Quick, can you name the greatest technology that's ever been added to the automobile? No, it's not turbos, or anti-lock brakes, or airbags, or magnetic suspensions, although those things are all wonderful. It's air conditioning, and it turns 80 years old this month. Air conditioning is the best thing ever!
I think I may have a greater appreciation for air conditioning than some because I grew up in Texas, where it's unfathomably and insanely hot eight months (or more) out of the year. You never really get used to that heat, and when it hits, a car's air conditioning system can be your only savior.
I can't tell you how many long, sweaty hikes through amusement parks or outdoor music festivals or across my college campus in 105 degree August heat made me feel like I was being baked in an oven. Relief finally came once I reached my car, cranked the AC up to full blast, and got the cabin nice and frosty.
In hot places, air conditioning makes a car more than just a mode of transportation — it becomes a place of refuge, a place of salvation from hellish heat. It's wonderful and we should be thankful for it.
Don't get me wrong, heating is nice too, and equally important, but to me nothing is better than the AC on its coldest setting on a summer day.
Before air conditioning was a staple on cars, the only way to cool off in cars was to be "four and 60," as drivers in the south called it — 60 mph and all four windows down. A few early attempts at air conditioning began in the early 1930s, but according to Automotive News, most were failures:
...non-starters through the 1930s included liquid nitrogen, a 'vapor jet' system that used a water-alcohol mixture, an 'air cycle' system that used a turbine-powered compressor and a 'gasoline vaporization' system that required 26 gallons of gas an hour.
In the 1930s, according to Americans on Vacation, drivers in Southwestern states could rent a 'hang-on' air conditioner that contained cold water or ice in a cylinder that attached to the car window. It cooled the interior when air blew through it.
Popular Mechanics wrote in November 1933 that the first known example of modern-style in-car air conditioning was supplied by an unnamed company in New York that made a business of retrofitting vehicles with an electric cooling and heating system. They promised "all-the-year-round driving comfort, regardless of summer heat or winter cold."
Air was sucked in, filtered, and blown over coils that cooled it thanks to a battery- or generator-powered compressor beneath the floor boards not unlike an electric refrigerator. To generate heat, hot water from the radiator was run through the same coils.
Popular Mechanics noted that the system could be outfitted on "any closed car, old or new." They liked it so much that they predicted it could become standard equipment "even in low-priced cars" within a few years.
In 1939 Packard began offering air conditioning as an option on some of their cars, but it didn't come cheap — it cost $274, or about $4,615 in today's dollars. Their system was ultimately deemed a failure for its size, cost and complexity, and was dropped after just a few model years.
Around the same time, Chrysler's Airtemp subsidiary began putting air conditioning units in buildings like hospitals as well as cars in the 1940s and 1950s. They can be credited with furthering modern AC technology as much as anyone. In 1954, Pontiac found a way to stuff all of the AC components under the hood, which has become standard ever since.
Drivers accustomed to full AC and heating today probably don't realize just how long it took for the technology to catch on. As Automotive News notes, it wasn't until 1969 that the Big Three American automakers had air conditioning on more than half their cars, and it remained an expensive option. In 1977, Cadillac and Lincoln were the only companies with standard air conditioning across their product lines. By the 1990s, 98 percent of all new cars had AC.
Today, our cars exist in a kind of golden age of air conditioning, with multi-zone automatic climate controls and even cooled seats and steering wheels. With air conditioning, mankind has achieved its ultimate triumph over the environment.
If there's a better invention that has been added to cars, I can't think of it. But it's possible too many Texas summers have permanently damaged my brain.
Fuck you, nature! I have air conditioning!