Blog: Graeme RobertsChillin' in the car for over 75 years

Graeme Roberts | 30 November 2015

Two-zone, automatic climate controller for a recent BMW - that 1939 Packard show car did not even have a thermostat

Two-zone, automatic climate controller for a recent BMW - that 1939 Packard show car did not even have a thermostat

A small milestone was passed at the weekend - the 28th of November, the US Census Profile America feature tells us, was the day in 1939 at the 40th Chicago auto show, Packard (RIP) unveiled the first US car with air conditioning.

The cooling and heating equipment in the Packard was located behind the rear seat in the trunk - boot to us. Treated air reached the passenger compartment through ducts mounted between the seats and the rear window. No thermostat.

Yahoo Autos expands the story by noting the 'Weather Conditioner' was a US $279 option that required the Packard One-Eighty to visit a second factory for installation, since the unit connected to the engine and took up half the boot space; Packard pitched it as not just for comfort but privacy, since riders could finally arrive without having the windows down. The option didn't sell well (there was no way to moderate the air from the unit) and Packard dropped it after 1942.

Of course, other automakers picked up the idea, the kit was shrunk and front-mounted, in-dash integrated, factory-fit and dealer installed under-dash hang-on units became commonplace to the point that, by 1969, according to greatachievements.org, more than half of new automobiles (54%) were equipped with air conditioning, "which is soon a necessity, not only for comfort but also for resale value". By then most new US homes were built with 'central air' conditioning, and window air conditioners were increasingly affordable.

Since then, compressors have shrunk, refrigerants have changed as environment awareness has increased (causing the odd row in the process) and there are now very sophisticated automated systems with up to four zones of control.

Take-up in other markets has varied widely. The Japanese, with an eye on US imports, were well in by the 60s, Holden started doing under-dash factory-fit in Australia in 1968 with Ford doing fully integrated by about 1970. In my native (humid in summer) New Zealand, where the industry had largely pretended a/c did not exist, unlimited supplies of used car imports from Japan, starting the the late '80s and almost all with a/c fitted, had forced standard fit in most new cars by the mid-90s.

Here in Europe, I noticed then-optional a/c in a lot of southern market cars, mainly Spain, in the late 1980s; here in England, the 1993 decision by Peugeot to standard fit in almost all of its D-segment 405s seems to have been a major catalyst - today a/c is is most cars apart from the base versions of smaller models. One has always been able to get 'refrigeration' in one's Rolls-Royce or Bentley for decades, of course.

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