671.[17] By 1969, 54% of the domestic automobiles were equipped with air conditioning, with the feature needed not only for passenger comfort, but also to increase the car's resale value.[18]

Future development[edit]

A new type of air-conditioning for automobiles called TIFFE (Thermal systems Integration For Fuel Economy)[19] is claimed to come into production in 2015 and should reduce fuel consumption by 15%.[20] Sustainable automotive air conditioning is also being considered.

Operating principles[edit]

Refrigeration cycle[edit]

A simple stylized diagram of the refrigeration cycle: 1) condensing coil, 2) expansion valve, 3) evaporator coil, 4) compressor

In the refrigeration cycle, heat is transported from the passenger compartment to the environment. A refrigerator is an example of such a system, as it transports the heat out of the interior and into its environment (i.e. the room).

Circulating refrigerant vapor enters the compressor (located in the engine bay) and is compressed to a higher pressure, resulting in a higher temperature as well. The hot, compressed refrigerant vapor is now at a temperature and pressure at which it can be condensed and is routed through a condenser, usually located in front of the car's radiator. Here the refrigerant is cooled by air flowing across the condenser coils and condensed into a liquid. Thus, the circulating refrigerant rejects heat from the system and the heat is carried away by the air.

The condensed and pressurized liquid refrigerant is next routed through an expansion valve where it undergoes an abrupt reduction in pressure. That pressure reduction results in flash evaporation of a part of the liquid refrigerant, lowering its temperature. The cold refrigerant is then routed through the evaporator which is located in the passenger compartment. The air (which is to be cooled) blows across the evaporator, causing the liquid part of the cold refrigerant mixture to evaporate as well, further lowering the temperature. The warm air is therefore cooled.

To complete the refrigeration cycle, the refrigerant vapor is routed back into the compressor.

The compressor can be driven by the car's engine (e.g. via a belt) or by an electric motor.

Evaporative cooling[edit]

See also: Car cooler

A car cooler is an automobile window-mounted evaporative air cooler, sometimes referred to as a swamp cooler.[21][22] It was an early type of automobile air conditioners[23] and is not used anymore in modern cars.

To cool the air it used latent cooling of vaporization (in other words, cooling by water evaporation).[24] Water inside the cooler evaporates and in the process transfers heat from the surrounding air. The cool moisture-laden air is directed to the inside of the car.[24][25] The lower the humidity, the better the system works. Because of the dry desert air, car coolers were popular in the southwestern United States states of California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Power consumption[edit]

In a modern automobile, the A/C system will use around 4 horsepower (3 kW) of the engine's power, thus increasing fuel consumption of the vehicle.[26]

See also[edit]

Air conditioning


  1. ^ "First Air Conditioned Auto". Popular Science 123 (5): 30. November 1933. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  2. ^ "Michigan Fast Facts and Trivia". Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  3. ^ Alder, Dennis (2004). Packard. MBI Publishing Company. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-7603-1928-4. 
  4. ^ a b Langworth, Richard M. (1994). Chrysler and Imperial: The Postwar Years. Motorbooks International. ISBN 0-87938-034-9. 
  5. ^ "Nash Low Cost Air Conditioner Cools or Heats by Turning Knob". Popular Mechanics 101 (5): 86. May 1954. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  6. ^ The Great Lakelands (Lake Valley) 6: 32. 1956. 
  7. ^ Gunnell, John, ed. (1987). The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946–1975. Krause Publications. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-87341-096-0. 
  8. ^ a b Binder, Al; the Ward's staff (2 February 2001). "Rearview Mirror". Ward's AutoWorld. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  9. ^ Daly, Steven (2006). Automotive Air-Conditioning and Climate Control Systems. Elsevier Science & Technology Books. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-7506-6955-9. Retrieved 25 February 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Wolfe, Steven J. (2000). "HVAC Time Line". Refrigeration Service Engineers Society Twin Cities Chapter. Archived from the original on 29 November 2009. Retrieved 25 February 2012. 
  11. ^ "News of the Automotive World - Nash Air Conditioner Combines Heating, Cooling, and Ventilating". Automotive Industries 110: 86. 1954. Retrieved 25 February 2012. 
  12. ^ Stevenson, Heon J. (2008). American Automobile Advertising, 1930–1980: An Illustrated History. McFarland. p. 177. ISBN 978-0-7864-3685-9. Retrieved 25 February 2012. 
  13. ^ Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (29 November 2007). "1953–1955 Nash and Hudson Ramblers". Retrieved 25 February 2012. 
  14. ^ Nunney, Malcolm J. (2006). Light and Heavy Vehicle Technology. Elsevier Science & Technology Books. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-7506-8037-0. 
  15. ^ Nash, Gerald D. (1999). Federal Landscape: An Economic History of the Twentieth-Century West. University of Arizona Press. p. 224. ISBN 978-0-8165-1863-0. 
  16. ^ Ward's automotive yearbook (Ward's Communications) 31: 116. 1969. 
  17. ^ "U.S. Business: Shuffle & Cut". Time. 6 October 1967. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  18. ^ "Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Timeline". National Academy of Engineering. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  19. ^ "Thermal Systems Integration For Fuel Economy". Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  20. ^ "TIFFE - Thermal systems integration for fuel economy". Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  21. ^ Hinckley, p. 54 was actually an evaporative cooler - something Californians and Southwesterners have on the roofs of their houses and often call "swamp coolers" or "swampies."
  22. ^ "Thermador Swamp Coolers". Retrieved 2012-03-20. [unreliable source?]
  23. ^ Hinckley, p. 54
  24. ^ a b Sibley, p. 221
  25. ^ "Popular Mechanics". May 1941. Retrieved 2012-03-20. 
  26. ^ "Impact of Vehicle Air-Conditioning on Fuel Economy". National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Retrieved 6 February 2012. 

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