The History of Automotive Air Conditioning

Learn about the history of automotive air conditioning and how it evolved over the decades.

The History of Automotive Air Conditioning

These days, we tend to take automotive air conditioning for granted; after all, pretty much every new car you can buy today comes with air conditioning as standard. However, there was a time at one point when automotive air conditioning was seen as a luxury option rather than a basic necessity, and a time before that when automotive air conditioning wasn't a thing at all.

So, when exactly did the automotive industry start using air conditioning, and what were these early air conditioning systems like? In today's article, we'll be answering those questions and more, so read on if you're interested to know.

Early Attempts at Automotive Air Conditioning

The idea of keeping the interior of a car cool for driver comfort isn't a new one. Ever since the first cars with enclosed interiors appeared, drivers and manufacturers realized that it tends to get pretty warm inside a car, especially when it's running in hot weather.

Before the first air conditioning systems were invented, however, manufacturers tried other things to make car interiors less hot. One of the earliest inventions intended for this purpose was the ventilated seat cushion, which uses small springs to slightly elevate drivers above the actual seat.

This allows air to circulate between the driver and the seat, helping the driver's seat evaporate more easily and keeping them cooler. The ventilated seat cushion was originally introduced in 1919 as the "Kool Kooshion", and it's actually still sold today under the same name by many retailers.

The next step in automotive air conditioning came with the Knapp Limo-Sedan Fan in 1921, which was an aftermarket electric fan that could be installed in any car's interior. Of course, being a fan, it wasn't able to actually affect the interior temperature, and it could only improve air circulation.

The final big innovation before the first real example of an automotive air conditioner appeared came in 1930 with the invention of the car cooler. The car cooler consisted of a canister filled with water, with an air intake on one end and a tube leading to the car's interior at the other.

As air entered the intake, the water inside would evaporate, which would leave behind moist, cool air. This air could then be blown inside the car to cool it off. While car coolers did work in general, they were only really effective in climates with relatively low humidity.

First Car to Have Air Conditioning

Finally, after all that, we come to the first car to actually come with a functional air conditioning system as we know it. In 1939, the company Packard offered the first true automotive air conditioner as an option for their entire model lineup.

This air conditioning system wasn't actually developed by Packard itself; rather, a third-party company called Bishop ; Babcock produced and installed these air conditioners. That being said, the Packard company actively supported Bishop ; Babcock in these conversions, so it was still an official option.

If a customer ordered a Packard with this option, Packard would ship the car to the Bishop ; Babcock factory, where the air conditioner would be installed. The car would then be shipped back to a Packard dealership for the customer to pick up.

Unfortunately, this early attempt at an air conditioning system wasn't all that commercially successful for a few reasons. For one, this air conditioning system was an incredibly expensive option; it cost $274 in 1939, which in 2022 equals over $5,500. Considering that the average price of a new car in 1939 was about $700, this was clearly a hefty price just for an option.

There was also the fact that this air conditioning system was inefficient, unreliable, and also very bulky. Unlike modern cars where the air conditioning system is located in the engine bay, most of the equipment was placed in the trunk of the car, where it ended up taking up half of the available trunk space.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this early air conditioning system was the fact that its temperature couldn't actually be adjusted; it was either on or it was off.

Plus, shutting off the system only shut off the blower and not the air conditioning itself; the system's compressor was continuously driven by the engine, so even with the blower off, cold air would sometimes still enter the cabin while the car was running. The only way to truly turn off the system was to disconnect the drive belt from the compressor.

Thanks to all of these issues, this first attempt at an air conditioning system was only offered by Packard for two years before it was discontinued.

Evolution of Automotive Air Conditioning

After Packard tried and failed to make automotive air conditioning into a thing, it was several years after that before any company would attempt such a thing again. The next automaker to try their hand at creating a functional air conditioning system for their cars was Chrysler in 1953.

Chrylser's air conditioning system, the Airtemp, first appeared in the Chrysler Imperial. The design of this air conditioning system was based on the system used in the Chrysler Building, and while it did have some similarities to Packard's system (most notably the fact that some of the main components were located in the trunk), it also had quite a few improvements.

For one, it was actually possible to control the blower speed with the Airtemp system, and the Airtemp was generally a lot more effective at actually cooling the inside of the car than Packard's system. The Airtemp was also able to draw in more air than other contemporary air conditioning systems, which helped make the air inside the cabin less stale.

The first car to have the first truly modern air conditioning system, though, was the 1954 Nash Ambassador. All of the components of the Ambassador's air conditioning system were located under the hood, and the system was capable of heating, cooling, and ventilating. The system was entirely controlled through dashboard switches.

Not only was Nash's air conditioning system one of the most sophisticated to date, but it was also the least expensive air conditioning system available for any car. Pretty soon, Nash's system would form the basis for all other automotive air conditioning systems that came after it.