Virtually every car today has air conditioning (AC) in it. However, there was a time when air conditioning was brand new and a very expensive accessory.  Let’s go back in time and take a look.

In the early 1930s, the first automotive AC systems were being installed in cars by a New York City firm. According to a 1933 Popular Science article, these systems utilized a large compressor, similar to home refridgerator units, which was mounted under the floor boards. These early automotive air conditioning systems were very expensive and, as such, were only installed in expensive cars.

The Packard Motorcar Company was the first company to install air conditioning at the factory.  Their slogan was "Forget the heat this summer in the only air-conditioned car in the world."  Unlike the dash mounted units today, the evaporator (cooling coil) was located in the trunk with a fan blowing cold air into the passenger compartment. In order to turn the system off, you had to go under the hood and remove the drive belt from the A/C compressor.  The only on-off switch was on the fan. One of the major issues that slowed adoption of AC at this time was simply cost. To purchase a Packard with AC cost an additional $274 at a time when the average yearly income is $1,368.

In 1941, Cadillac produced some 300 cars with AC. Like Packard, the cooling coil was located in the trunk.  These systems also had no compressor clutch so the only control was by shutting the fan on and off. Cadillac improved on this after World War II by developing controls. The only problem was that this "improved" system had controls mounted on the shelf behind the rear seat.

Chrysler offered their “Airtemp” system in 1942. Some considered the Chrysler "Airtemp" system a better design than the GM system because it ran quieter and had flat ducts located behind the rear seat that directed cool air toward the ceiling of the car. This preventing the air from blowing directly at passengers like the other systems did.  

It wouldn't be until the mid-1950s that affordable air conditioning units could be offered by the auto industry. The 1954 Pontiacs were the first cars to be outfitted with AC.  They were the first to offer a magnetic clutch on the compressor so when the AC was not in use, no power was needed.

It was Ford’s turn in 1956 when AC was offered on most Ford models. Ford's “Select-Aire” system was installed by the factory and was the first system that directed air through the vents just below the windshield.  Ford also offered a dealer-installed air conditioner called “Polar-Aire” which was a stand-alone hang-on unit.

Today, automotive AC systems are a mature technology and Patrick Autobody of Schaumburg, IL, a factory-authorized body shop, says they are installed on 95% of the cars sold in the United States.  They are standard equipment and rarely broken out as an accessory. Often they are integrated into sophisticated cabin temperature control systems.  This allows one to set the cabin temperature one desires and the system either turns on the AC or the heater depending what is needed..

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