Air conditioning is one of those modern marvels most of us have grown used to by now—perhaps too used to. Believe it or not, people survived in the days before reliable, widely-available aircon, and you can, too. Here’s our guide on how to embrace the sweaty life without dying.
Sometimes you have no other choice. My old crapcan Nissan Altima ate head gaskets like candy, and it would automatically switch off the air conditioner when it started to overheat. Unfortunately, that was my only car at the time and I spent far too many late summer days in triple-digit heat before my parents and I figured out the problem.
Yet some of the best cars I’ve ever driven either left the air conditioner out to save weight, or the HVAC system just plain didn’t work. Drive these anyway! I’ve had more fun driving around my Porsche 944 race car lately than anything else, and that sucker’s aircon parts were sold off in the name of “adding lightness” years ago.
Likewise, the Baja Beetle that codriver Dusty Ventures and I borrowed for the inaugural LeMons Rally didn’t have air conditioning, either. We made it all the way across Death Valley in August heat—while my codriver had a stomach bug that turned the rally into The Great Bathroom Tour of the Southwest, no less—without a single source of artificial coolness along the way.
Learn from my gallons and gallons of previous butt sweat, and make your peace with summer driving once and for all.
You’re going to sweat. Lots. The amount you’ll sweat depends on a variety of factors like humidity, temperature and your own body’s tolerances for such, but let’s not make any excuses here. You will bathe from head-to-toe in an all-encompassing briny mist of your own gross body-juice.
If you have a choice of cars, maybe your 1930s project truck isn’t the best choice for when it’s 95 degrees and muggy and you have to look presentable for work. But if you don’t have a choice, dress accordingly.
Don’t straighten your hair if you know it will only frizz back up at the slightest bit of perspiration. Avoid that shirt that makes your armpit sweat far too noticeable to the rest of the universe—and then never dries out. Wear something cool for your own sake and make sure it will still look okay with some perspiration on it.
But accept that you will sweat. Love it. Cherish it. My Altima’s air conditioning went out right around the time Top Gear played a game called “Car Sauna”—which is exactly what it sounds like.
I can’t recommend playing “Car Sauna” because it sounds like an exceedingly dumb way to go to the emergency room. I mean, it’s either that or lose, and I won’t lose. Yet as a person who enjoys saunas, envisioning the car as a rolling sauna somehow helped me cope with an aircon-less summer. People pay good money to sweat this much, and this junkyard-bound piece of crap is giving it to me for free! That’s a deal.
Now that you’re comfortable with the idea of being in a rolling sweatbox, you need to feed the sweat. Dehydration is one of the biggest risks in a car with no air conditioning, and you need to remember to drink water before, during and after your time in the car.
Does your pee look more like maple syrup? Well-hydrated pee is more clear than yellow, so that’s one of the easiest to spot signs that you’re dehydrated.
Alternately, follow your thirst. If your mouth feels like you just ate a fistful of sawdust, you’re not drinking enough water. And yes, we mean water. Cokes won’t help you as much here. Salty snacks or sports drinks can sometimes help you retain a bit more water, but you’ve still got to drink regular, plain water around those.
If you don’t feel like you’re going to float away when you get in the car, you probably should have drank more water. Take some with you just in case—even a gross warm bottle of water from under the seat is better than nothing.
I hate getting blasted with air through an open car window, but nothing heats up as insanely fast as an enclosed car in the summer heat. Sorry! You need to let some outside air flow in the cabin to cool things off so you don’t die.
If you have an air conditioner that’s not working right, sometimes you can briefly get away with just running the HVAC system’s fan to create much-needed airflow inside the car. This always sort of helps for a little while, but once the car warms up, the fan starts to spit warm air back at you even though it’s not set to heat the car.
So, like it or not, you need to open the window and let the inevitably cooler outside air into the car. A good compromise is to merely crack the window. Let some airflow in, but don’t let so much in that it whips your sweat-soaked mass of frizzy hair back into your mouth.
The only issue with this is that it can be deceptively warm inside a car even with the windows cracked. I once didn’t realize how hot it was inside a Porsche 924S with broken aircon until I realized I’d left something in the backseat. I opened the door back up only a moment after I got out of the car and it was like getting kicked in the face with a thick mass of armpit funk. Gross.
As with hydration, you have to pay closer attention than usual to how you feel. If merely having cracked windows feels too hot, it’s best to just open your window up all the way and let the outside air blast in. Your hair will be blown to smithereens, but the inside of your car will be infinitely more tolerable and you won’t pass out behind the wheel from the heat. That’s a pretty fair trade-off, all things considered. Bring a hair tie if you’ve got long hair, and the biggest sunglasses you can find.
Unless your beloved project car doesn’t have headlamps, your best bet for keeping cool is in the evening hours, when temperatures drop to their lowest point of the day.
There’s no sun beating down on your windows, turning your car’s interior into a giant oven. You can feel less like an ant getting scorched by some bratty kid with a microscope, and more like a functional human being.
Maybe this means running some errands after dark, or getting up earlier to go to work, but avoiding your sweaty car during the hottest parts of the day is one of the easiest ways to beat the heat.
If there’s a theme to this advice, it’s “listen to your body.” It’s easy to get distracted by bad traffic, good radio, bad radio, the sweat dripping off your face, or whatever. But remember: not dying is more important than anything else—even more so than getting places on time. If you start to feel dizzy, loopy, weak or sick, pull over as soon as you can.
If you’re traveling with someone, you need to be extra careful. If you have a kid, a pet or someone who’s more sensitive to the heat, drop those windows down all the way, just in case—and pay extra attention to their needs. Make sure you’ve got extra water on hand just for them.
If you or your travel companions have to take a break, pull over and take it. Now isn’t the time to call them a bunch of weenies and tell them to deal with it. Summer heat can be deadly. Get out of the car for some fresh air, let the wind dry the accumulated perspiration from your butt and let everyone catch their breath.
We want you to enjoy the best cars this summer—not die in them. Know your limits and be careful, and you, too, can survive this summer. You may even grow to enjoy your status as Conqueror Of All That Is Heat, and laugh at all the puny weaklings who aren’t on your level.