As our summer temperatures start to rise, there is one thing we can all be thankful for – and that’s AC in our cars. But it wasn’t always that way. Not that long ago, air conditioning for cars had not been invented yet. Cars were manufactured with open windows and doors and drivers back then kept cool the old fashioned way, through wind and fresh air. If you’re wondering how we went from open air cars to keeping the inside cool at the press of a button, read our complete history of auto AC and refrigerant.

Early auto cooling

The earliest vehicles were designed to be open air – including those early Model T’s which had no doors and a collapsible roof. Most drivers in this era were more concerned with how to keep warm in the winter over keeping cool in the summer. Shortly thereafter, closed body vehicles (with doors) followed with drivers cooling down by opening their windows as they drove. These cars were equipped with vents under the dashboard to circulate air coming in from the open windows. While this was a step toward auto AC, it didn’t keep dirt and dust from getting inside the car. This drove car makers back to the drawing board for more innovation.

New innovations in cooling

Next came a couple of steps toward our modern auto AC cooling. The Knapp Limo-Sedan fan hit the market as a first step keeping drivers and passengers cool. This was an electric fan mounted to the interior of the car. Shortly after this release, drivers had a 2nd option called a car cooler. This was attached to the roof of the car and used water evaporation to deliver cool air through the open windows. This new option could reduce the car temperature by 15-20 degrees.

Air conditioned cars and the 1940s

Packard became the first auto manufacturer to offer factory installed air conditioning in their cars. The AC unit was located in the trunk and required drivers to get out of the car and manually install or remove the drive belt from the compressor. This was done in order to turn it on and off. This unit could only circulate air inside the cabin of the car, and did not incorporate the outside air. Several drawbacks of this unit included drivers needing to manually turn on and off in the trunk, and the condensed water running overhead was known to drip water on car passengers.

Post World War II

After the end of World War II, air conditioning became an option for most cars. Before the war, about 3,000 cars had AC systems, and after the war about 1 million cars had AC. In 1953, General Motors, Chrysler, and Packard all introduced new AC systems. GM developed a revolutionary system that fit in a car’s engine. In 1963, Cadillac made a breakthrough with the invention of comfort control with these systems. For the first time, drivers could set and control their car’s interior temperature.

Environmental Concerns & AC

By the 1970s, scientists discovered the compounds chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the earth’s ozone layer. Auto air conditioning systems used a refrigerant which was a CFC called R12, also known as Freon. The car industry knew a new option needed to be developed. After years of testing, a suitable replacement was found in the refrigerant R-134a. And in 1987, the U.S. government signed the Montreal compact. This required refrigerant manufacturers to make the switch to environmentally friendly refrigerants (without CFCs) by 1996.

Modern day auto AC systems

Today, almost every new car comes with an AC system (only 1 % of cars are not equipped with them). Drivers have the luxury of highly advanced dual and rear climate control for the interior of their car. While refrigerants are now environmentally better and using your AC can decrease your fuel efficiency by 25%. Some simple tips to increase fuel efficiency while using your AC system: only use your AC when driving at highway speeds, stop idling with your AC turned on, and open your windows before turning on your AC to let out the hot air on a warm summer day.

While we may take the luxury of modern AC in our cars for granted, it’s important to keep your AC system well maintained. If you haven’t scheduled your spring maintenance check to make sure your AC is ready for the dog days of summer, we’d love to help. Make a maintenance appointment, and we’ll get you back to enjoying the summer no matter where you drive.