A Brief History Of Cool

August 13, 2013

With the dog days of summer upon us, it’s a great time to pay tribute to one of those now standard car options modern drivers take for granted. Check out this timeline of history’s most important automotive air conditioning milestones. 

Michael Faraday

1820 — English scientist Michael Faraday discovered that compressing and liquefying ammonia could chill air when the liquefied ammonia was allowed to evaporate. 

1884 — After enduring one hot summer too many, English entrepreneur William Whiteley experimented with cooling his horse-drawn carriage by placing blocks of ice beneath the floorboards and blowing the chilled air inside by means of a fan attached to the axle. The cooling effect of air passing over water was later adopted by Nash. 

Willis Carrier

1902 — Taking his cue from inventor Michael Faraday, New York’s Willis Carrier used refrigerated ammonia in the creation of his “Apparatus for Treating Air” — now regarded as the first modern electric air conditioning system. 

1930 —An aftermarket add-on known as the “swamp cooler” was first introduced. Popular with street rod owners until as late as the 1960s, the window-mounted evaporative air-cooler got its name from the odor of algae produced by early units. 

Swamp Cooler

1939 — Packard became the first car maker to offer an actual automotive refrigeration system. The mechanism consisted of a large evaporator, called the “cooling coil,” which took up the entire trunk space. 

1941 — Cadillac produced 300 air-conditioned cars with one major drawback: the then state-of-the-art unit offered no compression clutch and, therefore, no way to stop the air pump when the engine was running. Shutting the system off meant having to stop the car, open the hood and remove the belt. 

1953 — The Chrysler Imperial became the first production car to offer “Airtemp” automobile air conditioning, followed by select Buick and Oldsmobile models that also added air conditioning as an option the same model year. 

Chrysler Airtemp

1954 — With an eye toward performance, fuel economy and affordability, the Harrison Radiator Division of General Motors developed the first air conditioning system designed for mass-produced cars. The system featured a two-cylinder reciprocating compressor, an all-brazed condenser and a magnetic clutch and was available as an option on all 1954 Pontiacs with V-8s. 

1960 — About 20 percent of American cars had air conditioning. 

1968 —American Motors was the first mass-market automobile to offer air conditioning as standard equipment on all AMC Ambassadors, which were priced at $2,671. 

1969 — Roughly 54 percent of domestic automobiles came equipped with air conditioning. 

1994 — Freon (the main cooling chemical in auto air conditioning units) was linked to ozone depletion. New environmental laws required auto manufacturers to switch to R13a refrigerant by 1996. 

2003 — Some 99 percent of automobiles in the United States were equipped with air conditioning. 

2015 — Looking ahead, a new type of air conditioning for automobiles called TIFFE (Thermal systems Integration For Fuel Economy) will come into production in the next two years and promises to reduce gasoline consumption by 15 percent.


  1. Bob Brandon,Ms

    Under the Cooling section...Pontiac did not offer a V8 in 1954 as stated. The Pontiac V8 was first introduced in 1955 while in 1954, the eight was a straight eight.

  2. Rich DFW, TX

    Pretty sure that was R134, not R13a...

  3. Dick Long Beach, WA.

    In 1996 the new refridgerant was 134a.

  4. Thom Steele Texas

    It's R134a, not R13a.

  5. Brad California

    The Chrysler Imperial was a mass produced car in 1953. The 54 was the first GM to have it. This is kind of like saying the Pontiac GTO was the first muscle car, when the 56 Chrysler 300b had similar dimensions, and better horsepower (the first car mass produced car with over 1 HP per cubic inch). I'm sure the Ford's, Studes, Hudsons, and other carmakers can claim firsts that are normally attributed to GM. It just depends on if you are a GM demagogue or not.

  6. Angel North Central Arkansas

    Manufacturers switched to R134a not R13a

  7. Jorge Georgetown, Ontario ,Canada

    Auto manufacturers switched to R134a in the 90's, not R13a.

  8. David WV

    In 1994 the switch was too R134a, not R13a. Typo I'm sure.

  9. Chris GA

    Cadillac offered air conditioning in 1953 also. All A/C units in that era were trunk mounted with rear package shelf vents or with clear plastic tubes that fed up to individual vents in the headliner. The distinction that Pontiac had in 1954 is that it was the first car to have its A/C system was contained in the engine compartment / dash area with dash-mounted vents. The last cars to use a factory trunk mounted A/C unit was the 1957 Lincoln and Continental. (Note: Chryslers offered an auxiliary trunk-mounted A/C unit for dual air conditioning in various models up through 1974.) The 1953-1954 system in Chryslers and Imperials used the same 75 lb. compressor that was used in AirTemp commercial meat lockers. It could drop the interior temperature of the car by 30 degrees in the space of two city blocks and used R-22 insteaed of R-12.

  10. James McDermaid Phoenix AZ

    A couple of technical issues here: The original Freon refrigerant used in automobiles (and many other things is known as R-12 and was used into the 1990’s. R-134A is the replacement in use today and does not directly replace R-12, a problem for us who restore these cars. It is true the Refrigerant compressor (not Air Pump) did not use a clutch, so it ran when the engine was running. The owner’s manual for my 54 Packard explains that the belts may be removed from the A/C compressor in cold weather. This was the same for Cadillac and the Chrysler Imperial. Here in Phoenix the compressor has to run all the time in hot weather. The cooling unit known as the “Evaporator” used up space under the back shelf in my 54 Packard not the entire trunk, which is big enough to park an entire Smart Car with the A/C installed and a full load of groceries. The cooled air was vented into the car through vents in the rear shelf not through the dash.