Thanks to the Farm Collector readers who responded to my query in the November issue about gasoline car heaters, I am now the resident expert on this miraculous device. When early-day cars first came onto the market, in the days before antifreeze was invented, in-car heaters were scarce and a pain to keep running.
The Stewart-Warner Company originally created South Wind gasoline heaters for American automobiles in the early 1930s. Distribution continued until the 1950s. More than three million units were sold, mainly because they were easy to install and maintain. Two models were produced: A regularsize unit, and a South Wind Jr. for coupes.
The design burned gasoline vapors in a vacuum, preventing leakage of fumes. The units proved to be reliable, and provided more heat than other heaters produced in that era. The South Wind's attractive Art Deco styling made a fine addition to a car of any vintage.
South Wind heaters were considered automotive accessories and could be purchased from dealers, battery shops, filling stations and garages. All specialty parts were included in the kit, with common parts (copper tubing, for example) purchased separately. An operator's manual and template were included, showing where to drill holes in the firewall for mounting.
Gas car heaters did the trick, for the front seat, anyway
To use the South Wind the car's engine had to be running, so gasoline could be pulled from the carburetor float bowl into the heater oven. A glow plug ignited the vapor, and a small 6- volt fan pushed hot air into the car interior. A single knob controlled the heat and the fan.
Interestingly, gasoline heaters are used in two-engine airplanes and most military vehicles today, and can still be purchased for use in collectible cars. At least one website advertises reconditioned units that are guaranteed to work.
Now that we have the engineering features explained, let's examine how the South Wind heater worked in practical application. "It was one of those 'roast your face, freeze your back-side' type of heaters," recalls e-mail correspondent Dal Wolf. Virden Smith, Findley, Ohio, has memories of maintenance. "Most repairs to the South Wind were to the igniter," he says. "When car manufacturers installed good hot water heaters in their cars, it was the end of the gas heater."
Elmer Comstock, 87, New Paris, Ind., installed a Stewart-Warner South Wind in a 1928 Pontiac that cost him $65, "and it worked great." Martin Schmidt, Portland, Ore., remembers the South Wind boosting his popularity. "The only trouble I had was that everyone wanted to ride with me in my nice, warm car," he says.
All who responded agreed that the South Wind worked best for the passenger side of the front seat. Others recall South Wind-heated school buses getting warm just as they pulled up to the school. My favorite comment of all was this: "The gas heater would singe the heat off your date's legs in the front seat, but if you sat in the back seat, you'd better have a big, fat dog in your lap or you would freeze to death."
-Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org