Keepin’ Cool – A Guide to Air Conditioning for Hot Rods and Vintage Rides
We are at the peak of the cruising, racing, and car show season and for most of the country this also means temperatures are peaking as well. Depending on where you live, it also means high humidity. The solution to handling these high temps, at least when you’re driving, is an effective air conditioning system.
Original air conditioning may be neat options to see on restored classics or muscle cars, but those systems just can’t match the output of a modern designed and fully engineered Heat/Ventilation/Air Conditioning (HVAC) system. In some applications you can swap out new hoses, bolt in a better condenser, and update the refrigerant, but it’s hard to beat a complete, new A/C system from the hot rod aftermarket.
Getting cool is much easier these days thanks to a number of companies that focus solely on the science of removing heat and humidity from the passenger compartment. Whether you’re looking for a complete system to update your muscle car, or a compact system for a coupe or even a roadster, there are a lot of choices to consider. Plus, there are plenty of neat accessories like vents, controllers, compressor brackets, and more to help finish your air conditioning system in a style that matches the rest of your ride.
After all, half the point of having a hot rod is to look cool – so you might as well be cool and comfortable while you’re cruising!
Directing the Flow
Once you have your air conditioning system tucked under the dash and ready to go, you need to make sure that cool, dry air is directed through a good-looking vent. Clayton Machine Works offers a number of thoughtfully crafted vent assemblies that will improve the details and look of your dash.
These chrome-plated, die-cast vents feature adjustable louvers to help direct the air flow exactly where you want it. Clayton designed the vents so the chrome outer bezels can be removed if you prefer to paint them to match your interior. The vents are designed for maximum airflow, measure 4×1.6-inches, and accommodate standard 2.5-inch A/C vent duct hoses.
Dakota Digital delivers advanced control over your HVAC system with modern looks. Their DCC-4000 series of controllers are a direct upgrade to Vintage Air Gen IV systems and give you precise control over the blower speed with automatic temperature control, just like a late-model vehicle.
The full-color TFT display can be configured for horizontal or vertical orientation and you get to select the illumination colors. The compact controller is only 4.285×1.85-inches and is supplied with the required sensors and connectors. When connected to Dakota’s trick HDX or RTX gauge systems, the colors and brightness of the controller will automatically sync for a coordinated finish to your interior.
SureFit for G-Bodies
With more and more ’80s-era GM G-bodies being built these days, it’s great to see more new parts available. Vintage Air recently released a new SureFit kit for the 1982-88 Monte Carlo and El Camino to help make it easy to be cool from the inside-out. (Also available for the Olds Cutlass/442 and Buick Regal/Grand Nationals.)
The SureFit kit is a bolt-in system that electronically controls the heat, cool, and defrost systems. Separate high-volume A/C and heater coils deliver superior performance and infinite temperature blend controlled by a new LED backlit control panel that mimics the OEM design. Additional features include a stamped steel firewall cover, bolt-in condenser kit with a receiver/drier, and OEM-style hard lines.
Tech Tip #1 – A/C System Components
Cooling your interior is a work of engineering, physics and even chemistry. Refrigerant changes its state a number of times as it is pumped through the closed system over and over again. Vintage Air provided this useful video to explain the function of each component and the state of the refrigerant through the system.
High Tech Cool
Not only is the Haymaker-S a great choice to cool huge, open interiors, it’s also Restomod Air’s most advanced system featuring their advanced Switch Technology. The S-Series wiring allows you to seamlessly bounce back and forth between their phone app, the remote switch, or the traditional dash controls – use them all, all the time!
Every A/C system from Restomod is Bluetooth enabled, which means your Haymaker system will never be outdated as the system is simple to update, plus has built-in self-diagnosis to help troubleshoot any issues. The Haymaker-S is packed with Restomod’s innovative, exclusive features including heating capabilities with floor and defrost air delivery along with infinite blending of the air with tremendous efficiency to keep everyone comfy.
The compressor is the heart of any A/C system, as it pumps and pushes the refrigerant through the web of heat removers and tubing. One of the biggest names in compressors is Sanden and Summit Racing Equipment offers a number of their different compressors to help keep you and your passengers cool while cruising.
Summit offers several popular Sanden compressors such as their 508, 7176 and the SD7 with V-belt or serpentine pulleys. These are brand new compressors, no remans here, that are designed for R134A refrigerant and are supplied with 100-weight PAG oil to complete your installation. Different finishes, including show quality shines, are available.
