Which Car Company Was the First To Offer Air Conditioning in Its Cars?

Dustin Hawley | Feb 15, 2021

Eight decades ago, cooling the air inside a vehicle was no simple task. After a multitude of unsuccessful attempts from companies across the globe, the Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit, Michigan, eventually broke through and offered factory-installed air-conditioning in its new car models. 

Packard motor company

Yet while this refresh happened all the way back in 1940, it was unfortunatley short-lived. Today, air-conditioning in your vehicle is a necessity, but it was considered a luxury in the past. The journey of A/C innovation is actually quite remarkable and rather captivating. Let’s discuss how the Packard Motor Car Company revolutionized the air conditioning unit and how this utility has evolved into what it has become in its modern iteration. 

Automobile Air Conditioning Through The Years 

Although motor vehicles were commercially available in the 19th century, they were open-body models that enabled air circulation to occur naturally. Around 1908, close-bodied vehicles appeared on the market, and the automobile industry changed forever.

In Search Of A Perfect Cooling System, Automakers Experimented With Various Solutions

The need to keep the inside of a car cool arose with the advent of close-bodied vehicles. In turn, many solutions were attempted, with varying levels of success. 

First, there was an adjustable windshield whose opening was restricted to about 13 mm. It was just enough to minimize the effect of the hot air blowing into the cabin from the engine. Removing the side curtains was another self-explanatory possibility, as it allowed additional air to pass through the inside of the vehicle. When windows eventually replaced side curtains, passengers could crank them up and down to create airflow. 

Another experiment that automakers underwent was putting vents under the dashboard. Cars with convertible tops could have them lowered when in need of fresh air. But while they did provide increased airflow inside of the vehicle, all of these potential solutions were rudimentary ventilation systems, a far cry from being able to filter dirt, dust, or insects while driving. 

Perhaps the most interesting attempt at developing a cooling system for an automobile can be attributed to William Whiteley. In 1884, Whiteley suggested mounting blocks of ice under horse-drawn carriages. A fan was then attached to the axle, and it blew the air over the ice block and inside the carriage. However, the fan and ice system required many pounds of ice, so it wasn’t practical, to say the least. 

Cadillac also experimented with fans, but the true quantum leap occured when General Motors Research Laboratories proposed the idea of the vapor compression system with R12 refrigerant in 1930. However, the public had to wait nearly a decade until 1939, when American manufacturer Packard developed a functioning A/C system. But much like it’s numerous predecessors, it wasn’t as practical as it seemed. 

Packard’s A/C system was not commercially successful for a number of reasons:

  • The main evaporator and blower system took up roughly half of the vehicle’s trunk space.
  • It had no temperature thermostat or shut-off mechanism. The only “control” that drivers had was switching the blower off. However, even with the blower off, cold air would still sometimes enter the cabin of the car, as the drive belt was continuously connected to the compressor. 
  • The several feet of plumbing that ran to and from the engine compartment and trunk proved very unreliable in service.
  • At a price of $274 (roughly $5,000 in today’s money), the unit was simply unaffordable to most people in Depression Era / pre-war America.

Packard discontinued the option after 1941. 

The Name Behind The A/C Pioneer

The Packard Motor Company produced cars between 1899 until 1956 and was a flagship brand for American automobiles. The company was founded by James Ward Packard, who bought the Winton automobile and found himself stranded when the car broke down during its first road trip. Packard, who was a mechanic, was more than displeased with what happened and complained to Winton himself. In turn, Winton challenged him to build a better product, so James teamed up with his brother William to do exactly that. 

To start, they built a one-cylinder vehicle, the Model A, which was met with great success. From that moment on, the brothers continuously aimed for perfection, building several cars that won a couple of cross-country races. One of the primary selling points of Packard vehicles’ was their reliability, a focus that the brothers never deviated from . 

When World War I began, Packard shifted their focus to engine production for boats and aircrafts (the same thing would happen three decades later, during World War II). But in 1919, Packard decided to compete in a broader market. They released the Clipper, which was marketed as a high-end product with a lower price point. 

So why were Clippers so innovative for their time?

  • The Clipper came equipped with an alarm on the gas tank. It whistled while fuel was pumped, and it would stop whistling when the tank was full. In addition, the vehicles door hinges were disguised and hidden from view.
  • Interestingly, Clippers were very wide cars and provided extra interior room and increased stability while steering, particularly while cornering.

While the Clipper was innovative for its time, the sales of luxury vehicles declined during the 1940s and the 1950s, making a tough sell for many struggling Americans. In 1953, Packard lost the deal with Briggs Manufacturing, the company that produced their car bodies. Chrysler jumped in and offered a temporary arrangement in 1956, but nevertheless, the production of Packard automobiles declined rapidly. By the end of the 1960s, Packard was out of business.

Post-Packard Work

In 1953, air-conditioning had its comeback in the automotive industry, and almost 30,000 cars were equipped with factory-installed air conditioning. The Harrison Radiator Division of General Motors developed an A/C system that could be mounted under the hood in the engine compartment, which was quite a novelty. During the next decade, more and more carmakers began to offer air conditioning as an option, including Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, and Plymouth. 

As the demand for air-conditioning continued to rise, the percentage of new cars equipped with A/C grew in tandem. By 1969, more than half of all new cars sold came equipped with air conditioning. But while demand continued growing, automakers were quietly competing with eachother to improve the existing system, attempting to make it quieter and more reliable for consumers. 

During the 70’s, the ozone depletion issue marked a new development in automobile air conditioning. R12 refrigerant was banned entirely and replaced with R134a. Suddenly, the need for additional components appeared, and car companies added condensers, compressors, lubricants, and desiccants to their existing A/C systems. Furthermore, numerous studies have been conducted over the years to prove whether or not air conditioning contributes to fuel-loss in a vehicle. Consumer Reports testing found that the air conditioner resulted in a decrease of roughly 3 mpg at highway speeds. 

Summary

Vehicle air conditioning sure has come a long way since Packard first offered it in 1940. A lot has changed over the years, with advancements in technology and design that have made the A/C units in our cars far more effective, efficient, and reliable than the units of previous generations. The future of A/C units will likely bring continued innovations and improvements to this vital component, and today, nearly all new cars come with the A/C system as a standard option. When it’s all said and done, you can thank the Packard Motor Car Company for the ability to keep your car cool in this day and age.

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