We were repairing cars long before the 1953 Nash Ambassador offered reliable factory air for the first time in automobile history. We were there!


Air conditioning comes standard on almost every car sold in the U.S. today, but J.W. Smith had been repairing automobiles for nearly 20 years before auto air conditioning became an expensive option on American cars. You might say we were there when it all started.

For much of the history of the automobile, air conditioning was either a cutting-edge luxury or a sci-fi writer’s dream. The automotive air conditioners of today are the result of a century’s worth of invention and refinement. To give an idea of where we’ve come from, here’s a look back at the history and science of keeping cool in cars.

In 1939 with the storm clouds of World War II gathering, the Packard Automobile Company becamse the first car manufacturer to offer air conditioning as an option. The cooling system was located in the trunk, rather than in the dash, and the only way to turn it on and off was to manually install or remove the drive belt from the A/C compressor. The option was $274 -- or $2,529.87 in 2018 dollars -- at a time when the average yearly income is $1,368. The high cost, the fact the units really didn't work, and the start of World War II, doomed the experiment and Packard stopped offering the option after 1941.

It wasn't until 12 years later -- when J.W. Smith was celebrating his 17th year in business -- that modern automobile air conditioning was offered again. Walter Chrysler had overseen the invention of Airtemp air conditioning in the 1930s for the Chrysler Building, and in 1953 incorporated the modern convenience in his Chrysler Imperial. In fact, several manufacturers offered A/C as an option, all of them being rear-mounted systems not much different from what Packard used in 1939.

All that changed in 1954, when the Nash Ambassador became the first American automobile to have a front-end, fully integrated heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning system. The Nash-Kelvinator Corporation used its experience in refrigeration to introduce the automobile industry's first compact and affordable, single-unit heating and air conditioning system optional for its Nash models. This was the first mass market system with controls on the dash and an electric clutch. This system was also compact and serviceable with all of its components installed under the hood or in the cowl area, not in the trunk.

General Motors made a front-mounted air conditioning system optional in 1954 on Pontiacs with a straight-eight engine that added separate controls and air distribution. The Nash system combines the heater and air conditioner into one in-dash system, establishing the standard that most all cars have followed since.

Ten years later, Cadillac introduced Comfort Control. For the first time, drivers were able to set a preferred temperature, and the system would automatically adjust the A/C or heater output to keep the car interior at that temperature.

AC units were expensive and optional in those days and 15 years after the production model debuted in the 1953 Nash, the 1968 Rambler Ambassador became the first car to include A/C as standard equipment, rather than an added option.

As the 1970s dawned, only half the cars made in America had AC units in them, and it took many more years before factory air became standard in nearly all cars sold in the United States. As late at 2016 Chrysler and Nissan offered models without AC.

How cool is that?