Today, an air conditioning unit is considered to be standard equipment in most cars, but automobiles have sure come a long way since the early days. It seems obvious when you think about it, but when you start up your car or truck or SUV or Jeep and head out on the road, you’re turning knobs, pushing buttons, and making adjustments almost subconsciously. It’s easy to take for granted all the bells and whistles that make daily commutes to work, quick errands, and longer road trips much more comfortable.
Take air conditioning, for example. It’s something we’ve relied on for decades behind the wheel, and on an especially sweltering day, a good air conditioning system blasting out cool air is a godsend. But, believe it or not, there was a time when automotive air conditioning wasn’t a thing. So, when exactly did cars first get A/C? Let’s take a look!
Air Conditioning in Cars: From the 1930s to Today
While a number of American car manufacturers, including General Motors, experimented with car air conditioning systems during the 1930s, luxury car company Packard became the first carmaker to produce vehicles with factory A/C systems in 1939. Chrysler and Cadillac followed Packard’s lead at the height of World War II, but these factory-installed systems were costly and had frequent mechanical issues. Until the 1950s, the automotive industry moved to aftermarket systems to service air conditioning needs.
During the 1953 model year, Chrysler’s development of the Airtemp air conditioning system led to the resurgence of factory A/C units in cars. Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile followed Chrysler’s lead with Frigidaire systems using separate engine and trunk-mounted components. In 1954, Nash and Pontiac introduced full integrated A/C systems.
Climate control settings were introduced by Cadillac in 1964, and, by 1969, more than half of all new cars sold were equipped with A/C. However, in the 1970s, the effect of a car’s air conditioning on the environment became a massive issue. In 1971, the New York Times even featured a front-page story, claiming that “in the age of air-conditioning, real air has lost its value.” By 1996, automakers were required to switch from R12 to R134a refrigerant, as the freon used in A/C units was blamed for depleting the ozone layer.
While there are a handful of vehicles that do not feature air conditioning in their base models (Chevrolet Aveo, Honda Civic, Jeep Wrangler, and Toyota Tacoma), nowadays, more than 99 percent of all new cars are air-conditioned.