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?

Keeping Our Collective Cool


Yes, it was pretty hot in 1966. Do you remember that Abbe Lane was married to Xavier Cugat?

A commonly quoted definition of “heat wave” is one in which the temperature reaches above 90º F for at least three consecutive days. Here at Mister Boomer headquarters, we’ve had quite the heat wave this past week, with the thermometer near or topping the 100º F mark for five days in a row. That got old Mister B thinking about our earlier years, and the ways we kept cool.

It’s difficult for today’s youngsters to fathom a world without air conditioning, yet that was our shared world while growing up. Willis Carrier is considered the father of modern air conditioning, for his invention of a unit in 1902. Hindered by toxic chemicals used to create the cool, and high costs, decades would pass until a practical, affordable model reached the average boomer household.

Mister Boomer recalls a time when only higher-end cars had air conditioning, and there weren’t many of those in his neighborhood. Homes and even stores did not have air conditioning. One fine summer day Mister B walked, with his mom, the mile and a half to the city’s business district. As we approached the Woolworth store, the doors were wide open and the store was uncharacteristically dark. The prevailing thought was that lights generate too much heat, and there was already plenty of that. On entering, a blast of hot air brushed across our faces. The store staff had positioned two tall, large metal fans at the back corners of the store, aiming them out the front door. We wandered through the aisles of bins — in an era before shelving was a marketing art — maneuvering the maze as the wooden floorboards creaked, and we criss-crossed the hot stream from the fans.

The scene at home wasn’t any better. Positioned on the floor by the front screen door, one box fan provided the only breeze for the family. Come bedtime, the fan was repositioned to point down the hallway of bedrooms. Windows and doors, including the front door, where left open all night to catch any breeze that would care to waft our way.

So how did we keep cool? The same way it had been done for centuries, with a few modern twists. We could lounge beneath shade trees when our 47-inning baseball game got to be a bit much. Some, especially young girls, folded paper to make a hand fan. For more immediate cooling in our younger years, there was the oscillating sprinkler. We’d put our bathing suits on and set the lawn sprinkler in the front yard. Flipping the control knob to allow it to rotate a full 180º left and right ensured that a neighborhood group of us could all feel the cool spray of the jets even by standing in a single spot. We’d leave the sprinkler on until pools of water accumulated on the lawn, or it would remain off when restricted by the city in times of drought.

Mostly, we took in a lot of fluids. Water in a glass with ice, iced tea, cold milk, lemonade, Kool-Aid or the occasional Hawaiian Punch helped us beat the heat. When we got a little older, we might ride our bikes to the A&W Root Beer Drive-In, walk inside and sit at the counter. We’d order up an icy root beer. The thick glass mugs were kept in the ice cooler, so dispensing the tasty concoction into the glass could be as frosty and cold an experience as anything you’d ever imagined. Then there was the Coca-Cola machine at the corner Sinclair gas station. We didn’t drink soda pop all that often — it wasn’t kept in the house — but there weren’t many things better than an ice cold Coke on a very hot day. When we could gather up ten cents, we’d walk to the station, where the Coke machine was perpetually kept outside. Slipping the dime into the coin slot, we could open the glass door and pull an 8-ounce bottle out by its neck from the column of circular receptacles. Grasping the familiar feminine-shaped Coke bottle’s waist, we’d aim the top at the built-in cap opener on the front of the machine. The bottle was always cold to the touch, adding to the anticipation. Once the fizz popped when the cap was removed, you could hardly wait to taste the sweet coolness. While some chugged the full 8 ounces in one fluid motion, Mister B would savor the moment. This boomer would take that first delicious sip, then go back for more, again and again until it was spent and the heat was gone. All the while we’d be standing in front of the machine — in the heat — to avoid paying the two-cent bottle deposit. Once empty, the bottles were slid neatly into the wooden cases alongside the machine.

Ice cream trucks made regular runs down the streets. There were independents clanging bells to peddle their wares: usually frozen fruit pops, push-ups or sundae cups. We knew these would do in a pinch, but weren’t our top-shelf-quality favorites. For that, there was the Good Humor truck (Toasted Almond, Chocolate Malt or Strawberry Shortcake for Mister B, please) and Mister Softee (the creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream, maybe, but a jingle that haunts most of us to this day). Sometimes our families couldn’t spare the change, so we’d make our own popsicles. Other times, we’d search for soda pop bottles along the main road and redeem them at the store for Creamsicles or those frozen sticks of gooey color.

Somewhere in the early sixties, stores started getting air conditioning. They would advertise the fact with “Air Conditioned” signs in the window. Movie theaters took the advertising to a whole other level, with signs hanging from the bottom of the marquee exclaiming, “It’s Cool Inside!” Always situated on a blue background, the letters were composed of icicles and snow to offer a literal, visual explanation. Although Mister B cannot recall a single time his family escaped the heat by going to a movie, others have reminisced of that very thing. With double features and an intermission, complete with cartoons and coming attractions, you could stay inside for a full four hours.

Nevertheless, for day-to-day, beat-the-heat cooldowns, only one experience comes to mind. It may very well be the quintessence of boomer keep-cool methods. We’d grab the metal handle of the outdoor faucet with one hand, and turn it on, holding the garden hose in the other hand. As the clear, cool liquid arched from its spout, we’d lean in and take the most satisfying drink of water a boomer child could have. Hey, boomers, have you let your children — or grandchildren — in on this super summer experience? Teach them well. Teach them to drink from the garden hose!