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A little schooling on auto cooling

Hot enough for you? Not as toasty as your car or truck sitting in the summer sun. According to AAA, your vehicle's interior reaches between 131 and 172 degrees when parked in the sun and when the outside temperature is in the low to mid-90s. That's hot enough to roast a hot dog on the front seat. This wasn't always an issue for one simple reason: We used to sweat a lot more in the summer.

The earliest automobiles were open to the elements; catching a breeze was easy. Once the closed car was introduced, keeping cool on a hot day became more of a challenge. Manufacturers equipped closed cars with roll-down windows or windshields that tilted open slightly. By the 1930s, many vehicles also had pop-up vents ahead of the windshield to funnel air to the cabin.

Of course, it wasn't as if you would suddenly become cooler; the air was still hot. And it was filled with dirt, pollen and bugs. Coupled with the engine heat older cars gave off, and their metal and leather interiors, these vehicles could be hot enough to melt your enthusiasm.

General Motors, with help from its Frigidaire division, started working on the problem in 1933. Initially, engineers proposed cooling a car's interior by a mere 10 degrees, as it was feared that any greater cooling would cause passengers to experience thermal shock while stepping into the hot sun from a cool car.

Six years later, GM had a prototype system ready, fitted in the trunk of a Cadillac. But it wasn't GM that made it to market first. That honor went to Cadillac's rival, Packard, which offered the Weather Conditioner as a $274 option.

According to Mohinder Bhatti of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Packard sold 1,500 cars with air-conditioning between 1940 and 1942. Cadillac's system was offered in 1941 models; some 300 were sold. A year later, Chrysler offered its AirTemp system, although few, if any, cars were sold with it.

As with any new technology, these systems suffered from several problems:

• There were no controls on the instrument panel; the system ran constantly. Turning it off meant lifting the hood and removing a belt.

• The units were mounted in the trunk, reducing trunk space.

• Because the units were rear-mounted, it wasn't unusual for condensation to collect above rear-seat passengers. It would then drip down, staining clothes. Meanwhile, little air reached the front seat.

• Unlike later systems, these early units didn't pull in any outside air, a problem in an era when many people smoked.

Given the problems of the system and its expense, it's a wonder any were ordered. Instead, many drivers used swamp coolers, a window- mounted metal tube that would be filled with ice. As air blew over the ice, it was cooled. The chilled air was funneled inside.

Air-conditioning would not become a big player in automobiles until 1953, when GM, Chrysler and Packard introduced new air-conditioning systems. Others soon followed, and by 1956, all major American car companies offered air-conditioning as an option.

The following year, Cadillac offered air-conditioning as standard equipment on the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, an industry first.

Even so, it was rare to find a car back then with factory air. With an average price of $435, just 3.7 percent of cars had it, but that would grow significantly over the next decade as the price dropped. By 1969, more than half of all new cars came with air-conditioning.

For those who couldn't afford factory-installed units, aftermarket units installed under the dashboard were common.

In the 1970s, scientists found that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were depleting the earth's ozone layer. Since most auto air-conditioning units used a CFC-based refrigerant named R-12, it fell on automakers to come up with a solution.

It was no small matter.

In 1980, 72 percent of all new cars had air-conditioning. By 1990, 94 percent of cars had it. And all of these systems used R-12.

Preliminary tests on a suitable replacement, R-134a, began in 1978. Once it proved satisfactory a decade later, car manufacturers were required by the U.S. government to switch over to R-134a by 1996. It is still in use.

Today, almost every car and truck comes with air-conditioning, although there are exceptions. They include base models of the Chevrolet Aveo; Honda Civic; Hyundai Accent and Elantra; Jeep Wrangler; Kia Forte and Rio; Mazda 3; Mitsubishi Lancer; Nissan Versa; and Smart ForTwo.

So while finding a car with standard air-conditioning is no sweat, a lot of it was shed to keep you cool in the summer.

A little schooling on auto cooling 08/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2011 2:04pm]
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