As our days start to get hotter, you may be reaching for that knob to turn on your auto air conditioning. And if you’re a little bit curious about history and where your auto AC came from, you may be wondering how we got to the point where we can cool off the inside of our car with the click of a button. In less than a century, we’ve gone from cars without AC to every car having AC installed automatically. If you’d like to know more, then keep reading as we uncover the history of Auto AC and refrigerants.

Early Auto Cooling

The earliest Model Ts had no doors and a collapsible roof. Car owners were more concerned about keeping warm in the winter instead of cool in the summer. In those early days, auto cooling was automatic and relied on open air doors and roofs to keep drivers and passengers cool while driving.

Shortly thereafter, closed body vehicles were invented with doors and windows. At this time, drivers would cool down the inside of the cars simply by opening their windows. Cars would come with vents underneath the dashboard that would circulate the outside air in an attempt to keep everyone cool. This system had one drawback: it didn’t keep dirt and dust from getting inside the car like our AC systems do today.

First steps to innovation

Once vents were installed underneath the dash, car makers got to work innovating an even more effective way to cool off the inside of the car. The Knapp Limo-Sedan Fan hit the market which consisted of an electric fan that was mounted to the interior of the car. A second option for car owners was the car cooler which was attached to the roof of the car and used water evaporation to deliver cool air through the open windows. While these innovations were an improvement over the open air, they could only reduce the interior car temperature by 15-20 degrees.

The first factory installed air conditioning system

In the 1940s, Packard became the first automaker to offer factory installed AC. The unit was installed in the trunk and was manually operated. This required the driver to get out of the car and manually install or remove the drive belt from the compressor to turn it on or off. This unit did not circulate outside air, and only circulated inside air to cool off the interior of the car. It used condensed water that ran overhead in the car with the biggest complaint being water would drip on passengers as it cooled.

Post-war Improvements

Before World War II began, there were about 3,000 cars that had air conditioning, but after the War there were over 1 million cars with air conditioning. In 1953, General Motors, Chrysler, and Packed all introduced new AC systems for cars, and the GM Radiator Division developed a revolutionary system that fit in a car’s engine. In other words, no more hopping out of the car and into your trunk to turn your AC on and off. In 1963, Cadillac made a breakthrough invention and added comfort control – allowing drivers to set their own temperature for inside comfort.

Refrigerants and Environmental Concerns

In the 1970s, scientists discovered compounds Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were depleting the earth’s ozone layer. At the time, auto AC used a refrigerant called R12, also known as Freon, which was a CFC. The auto industry knew it needed a new option that was better for the environment. After years of testing, a suitable replacement was found in a refrigerant called R-134a. In 1987, the U.S. Government signed the Montreal Compact, which in part required manufacturers to make the switch to safer refrigerants like R-134a by 1996.

Modern Day

You probably already know from your own car that modern-day AC systems have advanced to dual and rear climate control at the push of a button. Nowadays, virtually every car has an AC (only 1% of cars manufactured today don’t). And while your AC refrigerant isn’t impacting our ozone layer, it can decrease our fuel efficiency by up to 25%. Some simple tips to increase your fuel efficiency when using your AC include only using your AC while driving at highway speeds, not idling with your AC on, and opening windows before turning on your AC to let the hot air out.

There you have it. In less than a century, we’ve made advanced strides in keeping cool while driving in the summer, but our advanced systems need regular maintenance. If you haven’t brought your car in for a summer maintenance and AC system check, our team would love to help keep you cool all summer long.