Whether getting in your classic to take it to an event or simply for a cruise, most of us usually have seasonal changes which are a limiting factor for its escape from storage. For some, it’s snow-covered winter leading into rain-soaked springtime, which limits driving time to Summer. But the problem with that limitation is during the heat of summer, if your hot rod doesn’t have air conditioning. How pleasurable is the time behind the wheel during the heat of summer? Let’s face it, the weather can get a little warm – especially during the dog days of summer: July and August.
When the temperature rises, so does humidity. While we all enjoy driving our classic hot rods, cooking our rump roast on vinyl seats does not make for an enjoyable cruise. That’s when you realize your ride could use a little help from Vintage Air.
Lee Murphy is a resident of Lakeland, Florida, and was in such a predicament. While his Nova is a blast to drive, the summer months saw his cruiser parked within the confines of his garage. No longer wanting to sit inside the house during the summer months, he made the decision to “cool” his hot rod and make it even more enjoyable.
To accomplish this, he reached out to Vintage Air for a complete SureFit kit to cool his cockpit. The SureFit kits are the company’s most complete, bolt-in, climate-control systems available for classic cars. These vehicle-specific systems install easily and attach to the factory sheetmetal and body features.
The Winds Of Change
The Vintage Air kit is not like the “knee-knocker” units of days-gone-by that bolted to the bottom of your dash and frequently gave your knees something to complain about. Vintage Air HVAC units are a complete heat, cool, and defrost system. The units integrate themselves into the car where the factory heater box once took up residence. In most cases, the kits include components to convert your existing OE controls to electronic operation, or in some kits, an all-new control panel is provided. That means the Vintage Air kit installs behind the dash nearly out of view while retaining the original appearance.
Filled To Capacity
“While those cans can make an A/C system cold, an R134 system is very particular about how much material is installed in the system,” said Rick. “Vintage Air kits use a Thermal Expansion Valve (TEV) system while many other systems use an Orifice Tube. The TEV system does not require as much material as an orifice tube. One of the most frequent calls we get involves enthusiasts — and even installers — who are having a hard time getting the newly installed system to properly cool. Many times, it is determined the system has been filled with too much R134. When that happens, it doesn’t cool as efficiently.”
Basically, this means it can be done, but your results could be less than adequate. The Vintage Air kits work best with 1.8 pounds (28.8 oz.) or 816 grams of R134, charged by weight with a quality charging station or scale.
We were fortunate enough to be able to follow along as Lee installed the kit in his car, and while this story will not cover a nut-and-bolt installation – that’s what the detailed instruction are for – we will show some of the highlights, tell you what comes in the basic kit Lee ordered, and the options chosen.
An install of an air-conditioning kit is not for the faint-of-heart. This does not mean it can’t be accomplished at home with simple hand tools — it most certainly can. But, take the time to plan every step before you even turn a wrench. There is wiring involved, plumbing of high-pressure hoses, and the actual mounting of ancillary components.
When contemplating an install like this, you should first ask yourself, do you have the proper knowledge of A/C systems, wiring, crimping high-pressure lines, and other skills needed to do the job correctly? Do you have the required tools? If you have the desire, tools, and knowledge, then have at it. However, if you think the install may be beyond your mechanical aptitude, Vintage Air can provide contact info for an authorized dealer/installer in your area. It’s also a good idea to ask club members or friends about potential local installers as well.
If you’re like us and you want to handle the install yourself, you might have a few questions about your system after it’s installed. Sometimes, those questions might surround a situation that you do not fully understand. If that’s the case, Vintage Air even has a tech/troubleshooting page which can usually answer just about any question you might have.
Making Connections Under The Hood
We started by mounting the new accessory brackets to relocate the alternator and mount the A/C compressor. Lee ordered the alternator-relocation brackets, because he wanted to move the alternator to the driver’s side of the engine and mount the A/C compressor to the passenger’s side of the engine. In this install, this was purely a matter of aesthetics, as mounting the compressor on the passenger’s side means the hoses would not be routed over the engine. Had we mounted the compressor in the OE location, the hoses would have arrived crimped and ready for installation. Since we decided to move the compressor to keep the engine compartment a little cleaner, we had to have a local shop crimp the two compressor hoses.
Next up was the condenser. The instructions recommend you remove the grille from the front of the car, but we thought we might accomplish the feat without removing the grille. It was a tight fit, and we were able to carefully accomplish the condenser install by simply removing the hood-latch mechanism.
We then routed the hard lines and mounted the drier to the passenger’s side inner fender. The drier can be equipped with either a Binary or Trinary pressure-safety switch. A Binary switch disengages the
compressor clutch in cases of extreme low-pressure conditions, like when low on refrigerant, or when excessively high head-pressure occurs — to prevent compressor damage or hose rupture. A Trinary switch combines Hi/Lo pressure protection with an electric-fan engagement signal, and should always be used when electric fans are utilized.
We were fortunate the factory heater box was already removed and a block-off plate had been added to the firewall. For us, this meant half of the job was already done as we didn’t need to remove those parts. This also meant we didn’t need to use the Vintage Air-supplied firewall block-off plate.
We did remove the kick panel and modify as directed, and then installed the plate that mounts behind the kick panel after Lee routed the hoses through it. Before the HVAC box was officially mounted to the firewall and cowl, we also made sure to make the defroster connections.
Since the Nova was a non-air car from the factory, the Vintage Air kit comes with louvered vents and vent boxes that can be mounted under the dash. This is a great option for ease of installation. However, Lee wanted a more — shall we say — factory look. For this reason, he took the time to replace the dash pad so factory vents were usable. He then cut the metal portion of the dash to allow the installation of the Vintage Air louvers to create a nearly factory-stock appearance.
One of the first things we noticed when we first opened the boxes containing the kit, was there area lot of wires. But, don’t let the sheer amount of copper overly concern you. Each sub-section of wires is easily route-able, and with the clear and concise instructions, it really isn’t that hard to make the connections.
Finally, it came time to mount and connect the actual control levers for the system. Factory (and many aftermarket A/C kits) are typically operated by cables that attach to the controls on the dash and then connect to the air-conditioning unit. Cables may have been a good option years ago, but the OEM’s recognized their limitations years ago and moved to electronic controls.
Vintage Air’s early SureFit kits utilized cables as well, but when the second-generation SureFit kits were developed and released, it introduced air blend and mode doors operated by electronic solid-state servo motors instead of cables. That change provides a lot more door-travel adjustability, thus offering more precise temperature control while retaining the ability to convert the OE lever controls to electronic operation. Since Lee’s car was already sans heater box and cables, he chose to use the new replacement electronic control panel.
These new control panels are designed to replace the factory units and operate the Gen-IV systems. This electronic update offers classic car owners a great way to upgrade the functionality of the climate control system and improve the look of their dash. This drop-in upgrade features LED back lighting, a compressor-engagement indicator, and variable slide adjustments for fan speed, temperature, and air-delivery selections. What’s more, the controls mount in the OE-location, utilizing the original hardware and included wiring harness. It makes the install so much easier than ever before.
The install can take the better part of a couple days, and if you plan to tackle this install by yourself, you should plan on spending a weekend in the garage. But, it will definitely be time well spent. If your classic is cooking you – literally — don’t be afraid to add an A/C system yourself or have an authorized installer handle the job for you. Either way, like Lee, you’ll be happy you upgraded. As you can imagine, his time behind the wheel has increased dramatically now that cooler conditions are present in the confines of his Nova.
Hopefully, this overview article has provided some insight regarding the Vintage Air system’s form and function to help you decide whether adding air-conditioning to your hot rod is right for you. We’re ready for some cool, summer cruising!