The Luxury of Climate Control

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

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. (Sometimes, 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.)

I doubt if many people still alive today lived through those days. You see, in the late 1930s, only a few municipalities attempted to keep at least a few snow-covered roads passable. But after World War II, winter road plowing became more commonplace, in large part because a massive amount of war-surplus equipment had been given to city and county governments. Before long, motorists started using their cars pretty nearly year-round and pressure was applied to highway districts to keep roads open.

Manifold heaters barely lived up to their name

A passable road was not the only thing necessary for winter travel. Some means were needed to make the inside of the car, if not comfortable, at least bearable. Cold equal to that outside was hard to tolerate and moisture from passengers’ breath quickly covered the windows. Thus the “passenger or personnel heater” came on the scene.

As with all innovations, there were several different approaches to heating the inside of the car. The simplest was the manifold heater. As a child in the 1950s, this author “experienced” one on a 1929 Model A Ford that was my brother’s first car. Since we live in a very cold climate, his tired Model A had a manifold heater on it when he bought it.

The heater consisted of a rectangular cast iron box that covered the 4-cylinder exhaust manifold. That box was open in the front end and a round pipe extended it back to the firewall that had a hole cut in it. The concept was that the heat from the manifold would be captured in the box and the car’s fan and the rush of air through the radiator would push that warmth back into the passenger compartment. Did it work? I’m sure a tiny bit of heat must have made it to the interior, but I can’t testify I ever felt it. That manifold heater promised more than it delivered but, at least psychologically, a passenger was warmer because a heater existed.

It should be noted that manifold heaters weren’t given up on quickly. Henry Ford’s famous V8 engine that debuted in 1932 and was used for decades had two exhaust manifolds on opposite sides of the engine, fairly low down in the frame. Since exhaust manifolds were the only sure heat source on an internal combustion engine, elaborate coverings for those manifolds were developed and complicated tubing was utilized to get the heat where it was needed. Finding one of those complete setups today would almost be a miracle.

Manufacturers didn’t rush to make factory-installed heat standard

How about having a source independent of the running engine? Although it might seem strange today, small gasoline-fired heaters were developed to fit under the dashboard. A small amount of gasoline was piped from the carburetor and those heaters began to put out heat almost immediately. There was no need for the engine to get warm.

The best-known was the South Wind Heater (sometimes referred to as “beehive heaters” because of their shape). They were especially popular among owners of convertibles. When Chevrolet’s rear-engine air-cooled Corvair was introduced in 1960, passenger warmth proved to be problematic. (With the engine in the rear, the Volkswagen Beetle also had a reputation for freezing its occupants.)

South Wind gasoline heaters were sold for Corvairs and proved successful. The tiny bit of gasoline used by the heaters did not cause a noticeable decrease in fuel mileage. Talk to anyone who used a South Wind heater a lot, and he or she will sing its praises, both because of its instant heat output and because it could be regulated by the driver’s foot.

Before too long, the industry settled on the hot water heater. Since almost all cars and trucks were liquid-cooled and had quite large water reservoirs, it was possible to pipe some of that into small radiators enclosed in a box of some kind. A fan behind those small radiators forced the heat from the water into the passenger compartment. I’m sure there is a record somewhere as to the first automobile manufacturer to make water heaters optional on their cars. Surprisingly, making cars with heaters standards didn’t come until the 1960s. Very warm parts of the country didn’t need heaters so they weren’t installed on all cars.

What about those older cars that didn’t come with factory-installed heaters? Trucks, especially, were slow to have factory-installed heat, because some were used only seasonally. With year-round use, some heat source was essential. Many companies made after-market heaters that could be adapted to nearly any vehicle. And since those accessory heaters were visible in the passenger compartment, much effort was made to make them attractive in appearance. National advertising made some heater manufacturers’ brand names fairly well known. Probably the most commonly sold models were produced by Arvin. It and others even attempted to make models that fit and complimented specific makes of automobiles.

Learning to live with heaters that were slow to produce warmth

Two additional details: One has to do with “defrosters.” Heating the passenger area was the main goal, but some method was needed to keep the windshield (and, if possible, other windows) free from “steaming up” from moisture in the air. The solution was to take some or all of the air supplied by the heater’s fan – determined by conditions – and direct it on the windshield. Some elaborate heaters actually had additional small fans dedicated just to that function. After car heaters became standard, all of that equipment was concealed behind the dashboard. The driver had controls to regulate heat output as well as fan speed and direction. Today, we take it all for granted.

Last but not least: There was a lapse from the time when the car or truck’s engine was first started and the time when cabin heat became available. Even vehicles with large V8 engines take quite a while to bring the water in their cooling system up to a temperature that would warm the passengers. The several-gallon capacity meant that considerable heat from internal combustion is needed to elevate water temperature. Put a pan of very cold water on the stove and see how long it takes before it feels warm to the touch. Even that temperature would be inadequate to make air forced over a radiator feel warm to occupants. In cold winter conditions, the running engine has to create enough heat to warm up a cast iron engine block that weighs several hundred pounds plus a couple of gallons of coolant water. It is easy to see why most car heaters take considerable time before they start “putting out” warm air.

Motorists today pay little attention to modern car heaters because they do an outstanding job of making our trips behind the wheel pleasant. Recently, even control of heaters and defrosters has become computerized, so everything is done automatically. The only decision the driver must make is selecting the actual temperature he/she wants. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at

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