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Air Conditioning

By Jeff Zurschmeide

It’s hard to find a new car today that doesn’t include air conditioning. Only the most stripped-down loss-leaders on the dealer lots fail to include A/C as a standard feature. Yet for classic cars, the ability to blow cold is a rare and highly desirable option. Air conditioning was comparatively rare before the mid-1960s, but the first automobile to be offered with an optional air conditioner was the 1939 Packard. Other companies followed with A/C as they were able. For example, General Motors first offered an air conditioner in the 1954 Pontiac line, and then slowly expanded the option throughout its brand lineup.

As a restorer, your concern with A/C, if your car is so equipped, has to do with making it work again. Because of the nature of its technology, an air conditioning system must be sealed from the outside environment. This is necessary to keep the refrigerant pure and under positive pressure. Over time, the seals, pumps and valves that control the refrigerant dry out and leak. These pumps, seals, and valves must be refreshed or replaced. Luckily, those parts are available, but the coolant originally used in the classic cars has been banned for environmental reasons.

Until 1995, most cars with air conditioning used R-12 Freon refrigerant, which has a negative side effect of damaging the ozone layer. Consequently, R-12 is no longer produced in most countries. The new standard product is R-134a, which is a good product, but perhaps not as chilly as R-12. However, R-134a also eliminates the environmental hazards of R-12 and in most cars will work just fine to blow cold.

Depending on the make and model of your car, the steps to restore your A/C system will be different, but there are businesses that specialize in A/C restoration and they will happily give you both the required parts and instructions to cool your car.

If your goal is to add A/C to a car that was not so equipped from the factory, these businesses can also help you do that. The parts and bracketry are generally available, though finding a parts car for original pieces will always be cheaper and more accurate.

It was also possible to retrofit a car with an aftermarket A/C system starting in the 1960s. If your car has a system that includes a separate blower and plenum that bolts on under the dashboard and hoses running through homemade holes in the firewall, you may have an aftermarket A/C. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view about customization. It’s period-correct, but not concours! Finding replacement parts for something like this can be challenging, but read on...

If your car is an orphan with an unusual air conditioning system, do not despair! Air conditioning was generally purchased from supplier companies, and your model may use the same components as one of the larger automakers of the same year. In the worst case, your parts may be restorable, and several of the vintage air conditioning businesses can perform that restoration to bring your old parts back to as-new condition.

As you restore your air conditioner be sure to attend to your A/C condenser (the part that looks like a radiator) as well as the other components. Like any aluminum radiator, this part is subject to acidic damage from the refrigerant and can become brittle and crack over time--leading to pressure loss and the coolant leaking out of the system. An A/C shop or radiator shop can pressure-test and restore your radiator at the same time you restore the rest of the system.

Dos and Don'ts
Thumb up  DO
  • Make sure your older A/C system is well-sealed
  • Convert your system to R-134a refrigerant
  • Check your A/C radiator for leaks
  • Photograph and retain your old parts for reference and rebuild

Thumb down  DON’T
  • Don’t ignore an A/C system that leaks coolant
  • Don’t expect that a complete aftermarket system will fool a concours judge
  • Don’t simply recharge the system without restoring the components
  • Don’t throw away any old components
The Popular Restorations Feature Car
Author photo

1946 Packard: Air Conditioning Considerations



As with most 1946 cars, the Popular Restorations feature car did not come with air conditioning, despite the fact that Packard was the first production car to be offered with air conditioning beginning in 1939 at a price of $274. According to a number of articles air conditioning was available on Packard Clippers which debuted in 1941 but apparently this option was discontinued with the advent of World War II and not available again until 1953.

So, air conditioning would not be “correct” for this car. Aftermarket AC units are available for many classic cars but for the more uncommon models (like this one) you have to craft your own mounting brackets that hold the pump onto the engine. You also need to purchase a new, longer fan belt (the wide ones can be expensive.) In some if not all cases, the fans that come with the aftermarket six volt units do not provide a lot of circulation which would be a significant issue in a large car. Of the restoration mechanics I’ve spoken to, most agree that a 12 volt conversion is the best option if you decide to install after-market air conditioning.

I believe with a Full Classic its best to keep it period correct. And, this one does have a nice cowl vent and wind wings that, when turned open all the way, blow plenty of air into the cabin.



Classic Auto Air

By Jeff Zurschmeide

Tim Cordileone - General Mgr and VP
7345 Tower St.
Richland Hills, Texas 76118

PR: What should an classic restorer know about restoring an air conditioning system?

CAA: You have to determine if the AC is working or not. If it’s not working, you have to start with anything that contains refrigerant. That would be hoses, compressor, condenser, evaporator, and any of the valves. The parts can vary depending on the year and the make, but they’re all going to have a condenser, and they’re all going to have an evaporator, hoses, compressor, and a dryer.

PR: Do you have all parts back to the beginning of air conditioning for all cars?

CAA: We specialize in GM, Ford, and Mopar from the mid-50s up to the early 80s. Generally if we can’t offer a part outright, we can offer restoration services. For most brands, we can restore the original parts from their air conditioners.

PR: Should people worry about their air conditioner parts going bad after restoration?

CAA: Generally the two things that kill air conditioning systems are contaminants and non-use. If you don’t use them, they lose their refrigerant and the seals dry up. That happens over a number of years. Contaminants are an issue, because a compressor might go bad and the customer just changes the compressor, but doesn’t flush the system out or change the filter dryer and do the rest of the due diligence. If you open up a system to the atmosphere but do not change the filter dryer - that piece pulls moisture out of the system. When you don’t refresh the dryer, the moisture combines with the refrigerant and lubricant and turns acidic and starts eating the system from the inside out.

PR: Do you have any other advice for the restorer?

CAA: Don’t throw anything away! Don’t assume on an older car that you can just call up and get new ones. Most people who have performed restorations don’t throw anything away. Even if you can’t use that part, it can be used as a sample. That’s the most important thing. And there aren’t many manuals about air conditioning, so take lots of pictures so you know how it goes together. In the digital age, that’s so easy to do.

Click on any item below for more details at Amazon.com

Mike Stubblefield, John H. Haynes, John Harold Haynes
The Haynes Automotive Heating & Air Conditioning Systems Manual
Haynes Pubns, Paperback, 1994-01
This is an excellent book. It is outdated but that may be helpful when restoring older cars. It is mostly for R12 systems.

Steven Daly
Automotive Air Conditioning and Climate Control Systems
Butterworth-Heinemann, Paperback, 2006-10-03
A complete text and reference on the theoretical, practical and legislative aspects of vehicle climate control systems for automotive engineering students and service professionals.

Thomas S. Birch
Automotive Heating & Air Conditioning (5th Edition)
Prentice Hall, Paperback, 2009-02-19
This book is correlated to NATEF and ASE and provides a complete, state-of-the-art source on automotive heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

Chilton Company
Chilton’s 1973 Auto Air Conditioning Manual
Chilton Company, Hardcover, 1973

An excellent manual for 60s and early 70s cars.

External Links

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) website has a two-part article on automotive air conditioning titled Riding in Comfort.

VintageAir.com has an excellent 12 page guide on automotive air conditioning called The Basics. Be sure to check it out.

MuscleCarClub.com has a page in their library with a glossary of air condtioning terms.

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