As we approach another summer season, Mister Boomer was reminded by a recent conversation about how he and the neighborhood teens would describe the air conditioning in their cars. Some semblance of naming the vehicle make and model followed by “460” was cleverly voiced to describe the model number of the cooling unit (i.e., Ford Fairlane 460). What they were actually saying was, “four windows down at 60 miles per hour.” Of course, that meant turning the hand-cranks to open each of the windows before getting underway. It would be decades before power windows became standard equipment. In other words, when it came to air conditioning in cars, Mister B’s boomer-hood didn’t have it.
Car air conditioning was first seen in a 1939 Packard, but it really began in earnest when the Packard Motor Company offered factory-equipped air conditioning in some of their 1940 models. It consisted of a compressor stored in the trunk that circulated cooled air through tubes inside the car.
Though the timing would make car air conditioning a pre-boomer invention, lower-priced cars aimed at growing families didn’t feature air conditioning as a selling point until the prime boomer years of the 1950s. By 1953, Chrysler presented its Airtemp air conditioning system. It took Ford until 1956 before air conditioning was an option on most models. When the mid-50s rolled around, every auto manufacturer was offering air conditioning as an option on some, if not all, of its models.
Looking to increase their market share alongside Ford, Chrysler and GM, the American Motors Rambler was often associated with the most inexpensive cars available. Unfortunately, it was also considered among the ugliest. By 1958, the top-of-the-line Rambler Ambassador gave air conditioning as a standard feature to help differentiate it from its higher-priced competitors.
DeSoto was introduced by Chrysler in 1929, and sales continued until the disruption of auto manufacturing during World War II. After the war, Chrysler picked up where they left off, and several DeSoto models continued to sell until the recession of 1958. After a precipitous drop in sales that year, the brand never recovered and was dissolved by Chrysler less than two months after they introduced the 1961 models. DeSoto was yet another car model that disappeared in early boomer years, though many recall riding in them with parents or grandparents.
For Mister Boomer, air conditioning wasn’t present in any of his family’s cars until the 1970s. In fact, none of the neighborhood kids had air conditioning in their family cars either, except one. A family living near the Boomer household had a penchant for buying used Cadillacs. Mister Boomer had the occasional ride in their cars, marveling at the power windows and air conditioning while at the same time preferring the windows open since the father of the boomer neighbor liked to smoke cigars in his Cadillac. Car air conditioning in the 1960s may have cooled the air, but it wasn’t a good filter for cigar or cigarette smoke.
In Midwest car culture, most teens had their own vehicles between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. The very nature of buying inexpensive wheels meant teen boomers went for the most style available for the money instead of luxuries such as air conditioning. For Mister B, air conditioning controls never graced the all-metal dashboards of his early-years cars. Even when he was able to purchase his first new car years after college in the late 1970s, he did not equip it with air conditioning. The 460 model had been good enough for him for decades.
What car air conditioning memories come to mind for you, boomers? When was the first time you rode in an air conditioned car?