Boomers’ Cars Breezed Along … Without Air Conditioning

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?

Technology Was No Stranger to Boomers

A good part of our formative boomer years was spent dreaming about the future. After all, we were the first generation that had a realistic hope of achieving some of those dreams. Our parents’ generation lead the way with innovations throughout the boomer decades. Boomers picked up where they left off and created the technological world we live in today.

Boomers were introduced to technological fantasies at an early age, beginning with cartoons and a variety of TV series. Shows like Supercar (1961) featured puppets, like most kids’ shows of the day, but in this series, the main character, Mike Mercury, drove a flying car. Even when the car was driven on land it didn’t need wheels. Instead, it hovered on a cushion of air. And, oh yes, it could also travel underwater. The Flintstones put the idea in our tiny little heads that technology — from TV to record players, cars to telephones — had always been around, even if in “rock” form. Then we looked headlong into the future with The Jetsons (1962). In this cartoon series, a typical 21st Century American family lived with a vast array of technology at their disposal, from treadmills for walking the dog to video phone conferencing; microwave-style ovens to people-moving sidewalks; flying cars to reach their apartments in the sky to a robot named Rosie, replete with human foibles. Of course, there were numerous other cartoons where technology played a key role.


Mister B apologizes for the length of this clip, but there is fun and insightful commentary to be gleaned from this interview with the creators of The Jetsons.

Live-action shows and movies jumped on the bandwagon, often centered around secret agents utilizing technological gadgetry in their defender roles as a direct or vaguely-veiled reference to the Cold War. The James Bond movies entered the scene with Dr. No in 1962, but the famous Bond gadgets began showing their impact on the characters in the second film, From Russia With Love (1963). On TV, The Wild Wild West (1965) featured two secret service agents in the employ of President Ulysses S. Grant in the period after the Civil War. Their ingenious gadgets were often integral parts of the storyline. By this time, it was so natural for us to see “future” technology on screen that we could use it in the comedy of the day as well. Enter Get Smart, a 1965 TV series where the bumbling main character, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), has all the techno-gadgetry of James Bond, but none of the finesse. The character is most-often remembered for his shoe phone, a precursor to the cellphone.

Real-life technology that entered the consumer market in boomer years played a huge part in the way the entire generation would embrace it for the following decades to come. The list of innovations that began to appear — especially electronic innovations — is mind-boggling, even by today’s standards. The entire electronics revolution was made possible when the first integrated circuit was invented in 1958. Evidently, it was an invention whose time had come, since two men had come up with approximately the same idea at the same time. Both men, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, received patents for their inventions. Look at this partial list of electronic marvels that appeared during our early boomer years:

1962 – The first portable cassette recorder was introduced by Phillips.
1964 – Pentax marketed the first 35MM SLR camera.
1967 – Phillips sells the first battery-powered shaver.
1967 – Integrated circuit inventor Jack Kilby created the handheld calculator.
1968 – The Polaroid gave us the Swinger, the first instant camera, though prints were black & white only.
1969 – The telephone got a makeover as the Trimphone. Though created in 1964, it took a few years to catch on with consumers.
1969 – Dr. Christiaan Barnard pioneered and implanted the first artificial heart.
1971 – The first digital watch was created, though mass-production at an affordable price would have to wait another couple of years.
1972 – Color TVs outnumbered black & white sets in the home for the first time.
1972 – Pioneer releases the first home LP cassette recorder.
1974 – The first portable electronic calculator is marketed.
1975 – Home freezers were sold and quickly become a standard appliance in nearly 50% of homes.
1977 – Atari introduced the Atari 2600, the first video game player.
1977 – The Apple II computer was sold; the basic model was $1,300 with an external 5 1/4 inch floppy disk running at 1 MHz and housing 4 kB RAM.

Mister Boomer recalls watching all of those TV shows and movies, and dreaming of the day he’d own a flying car. We have chronicled the time Mister B and his brother received transistor radios in an earlier entry (Boomers Strike Solid Gold). A decade later his brother got a Polaroid camera for Christmas. It was truly amazing to see a picture in a matter of a minute or two, without having to drop off a roll of film at the local drug store to be developed. A few years later, Mister B was employed in a retail setting where all the guys started buying digital watches. The watch “dial” was an overall dull, dark gray circle, with a blacked-out rectangle situated in the top half. There was a side button to push in order to display the time — in numbers — within the blackened slot. A colorful leather wrist band helped give the technology not only a function, but a fashion statement as well.

We took a look at the future as boomer children, saw it unfolding in the gadgets made available to us and our families, and embraced it until it became synonymous with our generation. We may not have invented technological innovation, but we did elevate it to the level it is in the world today.

What do you remember of the early days of electronics entering your family’s world?