A Brief History of Chrysler Airtemp
When Walter P. Chrysler was looking for air conditioning equipment for the new Chrysler Building (finished in 1930), his engineering background told him that contemporary equipment was both too bulky and too pricey; he enlisted the Chrysler Engineering staff and Charles Neeson to create something better, and thus was born the first fully air conditioned skyscraper along with Airtemp. One of the fruits of their efforts was a new high-speed radial compressor which was far better than the compressors then in use. With that in hand, the Airtemp Corporation was incorporated in October 1934; it built systems in a former Chrysler stamping plant in Detroit until 1936, when it moved to the former Maxwell Motor Company plant in Dayton, Ohio, at Leo and Webster. The company air conditioned Pullman cars (railroad cars, that is) long before air conditioners were applied to passenger cars.
Not surprisingly, Airtemp took a position of leadership in air conditioning, inventing capacity regulators (to allow compressors to work at the required load, rather than at peak) in 1937, and the first self-contained units (featuring the first sealed radial compressor) in 1938, the year Airtemp was re-absorbed back into Chrysler Corporation as a division. By 1941, Airtemp had over 500 dealers - each backed by an installation engineer - and by 1948, it employed 1,325 people in Dayton. Ironically, though, Chrysler was not the first brand to have onboard air conditioning; that honor goes to Packard, in 1940, and then to Cadillac, in 1941. Chrysler offered air conditioning in 1942, and three 1942 DeSotos with the system are known to exist, according to Collectible Automobile (February 2007 issue).
When World War II came, the Airtemp leaders went to the War Production Board and asked how they could best help; after being told there was no need for their services, Airtemp pointed out the need for air conditioning in hospitals, and refrigeration for serums, blood plasma, and other supplies. Thus, the Army ended up using Airtemp products. The company even played a role in the creation of the nuclear bomb; the diffusing operation needed to purify uranium required both air conditioning and strong filtration to provide commercial sterility (the Lynch Road plant actually made the diffusers).
At the end of the war, despite having made bomb shackles, field kitchens, and parts for guns, the Airtemp division had retained its air conditioning assembly lines. Still, demand was high enough to justify a new post-war plant, which was finished in 1947, producing hundreds of window units, central-station condensing units, and commercial refrigeration units each month. The new plant, designed by Albert Kahn, had no windows, and was air conditioned by the company’s own equipment; it was 640 feet by 360 feet. The original plant was converted to build heating equipment, such as Aerfire (circa 1950) units; gas forced air furnaces were sold into the 1960s, and were known for their high quality.
Shortly before the new plant was finished, a new laboratory for research and development was created, Airtemp boasted that it was the most completely equipped laboratory of its kind in the industry. In production, an induction heating process cut the time for performing certain air conditioning manufacturing processes from hours to seconds; the machine hardened surfaces on the crank shafts and unloader lifter rings, while a surface a thousandth of an inch away remained unchanged.
Painting of large central station air conditioners was difficult for a time because the fumes and paint got into the painter’s face. Chrysler Airtemp engineers overcame this trouble by designing a special wing type spray booth (third from top) which drew air into the front of the booth and then forces it, along with the paint and fumes, into water.
Chrysler Airtemp’s leader in its hayday was W.C. Newberg, who rose from engineering after joining the company in 1933; Newberg had been Chief Engineer of Chrysler’s Chicago wartime operation, and would eventually take over the corporation as a whole.
Even in 1948, Chrysler Airtemp manufactured equipment from room coolers to huge central station equipment, with commercial refrigeration equipment from1/4 horsepower to 75 horsepower and marine units. The Union Pacific Building was an early installation of Airtemp central station equipment; numerous ships were also so equipped. Winter air conditioners, which doubled as forced-air heaters, were made for gas, oil, or coal.
After the war, the Airtemp division was unionized by the International Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (IUE); they started as Local 768, and moved to Local 775 in 1965.
In the mid-1950s, Chrysler cars could boast the industry’s most efficient and highest capacity air conditioning (reference: Imperial Club). Mike Sealey wrote:
1953 was apparently the first year for air conditioning in Chrysler vehicles, although they almost had it eleven years earlier. The earliest Chrysler trunk mounted systems used R22. My theory is that since Chrysler's Airtemp Division made home and commercial units already, this is what they were familiar with and this is what they used.