Brackets for All
Depending on your specific application, one of the biggest hassles with your new air conditioning system can end up being getting the compressor mounted properly. Clearance and pulley alignment are imperative to a long-lasting, trouble-free A/C system and getting a new compressor setup right with old, factory brackets is nearly impossible. Fortunately, Alan Grove Components is here to help.
For over 35 years, Alan Grove components has provided quality, affordable mounting brackets for the aftermarket air conditioner industry. With more than 100 different applications to mount compressors, they have a solution to fit nearly any application including small- and big-block Chevy, LS, classic Ford, Buick, inline sixes, and more. Their brackets are handcrafted in the USA from 1/4- or 3/16-inch mild steel, TIG welded and cooled in a fixture for a consistent fit.
Tech Tip #2 – Seal & Insulate
Your air conditioner could be blowing out snowflakes and icicles, but without taking the steps to seal off the cabin, it just won’t keep things as cool as possible. Remember, air conditioning works by removing heat and humidity from the air in an enclosed area, but if that area has a constant flow of warmer outside air through dried and cracked weather stripping, or if the heat from the transmission soaks right through the floor and carpet, the A/C may not be as efficient as you expect.
Taking the steps to insulate your interior will make a big difference in the cabin temperature and function of the air conditioning. New door and window seals will make a big difference, as well as a layer of insulation under the carpet or along the firewall. Be sure to block off any small holes in the firewall or toe board to keep direct exhaust and engine heat from seeping in. (For a list of effective products and tech tips, go back and check out the Guide to Heat Shielding and Sound Deadening)
Compact for All
It’s impossible for a company to offer a direct-fit system for every hot rod application, but Speedway Motors gets as close as you can with their compact air/heat system from Vintage Air. To fit the small under-dash areas of vintage rods, the evaporator assembly measures just 20.5-inches wide, 7.75-inches front to rear, and just 9-inches tall to fit a number of vehicles.
The system is supplied with an SD 508 compressor with a double V-groove pulley. A hose kit is supplied with a number of different fittings, along with a new receiver/drier. A safety switch is included, which is important to have in any HVAC system, along with a controller, vents, and ducting to finish your installation. All you’ll need to source is a condenser and the proper compressor brackets for your application.
A/C for Dentsides
There’s no denying the popularity of Ford dent-side pickups (the sixth generation that includes ’73-’79 models). If you want to keep the cab cool, Old Air Products has you covered with an all-inclusive kit or an Inside Package to connect with existing under-hood A/C components.
Their proven Hurricane unit easily bolts to the firewall with a custom mounting plate directing the heater and A/C lines neatly through a custom rubber grommet for the firewall. An efficient condenser assembly is supplied with specific brackets as well as pre-formed lines to pass through the core support. An electronic switching package operates the fan and HVAC functions, plus Old Air offers mounting brackets for most Ford engines.
To make your HVAC installation look as good as possible, you need to make sure to attend to the details. Billet Specialties understands details and offers these slick, billet aluminum firewall bulkhead connectors for the A/C and heater lines.
The bulkhead is designed with an offset that provides clearance for the four lines. There are two push-on nipples to accept a 5/8-inch heater hose, two -10 lines, along with one -6 and a -10 A/C line. The entire assembly is CNC-machined from 6061-T6 aluminum and is polished to perfection, and is also available in a black anodized finish. Billet Specialties offers other designs as well.
Tech Tip #3 – Shopping Tips from the Pros
Shopping for an A/C system can lead to a lot of questions and online searches, but websites can only cover so much ground. One of the best places to get answers is when you’re at an event so we stopped to chat with two companies that specialize in hot rod parts: Rex Watson of Affordable Street Rods and Mel (Yogi) Somerville of Yogi’s Inc.
CHOOSING A SYSTEM
When shopping for an air conditioning system, Yogi advised that you should consider the size of the interior as well as the space under the dash and get the biggest unit available to fit. “Always go with the largest evaporator and the biggest condenser you can fit,” Yogi said. “And think about the whole interior, as a cloth-top convertible will require more A/C than an insulated hard top.”
Rex also mentioned the importance of buying a complete system. “System is the key word here. Buy a complete system from a reputable distributor that will assist with the best product selection for your vehicle along with the assurance that all of the components play nicely together.”
Today’s HVAC systems are designed so most DIY hot rodders can assemble the system, but there are still important steps to consider. “Start by reading the instructions BEFORE beginning the installation,” Rex said. “Most problems can be traced by to one or more components that are installed incorrectly such as the drier or control valve.”
Most failures that occur in an A/C system stem from the system running at too high, or even too low of pressure resulting in compressor and other component failures. “The number one cause of compressor failure is due to not installing a simple safety switch such as a binary or trinary switch,” Yogi said.