Automatic Climate Control

Automotive Mileposts
1971-1973 Oldsmobile Comfortron

Above: Comfortron automatic temperature controls as used on the 1971-1973 Oldsmobile

Set it once, and forget about it. No matter the weather outside, inside it's the same every day of the year...

Automotive air conditioning was first offered on the 1939 Packard. The bulky closed cycle system incorporated a compressor, condenser, receiver/dryer, and evaporator. The entire system was controlled by a blower switch. At the time, Packard was one of the top luxury makes in the world, and this new comfort feature was included in advertising which stated: "Forget the heat this summer in the only air-conditioned car in the world."

Being new, there were a few issues with the system. Perhaps the biggest issue was the fact that the compressor ran whenever the engine was running. Since there was no clutch, the compressor was always "on" and had to be manually disconnected when the air conditioning wouldn't be needed for long periods by removing the drive belt!

Another issue was the evaporator and blower were located in the luggage compartment, which made service more difficult and reduced the available stowage space.

As the next couple of years passed, more makes offered air conditioning, but it never sold in high volumes. Cadillac announced a new automotive air conditioning innovation after World War II that placed the air conditioning controls on the rear parcel shelf, which meant someone had to climb into the back seat to turn the system on or off. This was certainly more convenient than taking the car in to the dealer to have a drive belt removed or installed, but once underway, there was no way to control the system unless there happened to be a rear seat passenger willing to operate the control.

In 1954, Nash-Kelvinator introduced an air conditioning system that offered controls on the instrument panel so the system could be easily controlled by the driver while en route. It also featured an electric clutch which allowed greater temperature control. This system was the first automotive air conditioner that was compact and affordable, and introduced the world of windows up driving comfort to the masses.

Air conditioning became more popular as the fifties decade came to a close, and items like the evaporator which had resided in the trunk were relocated forward, which allowed duct work to be placed in the instrument panel instead of running above the headliner, or sticking up from below the rear window. The clear plastic tubes running from the parcel shelf to the headliner were now gone on cars which featured the ducts in the ceiling, which is a good thing as the tubes distorted the view to the rear as they were visible from inside the car as well as from the outside through the rear window. Also made obsolete with this change were the exterior air ducts that were perched on top of the rear quarter panels that brought outside air into the system.

As more and more people began to order this feature, the automobile manufacturers invented new ways to make it even more automated. At first, separate heater and air conditioner controls were provided to operate each system. Later, they were combined into one control for ease of operation, and in 1964, General Motors' Cadillac Division introduced Comfort Control, the first system to combine the heating and air conditioning into one that automatically maintained the temperature set at the controls. Sensors determined whether heating or cooling was needed, what fan speed would be required to heat or cool the interior as quickly as possible, and whether fresh or recirculated air was necessary. Once the temperature setting was achieved, the fan would be throttled down automatically to maintain that temperature, and fresh air would be introduced if the system was in cooling mode.

Air conditioning quickly became one of the most popular options offered, so much so that in 1963 Cadillac built its 500,000th air conditioned car, and the installation rate the following year (the first for Comfort Control) hit 75 percent. The next year, in 1965, the installation rate for air conditioning in Cadillac vehicles hit 83 percent!

Other manufacturers began to offer automatic temperature controlled systems as well, with Oldsmobile and Buick getting the Comfortron system for 1966, and Lincoln Continental offering its Automatic Temperature Control that year as well.

Chrysler Auto-Temp II controls

Chrysler introduced its Auto-Temp system for the Imperial late in the 1967 model year, and Ford's Thunderbird introduced its Automatic Climate Control for 1968, at which point even less expensive cars had begun to add this feature to their option lists. Chrysler's Auto-Temp II system was introduced in 1971, and was used by Mercedes Benz in its vehicles from 1976-1981.

In the sidebar to the right is a list of popular automatic temperature control systems of the era, as well as the years they were introduced and in production.


Comfort Control (Cadillac 1964-1965)
Climate Control (Cadillac 1966-Current)
Comfortron (Oldsmobile 1966-1973, Chevrolet 1967-1973)
Tempmatic (Oldsmobile 1974-1984)
Automatic Temperature Control (Lincoln 1966-1979 and Thunderbird 1970-1979)
Automatic Climate Control (Thunderbird 1968-1969)
Auto-Temp (Chrysler/Imperial Late 1967-1970)
Auto-Temp II (Chrysler 1971-1973, Mercedes Benz 1976-1981)

1968 Cadillac Automatic Climate Control

1968 Thunderbird Automatic Climate Control

1968 Chevrolet Comfortron

1970 Cadillac Climate Control

1977 Continental Mark V Automatic Temperature Control