Staying Cool - A Guide to Air Conditioning for Hot Rods and Vintage Rides (2023)

We're at the height of the cruise, racing, and auto show seasons, and for most of the country, that means temperatures are also peaking. Depending on where you live, this also means high humidity. The solution to dealing with those high temperatures, at least while driving, is effective air conditioning.

Original equipment air conditioning may be a nice option on a restored classic or muscle car, but these systems just can't match the performance of a modern designed and engineered heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. In some applications, you can swap out new hoses, bolt on a better condenser, and upgrade the refrigerant, but it's hard to beat a complete, new hot rod aftermarket air conditioner.

Cooling down is a lot easier these days thanks to a number of companies that focus solely on the science of removing heat and moisture from the passenger compartment. Whether you are looking for a complete system to upgrade your muscle car or a compact system for a coupe or even a roadster, there are many options to consider. There are also loads of neat accessories like vents, controls, compressor mounts and more to complete your air conditioner in a style that suits the rest of your ride.

After all, half the point of a hot rod is to look cool - so you might as well be cool and comfortable while cruising!

Clayton Machine Works

direct the flow

Once you have your air conditioner stowed under the dash and ready to go, you need to make sure that cool, dry air is circulated through a nice looking vent.Clayton Machine Works offers a range of carefully crafted breather assemblies designed to enhance the detail and appearance of your dashboard.

These chrome-plated die-cast vents feature adjustable louvers to direct airflow exactly where you want it. Clayton designed the air vents so that the chrome outer surrounds can be removed if you prefer to paint them to match your interior. The vents are designed for maximum airflow, measuring 4 × 1.6 inches and accepting standard 2.5 inch A/C duct hoses.

Dakota Digital

Cool controls

Dakota Digital offers advanced control of your HVAC system with a modern look. A direct upgrade from vintage Air Gen IV systems, the DCC-4000 series controllers give you precise control over fan speed with automatic temperature regulation, just like a later model vehicle.

The full-color TFT display can be configured for horizontal or vertical orientation, and you can choose the backlight colors. The compact controller is only 4.285 × 1.85 inches and comes with the necessary sensors and connectors. When connected to Dakota's HDX or RTX instrument systems, the controller's colors and brightness are automatically synchronized to create a coordinated finish for your interior.

Vintage air

SureFit for G-Body

With more and more '80s GM G-bodies being built these days, it's great to see that more new parts are available. Vintage Air recently released a new SureFit kit for the 1982-88 Monte Carlo and El Camino to make it easy to be cool inside out. (Also available for Olds Cutlass/442 and Buick Regal/Grand Nationals.)

The SureFit kit is ascrew systemelectronically controls the heating, cooling and defrosting systems. Separate high-volume air conditioning and heating coils deliver superior performance and infinite temperature mixing controlled by a new LED-backlit control panel that mimics the OEM design. Other features include a stamped steel firewall cover, bolt-in condenser kit with a collector/dryer, and OEM-style hard lines.

Tech Tip #1 – Air Conditioning System Components

Cooling your interior is a work of engineering, physics and even chemistry. The refrigerant changes state several times as it is repeatedly pumped through the closed system.Vintage airhas provided this useful video to explain the function of each component and the condition of the refrigerant through the system.

RestoMod water

Coole Hightech

Not only is the Haymaker-S a great choice for cooling huge, open interior spaces, it's also Restomod Air's most advanced system with its advanced switch technology. The S Series wiring allows you to seamlessly jump back and forth between your phone app, remote switch or traditional dashboard controls - use them all at any time!

Every Restomod air conditioning system is Bluetooth-enabled, which means your Haymaker system will never be out of date as the system is easy to update and has built-in self-diagnostics to troubleshoot problems. The Haymaker-S is packed with Restomod's innovative exclusive features, including bottom and defrost air supply heating functions, as well as infinite air mixing with tremendous efficiency to keep everyone comfortable.

Summit racing gear

Cool chrome

The compressor is the heart of any air conditioning system as it pumps and pushes the refrigerant through the network of heat sinks and hoses. One of the biggest names in compressors isThe sandand Summit Racing Equipment offers a range of different compressors to keep you and your passengers cool while you ride.

Summit offers several popular Sanden compressors such as the 508, 7176 and the SD7 with V-belts or V-pulleys. These are brand new compressors, no offcuts here, rated for R134A refrigerant and supplied with 100wt PAG oil to complete your installation. Various finishes including show quality gloss are available.

Alan Grove components

brackets for everyone

Depending on your specific application, one of the biggest issues with your new air conditioner can be getting the compressor mounted properly. Clearance and pulley alignment are essential to long-lasting, trouble-free air conditioning, and it's nearly impossible to properly set up a new compressor with old, factory brackets. Fortunately, Alan Grove Components is here to help.

