The “Dog Days” of Summer and your AC

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Lets Talk Cars  August 2013

Remember the days before there even WAS air conditioning in cars? Courtesy Photo
Remember the days before there even WAS air conditioning in cars? Courtesy Photo

By Dennis Whitestone

The “Dog Days” of summer are upon us. For the Washington, DC, area that means hot, humid and hazy. Not to worry – just crank up the air conditioner and let the cool air flow!

But, that wasn’t always the case, particularly when it came to the family car. Actually, it wasn’t until 1969 that air conditioning was available in more than half of all assembly line produced vehicles.

In 1939 Packard Motor Company became the first to offer air conditioning to its customers. The evaporator system took up the entire trunk space of the vehicle, preventing owners from using the trunk for anything else. In 1941 Cadillac came out with their AC system.

Those early attempts at auto air conditioning were not only cumbersome but also demanding of a driver’s time. There was no automatic compressor clutch in the 41 Cady model. If one wanted the air off it required stopping the car, getting out, and removing the belt.

Then came World War II and production of automobiles ceased. The factories were turned into assembly lines for war time equipment — trucks, tanks and other military vehicles. The next automobiles didn’t roll off those assembly lines until 1947.

Prior to air conditioners being made part of the new cars after the war there were what was known as “bullet” air conditioning units. These large metal units fit on to the windows of the car, were filled with water, and pumped cool air into the passenger space. They needed refilling about every four to five hours of driving time.

In 1953 the Chrysler Imperial was the first mass production automobile to offer air conditioning. Then in 1954 the Harrison Radiator Division of General Motors made affordable units to be mass produced. They were introduced in the 1954 Pontiacs.

That was the same year that the Nash Ambassador became the first automobile to offer a fully integrated heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system. It was patterned after the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation’s refrigeration units, but so compact that it could be completely installed under the car’s hood.

By 1969 air conditioning became a standard offering in more than half the cars mass produced in this country. Some brands had window stickers that heralded the fact that the car had air conditioning. For those models not equipped with factory installed units there were under the dash units that could be installed by dealers.

They became so popular that a 1971 front page story in the New York Times predicted the demise of the convertible because “in the age

of air conditioning, real air has lost its value.” And, that almost became the case when the automotive giants stopped making convertibles for a period of time.

The last full size convertible to come off the assembly line was the Bi-centennial edition of the 1976 Cadillac. Convertibles didn’t reappear in mass production again until the late 1980’s.

But, automobile air conditioning was about to run up against another opponent — the U.S. Government. After the freon used in air conditioning systems, known as R-12, was blamed for helping to deplete the ozone layer, the government mandated that manufactures switch from R-12 to the less harmful R-134a.

The latter is more efficient and less harmful to the ozone layer. Therefore, all cars built after 1995 must use R-134a as the refrigerant in their air conditioning systems. And, only licensed air conditioning technicians are approved to do AC work using the proper equipment.

Prior to the change over from R-12, the old freon was let out into the atmosphere when air conditioners were being serviced. With the advent of R-134a the freon is now captured. Automobiles also require less R-134a than R-12. Systems used to carry approximately four to seven pounds of R-12. Most vehicles now contain approximately two pounds of R-134a, which presents a far lesser risk to the ozone layer if it escapes during an accident. A.C. systems have improved dramatically over the years. They cool better and use less freon which saves on the cost of repair and is also better for the earth’s ozone layer.

Many car models now also feature what is known as a “cabin filter.” Air from the outside is taken into the car passes through this filter which helps clean the air of most of its impurities. Better air to breathe and cooler air makes a very good system for both the driver and any passengers that may be in the vehicle.

Cabin filters can need replacement as often as every 15,000 miles. That is more frequent than the engine air filter. But, in my opinion, it is very worthwhile for those in the vehicle. AC systems have become much more modernized and efficient. That trend will probably continue into the future as vehicles and people become more environmentally sensitive.