Automobile air conditioning

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1953 Chrysler Imperial with factory trunk mounted "Airtemp" system

Automobile air conditioning (also called A/C) systems use air conditioning to cool the air in a vehicle.


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]

In 1939, Packard became the first automobile manufacturer to offer an air conditioning unit in its cars.[2] These 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  • It was superseded by more efficient systems in the post-war years.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 sometimes 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.

The option was discontinued after 1941.[3]

Chrysler Airtemp[edit]

The 1953 Chrysler Imperial was one of the first production cars in twelve years to offer modern automobile air conditioning as an option, following tentative experiments by Packard in 1940 and Cadillac in 1941.[4] Walter Chrysler had seen to the invention of Airtemp air conditioning in the 1930s for the Chrysler Building, and had offered it on cars in 1941-42, and again in 1951-52.

The Airtemp was more advanced than rival automobile air conditioners by 1953. It was operated by a single switch on the dashboard marked with low, medium, and high positions. As the highest capacity unit available at that time, the system was capable of quickly cooling the passenger compartment and also reducing humidity, dust, pollen, and tobacco smoke. The system drew in more outside air than contemporary systems; thus, reducing the staleness associated with automotive air conditioning at the time. Instead of plastic tubes mounted on the rear window package shelf as on GM 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]

Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile added air conditioning as an option on some of their models in the 1953 model year.[5] All of these Frigidaire systems used separate engine and trunk mounted components.[6][7]

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.[8][9] 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.[10] This was the first mass market system with controls on the dash and an electric clutch.[11] This system was also compact and serviceable with all of its components installed under the hood or in the cowl area.[12]

Combining heating, cooling, and ventilating, the new air conditioning system for the Nash cars was called the "All-Weather Eye".[13] This followed the marketing name of "Weather Eye" for Nash's fresh-air automotive heating and ventilating system that was first used in 1938.[12] With a single thermostatic control, the Nash passenger compartment air cooling option was "a good and remarkably inexpensive" system.[14] The system had cold air for passengers enter through dash-mounted vents.[15] Nash's exclusive "remarkable advance" was not only the "sophisticated" unified system, but also its $345 price that beat all other systems.[16]

Most competing systems used a separate heating system and an engine-mounted compressor, driven by the engine crankshaft 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."[17]

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. 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 affect the cooling system of the vehicle.

The innovation was adopted quickly and new features to air conditioning like the Cadillac Comfort Control which was a completely automatic heating and cooling system set by dial thermostat was introduced as an industry first in the 1964 model year.[18] 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.[19] American Motors made air conditioning standard equipment on all AMC Ambassadors starting with the 1968 model year, a first in the mass market, with a base price starting at $2,671.[20][21] By 1969, 54% of 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.[22]

Evaporative cooling[edit]

A car cooler is an automobile window-mounted evaporative cooler, sometimes referred to as a swamp cooler.[23][24] It was an early type of automobile air conditioner[25] and is not used in modern cars.

To cool the air it used latent heat (in other words, cooling by water evaporation).[26] 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.[26][27] 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.

Operating principles[edit]

A simple stylized diagram of the refrigeration cycle: 1) condensing coil, 2) expansion valve, 3) evaporator coil, 4) compressor
Regassing the air conditioning of a Ford Focus.

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 great outdoors).

Circulating refrigerant gas vapor enters the gas compressor 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 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 a thermal 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 coil 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.

It is possible, indeed very likely, that the refrigerant over time, will leak from the system, resulting in poor air conditioning performance and potentially expensive part replacement. So it's vital that every 2 or 3 years you have your car air con recharged.[28]

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.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "First Air Conditioned Auto". Popular Science. 123 (5): 30. November 1933. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  2. ^ "Michigan Fast Facts and Trivia". Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  3. ^ Alder, Dennis (2004). Packard. MBI Publishing. 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. ^ "1953 Cadillac Brochure". p. 5. Archived from the original on 7 February 2015. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  6. ^ "1953-Buick Heating and AC Folder". pp. 10–11. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  7. ^ "1953 Oldsmobile Brochure". p. 23. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  8. ^ "Nash Low Cost Air Conditioner Cools or Heats by Turning Knob". Popular Mechanics. 101 (5): 86. May 1954. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  9. ^ "One Control Heating Cooling". Motor. 101: 54. 1954. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  10. ^ Gunnell, John, ed. (1987). The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946–1975. Krause Publications. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-87341-096-0. 
  11. ^ Daly, Steven (2006). Automotive Air-Conditioning and Climate Control Systems. Elsevier Science & Technology Books. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-7506-6955-9. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  12. ^ a b Wolfe, Steven J. (2000). "HVAC Time Line". Refrigeration Service Engineers Society Twin Cities Chapter. Archived from the original on 21 November 2009. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  13. ^ "News of the Automotive World - Nash Air Conditioner Combines Heating, Cooling, and Ventilating". Automotive Industries. 110: 86. 1954. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  14. ^ Stevenson, Heon J. (2008). American Automobile Advertising, 1930–1980: An Illustrated History. McFarland. p. 177. ISBN 978-0-7864-3685-9. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  15. ^ Binder, Al; the Ward's staff (2 February 2001). "Rearview Mirror". Ward's AutoWorld. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  16. ^ Auto Editors of Consumer Guide (29 November 2007). "1953–1955 Nash and Hudson Ramblers". Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  17. ^ Nunney, Malcolm J. (2006). Light and Heavy Vehicle Technology. Elsevier Science & Technology Books. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-7506-8037-0. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ 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. 
  20. ^ Lintern, Mike (1977). Complete guide to American cars, 1966-76. AutoMedia. p. 32. ISBN 9780905395012. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  21. ^ "U.S. Business: Shuffle & Cut". Time. 6 October 1967. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  22. ^ "Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Timeline". National Academy of Engineering. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  23. ^ 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"."
  24. ^ Heitmann, John Alfred (2009). The Automobile and American Life. McFarland. p. 151. ISBN 9781476601991. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  25. ^ Hinckley, p. 54
  26. ^ a b Sibley, p. 221
  27. ^ "The Easy Way". Popular Mechanics. 75 (5): 676–677. May 1941. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 
  28. ^ "Car AC Regas, Mobile Car Air Conditioning Recharge in the UK | Cool Car". Cool Car Air Conditioning. Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  29. ^ "Impact of Vehicle Air-Conditioning on Fuel Economy" (PDF). National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Retrieved 16 April 2015. 

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