A Brief History of Automotive Air Conditioning for Those in Online Automotive School

Many drivers can’t live without automotive air conditioning, especially during the summer months. But how did come to be a feature in vehicles in the first place? 

Auto manufacturing has come a long way from the open-bodied vehicles of decades gone by, but installing A/C units in closed-body vehicles didn’t catch on until surprisingly late in auto history. While air conditioning is nowadays a standard feature of virtually every vehicle on the road, it wasn’t always — in fact, there hadn’t always been a need or desire for it. Here’s a breakdown of how air conditioning systems made their way into cars.

Early History and Developments in Auto A/C

The first known use of an air conditioning system in an automobile came in 1939, when Packard made its 1940 model with a factory-installed A/C unit. While it would be the first car to do so, other companies were not initially quick to follow suit and install their own, and Packard ceased production of air-conditioned cars in 1941 due to lack of commercial success. 

The so-called “weather conditioner” didn’t appeal to consumers as much as you might think, especially considering it had to be ordered as a conversion done by another company, and cars that did get it were subject to frequent servicing and malfunctioning. It was only after World War II ended that aftermarket A/C units would become more commonplace within vehicles.

A/C units initially did not sell well with consumers in the 1940s

Auto Air Conditioning in the 50s and 60s

Students doing their automotive training online may also be surprised to learn that air conditioning units in cars wouldn’t become common standard features until the ‘50s. This would come after General Motors began offering Frigidaire A/C systems in many of their vehicles, with companies like Pontiac and Chrysler (with its Airtemp) following GM’s lead soon after. In the mid ‘50s, the Nash Ambassador would boast a system complete with air conditioning, ventilating, and heating at the front of the vehicle. 

By the time the early ‘60s came around, air conditioning units would become increasingly common and more popular with cars. However, questions would be raised over time regarding their impact on the environment and particularly the ozone layer, due to the common use of the refrigerant R12. Eventually, auto manufacturers would switch to the safer R134a refrigerant for their A/C units, and R12 would be banned, leading to further advancement of automotive air conditioning.

There were concerns over the environmental safety of A/C units in cars

What Automotive Air Conditioning Has Become Today

By the 1990s, all car manufacturers would use R134a for their A/C units. However, there continues to be criticism over how safe these units are from an ecological standpoint, as it still releases pollutants into the air. With this in mind, a less environmentally harmful refrigerant called R-1234yf is now used for some automotive air conditioning systems. 

Regardless of which side you’re on as an automotive school student, it’s hard for anyone to deny that it’s extremely difficult to imagine cars without these systems pre-installed. Although not every part of the world has been as quick to embrace them (A/C units were not standard in more than two-thirds of cars in Europe at the turn of the millennium), it’s safe to say many drivers are very, very fortunate they have something to cool them down when driving on hot, sunny days.

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