Car Air Conditioning: A Brief History

There was a time when vehicle air conditioning was “the newest thing” and an unusual automotive accessory. Did you know that it wouldn’t be until the mid-1950s that an affordable air conditioning unit could be mass produced by the automobile industry? How interesting. Let’s hop in our time machine, and examine the facts. Enjoy the adventure!

In 1902, Willis Carrier invented the first modern air-conditioning system to control humidity at the printing plant where he worked in New York. However, the premier automotive AC systems were born in the 1930s. As a 1933 Popular Science article indicates, a third-party custom installed these super interesting units. The third party used a large compressor mounted under the floor boards. These automotive air conditioning systems were expensive, and they were only outfitted in limousines and fancy cars. So much for someone needing to save money having one.

The first company to offer AC as factory-installed was Packard.  They advertised the mechanical feature by saying “Forget the heat this summer in the only air-conditioned car in the world.”  Unlike dash-mounted systems in the modern day, the cooling coil (evaporator) was in the trunk with a fan blowing cool air into the passenger compartment.

To turn off Packard’s system, you needed to remove the drive belt from the A/C compressor.  The one on-off switch was on the fan. One of the problems that slowed AC adoption at this time was money. To buy a Packard with AC cost an additional $274 when the average annual income was $1,368.

General Motors was next.  In 1941 Cadillac created approximately 300 vehicles with AC, which like the Packard, was in the vehicles’ trunks.  The units also had no compressor clutch, so the only control was by shutting the fan on and off. Cadillac improved this after World War II by creating controls. The only drawback to that “improved” system was that the driver had to get into the rear seat to operate it. That must have been really, super convenient.

GM first equipped its 1954 Pontiac with a new mass-produced system. The automaker was also the first to offer a magnetic clutch on the compressor, so when it was not in use, no power was required.

Little documentation exists on Ford’s air conditioning development, but by the late 1950s AC was offered on several Ford models. Ford’s “Select-Aire” system was the first to direct air through the vents below the windshield.  Ford also offered a dealer-installed air conditioning system called Polar-Aire, a stand-alone hang-on system.

Today, automotive AC systems are a necessary technology and are found in 95% of the vehicles sold in America.  They’re usually built into cabin temperature control systems to work with the cabin’s heating system.  In most automobiles, one can set the temperature one desires the cabin to be at and the system either turns on the AC or the heater depending on the outside temperature.