A/C units from 1957 on appear to have used R12, and were sourced from an outside supplier (Eaton, Yale, & Towne in most older models) despite use of the Airtemp name. Some 1957 MoPar owners' manuals refer to the factory A/C units as "Cartemp Air Conditioning", an apparent attempt to establish a secondary brand name for the outside-vendor-supplied car units.
On the outside, air-conditioned Mopar products used flush-mounted air intake grilles instead of clumsy-looking scoops like the competition. ... Its unit took up little trunk space, and the compressor took up only one cubic foot under the hood. The condenser panel was mounted out of the way, diagonally, in front of the radiator, where it received adequate fresh air without blocking the cooling system. ...
A single switch-marked Low, Medium, and High—selected fan speed. High was capable of cooling a big DeSoto or Chrysler from 120 to 85 degrees in about two minutes, and also completely eliminated humidity, dust, pollen, and tobacco smoke. Since Airtemp relied on fresh air, drawing in 60 percent more than any other system, it avoided the staleness associated with more primitive rigs. It was also silent and unobtrusive. Instead of the awkward plastic tubes mounted on the package shelf, as on GM and other setups, Airtemp employed small ducts that directed cool air toward the ceiling of the car, the air then filtering down around the passengers instead of blowing directly at them.
Curtis Redgap noted: “Chrysler owned AirTemp, and capitalized on that by introducing air conditioning across the entire car line in 1955. Prior to that, air conditioning had been an option on the Imperial in 1952, coming in the Chrysler line in 1953. 1958 was significant because everything was now under the hood instead of having some components in the trunk.”
In 1959, Airtemp launched their “Slender” air conditioning line, which minimized space usage; orders were strong. They also launched 140,000 BTW oil and gas furnaces, a “Power Miser” a/c compressor (the name would return for cars), and an advanced electrostatic filter for dust, pollen, smoke, and odors.
In 1963, Airtemp acquired Therm-O-Rite Products Ltd of Toronto, renaming it Chrysler Airtemp Canada Limited.
In 1969 and then again in 1970, Airtemp set new sales records, benefitting from the trend of building new houses with central air conditioning and winning large-scale contracts (including the BBC building). International operations grew faster than domestic sales, with installations in high profile areas like the BBC, Bonn’s airport, and a hospital in Brunei.
D.O’Donnell wrote that Airtemp built a plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1969-1970. In 1971, Airtemp moved its non-automotive manufacturing from Dayton, Ohio, to this new factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The 1971 annual report confirms this, noting that the plant was 600,000 square feed large, and “enabled Airtemp to increase sales of large commercial and industrial applied machinery and systems equipment in 1971.” They boasted that 175 “major facilities” around the world had been air-conditioned by Airtemp in the past four years.
In 1975, its final full year at Chrysler, the Airtemp division lost $20 million. On February 23, 1976, Chrysler sold Airtemp to Fedders, which had expanded through acquisitions. They closed the plant less than a month later, and eventually sold it to General Motors; by 1982, it was making Corvettes, and has been ever since.
Chrysler had to sell Airtemp and other business due to a cash shortage following the recessionary 1974-75 years and its disastrous choice to invest in large cars just before a fuel shortage ended demand for them. Fedders, ironically, had sold automotive heaters and radiators to Chrysler Corporation in the 1950s; an Airtemp competitor since 1947, they were more successful in mass production and sales than Airtemp had been, taking the #1 spot in 1955, putting price well ahead of quality and engineering.
The Airtemp division had lost $35 million since 1971; it had a full line of units, reaching 1,100 tons, but its focus on well-qualified dealers hurt market penetration, particularly in the 1960s, while Fedders commoditized the market for room and central air conditioning units.
Fedders agreed to pay $58.5 million in cash, notes, and stock, helping Chrysler’s cash-flow, though the transaction was reported as a $55 million loss (Airtemp had presumably been arried on the books as being worth over $110 million). Fedders disputed the deal in 1976, refusing to make some payments and claiming that Chrysler had not lived up to its obligations.
Fedders had problems paying its bills in general, following pricey acquisitions, and dramatically downsized in the late 1970s and early 1980s, even selling its corporate headquarters. Fedders was left with a more tightly focused business, selling room air conditioners (Airtemp, Climatrol, and Fedders) made in Illinois, rotary compressors made in Maryland, and replacement auto components, made in Buffalo. Its headquarters were moved from Edison (opposite the Raritan Center industrial park) to Peapack, New Jersey. Since the 1980s, Fedders has increasingly relied on engineering and production in China; none of the Airtemp facilities appear to have survived, making the acquisition costly and somewhat pointless.