Auto Air-Conditioning Pioneers Sprang Up In Sweltering Dallas In ’50s

(The Dallas Morning News/MCT) —

Bankers, butchers and bricklayers all faced the same summer misery in 1950s Dallas: sizzling car seats.

Back then, “hot car” described just about every vehicle on the road, because few had air conditioning – a situation unimaginable today. Most relied on “4-by-40” cooling – all four windows down at 40 mph, making cars feel like the inside of a dry cleaner’s.

But a small group of Dallas-area manufacturers and car dealers started changing that 60 years ago,  inthe first significant steps toward today’s Big Chill, where everything is air-conditioned, even Smart cars.

When Detroit balked at installing air conditioning on mainstream sedans in the early 1950s, several North Texas manufacturers developed and sold units on their own, to demonstrate the demand for them.

“People take it for granted today, but in the early ’50s, Detroit didn’t think many buyers even wanted air conditioning,” said North Texas author Rod Barclay, who has written a book on the influence Dallas wielded in the development of auto air conditioning in the U.S.

“Detroit would not have responded as quickly as they finally did, if we hadn’t had these companies in Dallas pushing and creating the market,” Barclay said.

The center of the U.S. auto industry simply had no clue what a sidewalk-smoking Dallas summer felt like.

“Their concept of summer was relaxing in straw hats on the shores of little lakes in Michigan, sipping whiskey,” he said.

In the introduction to his book, “Boy, That Air Feels Good,” Barclay says the tiny cluster of the Dallas-area air-conditioning pioneers looked a lot like an early Silicon Valley.

Although manufacturers competed hard for sales, they also cooperated for the common good of their fledgling industry and often shared technical information.

“The Dallas A/C guys would gather around a new car in September and build a prototype air-conditioning unit, and then document it for all the companies to use,” he said.

As a result, Dallas had a burgeoning air-conditioning base in the early 1950s that got more competent each year, while Detroit mostly debated the systems.

In 1951, Gen. Douglas MacArthur came to Dallas for a visit, and he and his party were whisked from Dallas to Fort Worth, Texas, in a fleet of Cadillacs fitted with local air-conditioning units, Barclay said.

“This was two years before Detroit introduced their first models,” Barclay said.

You could get air conditioning as far back as 1939 on expensive luxury cars such as Packard. Cadillac also built a handful of air-conditioned vehicles in 1941. But the bulky units had to be mounted in trunks, were not especially effective and cost about 10 percent of the car’s sticker price.

In the late 1940s, Lone Star Cadillac in Dallas began fitting some of its new cars with after-market air-conditioning systems, mostly from North Texas. They sold dozens of them, getting $300 or more for the option, Barclay said.

The dealership’s early adoption of air conditioning and its push for new and better units helped sustain three local suppliers: Frigikar, Mark IV and A.R.A.

“They made up the nucleus of companies in the early ’50s that gave air conditioning a boost,” Barclay said.

Barclay, 77, a mechanical and industrial designer and editor of a newsletter for the Studebaker Drivers Club, was interested in writing an article on air conditioning for a classic-car magazine.

“I knew air-conditioning kits had been made in Dallas in the ’50s,” Barclay said. “But before I got into it, I didn’t realize that almost all of the units had been made in Dallas.”

As he gathered material for the article, he realized that he had far more information than he could squeeze into a magazine story. That’s when he decided to write the book, which he also published.

“Hey, I figured no one else had written this,” said Barclay, who lives in Argyle, Texas. “Why shouldn’t I?”

Barclay said that other after-market air-conditioning suppliers in the U.S. were doing similar work, but “those centered in Dallas and Fort Worth were the first and most influential.”

The Big Three in Detroit were also working to develop air conditioning, but they “were not really committed or focused,” he said.

“No executive decision on air conditioning was made until 1954,” Barclay said. Some of the Dallas manufacturers had been building and fine-tuning them for years by then.

By the mid-’60s, the Dallas cluster had grown to “six or eight” suppliers, he said.

Most began to fade in the 1970s, after the automakers finally began fitting all their vehicles with air conditioning.

Now, of course, a car with no air conditioning practically stops traffic, especially in deep-fried Texas.

Toyota dealer Pat Lobb was recently stunned to see a used Mazda in his service department being fitted with an after-market air-conditioning system.

“I have no idea how the car even got built without air conditioning,” said Lobb, the owner of Toyota and Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram dealerships in McKinney, Texas, and Frisco, Texas.

“Can you imagine trying to sell that car today?” he said. “No one would even glance at it.”

Brian Huth, general manager of Five Star Ford in Plano, Texas, couldn’t recall seeing a car without air conditioning in the past 20 years.

“It’s not even an option today,” Huth said. “It’s expected in every car on the lot.”


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