For over 35 years, Alan Grove Components has provided quality, affordable mounting brackets to the aftermarket air conditioning industry. With over 100 different compressor assembly applications, they have a solution for almost every application including small and big block Chevy, LS, classic Ford, Buick, straight-six and more. Their mounts are handcrafted in the USA from 1/4" or 3/16" mild steel, TIG welded and jig cooled to ensure a consistent fit.

Tech Tip #2 - Seal & Insulate

Your air conditioner might blow out snowflakes and icicles, but without taking the steps to seal the cabin, it just won't keep things as cool as possible. Remember that air conditioning works by removing heat and moisture from the air in an enclosed area, but when that area has a constant flow of warmer outside air through dried and cracked weatherstrips, or when the heat from the transmission goes straight through the floor and carpet, the air conditioning may not be as efficient as expected.

The steps you take to insulate your interior make a big difference in cabin temperature and how the air conditioning works. New door and window seals make a big difference, as does a layer of insulation under the carpet or along the firewall. Be sure to block any small holes in the firewall or toe board to prevent direct exhaust and engine heat from entering. (For a list of effective products and tech tips, seeGuide to Heat Protection and Soundproofing)

Speedway Motorcycles

Compact for everyone

It's impossible for any company to offer a one-size-fits-all system for every hot rod application, but Speedway Motors comes as close as it can get with their Vintage Air compact air/heating system. To fit in the small under-dash areas of vintage bars, the evaporator assembly measures just 20.5 inches wide, 7.75 inches front-to-back and just 9 inches high to accommodate a range of vehicles.

The system comes with an SD 508 supercharger with double V-groove pulley. A hose kit is supplied with a range of different fittings along with a new receiver/drier. A safety switch is included, which is essential in any HVAC system, along with a controller, vents, and ducts to complete your installation. All you need to source is a condenser and the correct compressor mounts for your application.

Old Air products

Air conditioning for Dentsides

The popularity of bump-side Ford pickups (the sixth generation, which includes models from '73 through '79) is undeniable. If you're looking to keep the cabin cool, Old Air Products offers an all-inclusive kit or interior package to connect to existing under-hood air conditioning components.

Their trusted Hurricane unit simply bolts to the firewall with a custom mounting plate that neatly routes the heating and air conditioning lines through a custom firewall grommet. An efficient capacitor assembly comes with special supports as well as preformed leads that run through the core support. An electronic switch pack operates the fan and HVAC functions, and Old Air offers mounting brackets for most Ford engines.

Ticket specialties

beauty bulkhead

To keep your HVAC system looking its best, you need to take care of the details. Billet Specialties understands the details and offers these smooth billet aluminum firewall bulkhead connectors for the air conditioning and heating ducts.

The bulkhead is designed with an offset that allows clearance for the four lines. There are two barbed fittings to accept a 5/8 inch heater hose, two -10 lines, and a -6 and a -10 air conditioning line. The entire assembly is CNC machined from 6061-T6 aluminum and polished to perfection and is also available in a black anodized finish. Billet Specialties also offers other designs.

Tech Tip #3 - Shopping tips from the pros

Buying an air conditioner can lead to many questions and searches online, but websites can only cover a limited area. One of the best places to get answers is when you're at an event, so we stopped to chat with two companies who specialize in hot rod parts: Affordable Street Rods' Rex Watson and Mel ( Yogi) Somerville by Yogi's Inc.|


When shopping for an air conditioner, Yogi advised considering the size of the interior, as well as the space under the dash, and buying the largest unit available. "Always use the largest evaporator and condenser you can fit," Yogi said. "And think of the overall interior, because a soft top convertible needs more air conditioning than an insulated hard top."
Rex also mentioned the importance of buying a complete system. “System is the keyword here. Buy a complete system from a reputable dealer who will help you select the best products for your vehicle, along with the peace of mind that all the components work well together.”


Today's HVAC systems are designed so that most DIY hotrodders can assemble the system, but there are still important steps to consider. "Start by reading the instructions BEFORE you begin the installation," Rex said. "Most problems can be traced back to one or more incorrectly installed components, such as the dryer or the control valve."


Most failures that occur in an air conditioning system are due to the system running at too high or even too low pressure, leading to compressor and other component failures. "The number one cause of compressor failures is not installing a simple safety switch like a binary or trinary switch," Yogi said.

A binary switch switches off the system when the refrigerant pressure is too low (refrigerant loss) and when the pressure is too high (due to throttling). A trinary switch has the same characteristics plus a circuit to activate a cooling fan relay. Rex also pointed out the importance of these switches and even has a video on the Affordable Street Rods YouTube channel that explains their use in more detail. In short, be sure to install a safety switch!

About the author Related posts

Tod Ryden

A car guy first and foremost, Todd Ryden admits how fortunate he is to have been able to turn a hobby he enjoys so much into a career. He's owned muscle cars and classics, raced a bit and cruised the country. With over 25 years of experience in the industry, from manufacturing and marketing to writing books and articles, he just gets it.

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