When Walter P. Chrysler wanted to cool his new Chrysler Building (finished in 1930), his decided that contemporary equipment was too bulky and too pricey, and enlisted the Chrysler Engineering staff and Charles Neeson to create something better. Thus was born the first fully air conditioned skyscraper — and the Airtemp Corporation.
The greatest advance was a new high-speed radial compressor, which made the new Airtemp Corporation — incorporated in October 1934 — many friends as they started building cooling systems in a former Chrysler stamping plant in Detroit. In 1936, they moved into the former Dayton, Ohio Maxwell plant at Leo and Webster, cooling not just buildings but also Pullman (rail) cars.
Airtemp quickly moved to lead the air conditioning industry, inventing capacity regulators (to allow compressors to work at the required load, rather than at peak) in 1937, and the first self-contained units (with the first sealed radial compressor) in 1938. That made through-the-window units possible, and, ironically, may have sealed the company’s fate.
In 1938, 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, Packard was the first car to have air conditioning, in 1940; Cadillac followed in 1941, and Chrysler waited until 1942. 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, not to mention refrigeration for serums, blood plasma, and other supplies. The Army went with Airtemp after all.
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). Their huge Chicago aircraft plant needed air conditioning as well. Thus, after the war, Airtemp still had its air conditioning assembly lines.
Demand was high enough to justify a new plant, finished in 1947, which made hundreds of window units, central-station condensing units, and commercial refrigeration units each month. Designed by Albert Kahn, it 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.
Just after the war, Airtemp created a new laboratory for research and development, possibly the most completely equipped laboratory of its kind in the industry. An induction heating process slashed the time for performing certain manufacturing processes.
Painting large units was difficult for a time because the fumes and paint got into the painter’s face. Chrysler Airtemp engineers created a wing type spray booth which drew air into the front of the booth and then forced it, along with the paint and fumes, into water.
Chrysler Airtemp’s leader in its prime 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. The Airtemp division was unionized at this time by the International Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (IUE).
In 1948, Chrysler Airtemp built equipment from room coolers to huge central station equipment, with commercial refrigeration equipment from1/4 horsepower to 75 horsepower and marine units. The company cooled the Union Pacific Building and numerous ships. Winter air conditioners, doubling as forced-air heaters, were made for gas, oil, or coal.
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 [large scale] year for air conditioning in Chrysler vehicles. The earliest Chrysler trunk mounted systems used R22. 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 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.
The Imperial Club (their site also has an extensive a/c troubleshooting and detail page) wrote of the original systems:
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. ...
High [speed] was capable of cooling a big DeSoto or Chrysler from 120 to 85 degrees in about two minutes, and also eliminated humidity, dust, pollen, and tobacco smoke. Since Airtemp relied on fresh air, drawing in 60% 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.
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” 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, as new houses were built with central air, while winning large-scale contracts including the BBC building. International operations grew faster than domestic sales, with installations in high profile areas like Bonn’s airport.
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 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.
The good times did not last, as other companies were able to catch up in features and production if not in quality, and the industry quickly shifted to commodity pricing. In 1975, its final full year at Chrysler, the Airtemp division lost $20 million. The Airtemp division had a full line, reaching 1,100 tons, but its focus on well-qualified dealers had hurt market penetration.
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 (it still does).
Chrysler had to sell Airtemp and other business due to a cash shortage. Fedders had sold heaters and radiators to Chrysler in the 1950s; an Airtemp competitor since 1947, they were more successful in mass production and sales, taking the #1 spot in 1955, putting price well ahead of quality and engineering.
Fedders agreed to pay $58.5 million in cash, notes, and stock, though the transaction was reported as a $55 million loss (Airtemp had presumably been 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. Most likely Fedders, which had grown too quickly, was simply not able to pay its bills.
The company dramatically downsized in the late 1970s and early 1980s, still 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 moved from Edison to Peapack, New Jersey. Since the 1980s, Fedders increasingly relied on engineering and production in China; none of the Airtemp facilities appear to have survived.
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