The Luxury of Climate Control

Back in the day, people just stayed home in deep winter. Learn about the history of climate control in our vehicles warming us up when we need it most.

| January 2020

A 1946 International flat-bed truck, K-series. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Early automobiles were ill-equipped for harsh winter weather

Recently, I read a lengthy article about how the railroads figured out how to continue running their trains in the winter months. In those areas that got a lot of snow – and almost anywhere north of the middle of the country, that was occasionally possible – transportation often came to a halt with tracks covered with more snow than the heavy locomotives could go through.

Initially, giant V-plows were used, but even they proved inadequate in many places. It wasn’t until development of huge steam-powered rotary plows capable of cutting through packed snow banks that year-round rail traffic was assured.

Back in the day, people just stayed home in deep winter; rural folks sometimes didn’t “make it to town” for long periods of time. A sled trip through many miles of totally white surroundings was a serious undertaking. Those riding on the sled had to be bundled up with the understanding that keeping warm was a difficult prospect. We have all heard of parents heating large rocks at home and putting them under the blankets at the children’s feet so that, at least for a while, the cold was kept away.

This Model A Ford manifold heater was manufactured by Autolite.


When automobile travel first became popular, it was a seasonal activity. Since most early cars were open, they were rarely used in inclement weather. Even after enclosed cars became the standard, winter roads were impassable, so no one drove. (Sometime, if you don’t have anything to do, slowly drive through the old part of any small town and look carefully toward the backyards. You will discover an amazing number of residences that have a one-car garage sitting far back from the street. Early car owners put the vehicles away for the winter; there was no need for garages to be close to the street.)

1/15/2020 9:46:06 AM

Clell mentioned VW heating systems. I had a '65 VW minivan I drove to college(and elsewhere, of course) the winter of '73. VW's exhaust had manifolds around each side of the flat four that picked up exhaust heat, with piping from the engine's cooling fan driving the heat through an insulated pipe toward the cabin; one under the back seat, and another to the front seats and windshield. It was enough to keep the windshield reasonably clear of frost and the interior somewhat warmer than the outside-but part of that problem was the thin, tin can-like construction of the VW's back then. My van also had one of those gas powered heaters, but never used it. We never really had issues of "freezing" while the engine was running, so it must have worked OK.


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