Keeping your hot rod running cool should always be a top priority, but what about the organic mass in the driver seat? As warm-blooded biological machines operating at an already toasty 98.6 degrees F, today's softer, more fragile humans weren't meant to toil away in non-climate-controlled cockpits. Whether its header heat soaking through the firewall, exhaust heat rising up from the floorboard, or solar heat beating down through the roof and glass, a muscle car interior is a repository for thermal energy. As if that's not bad enough, unlike cars, humans rely on a rather crude and messy open-loop cooling system that leads to smelly armpits, dripping foreheads, and unimpressed lady friends. Simply put, in order to enjoy your hot rod year-round, you need to install an aftermarket air conditioning system. Thanks to industry pioneers like Vintage Air, keeping cool, dry, and happy inside your hot rod is easier than ever.
Appropriately located in San Antonio, Texas—where daytime highs routinely top 100 degrees F from May to September—Vintage Air is a company formed out of necessity. Back in the early '70s, founder Jack Chisenhall figured out a way to adapt an air conditioning system, using existing OEM parts, onto his own hot rod so he could enjoy it during the brutal Texas summers. Shortly thereafter, fellow hot rodders hired Chisenhall to install A/C on their muscle cars as well, and soon Vintage Air opened its doors to the public in 1976. Since then, the company's catalog has expanded to envelop a broad range of offerings for hot rods and muscle cars, and not surprisingly, one of Vintage Air's most popular kits is for first-gen Camaros. To get a better idea of what's involved with installing an A/C system into a muscle car, we tagged along as Vintage Air fitted one of its Gen IV SureFit air conditioning systems onto a customer's SS396 '69 Camaro.
While a properly functioning A/C system is easy to take for granted, the modern technology packed into today's systems is light-years ahead of what the Big Three offered during the '60s and '70s. “Factory compressors from the muscle car era take 9-11 hp to turn as opposed to the 3-5 hp that one of our compressors requires. This puts far less load on the engine,” Vintage Air Executive Vice President Rick Love explains. “If your current cooling system is working well, this means that coolant temperature will probably only increase 3-5 degrees, and in some applications, the coolant temperature might not increase at all. The key is making sure you have enough airflow through the radiator in order to dissipate the additional heat load. We also go to great lengths to design air conditioning systems that look as OEM as possible. We find ways to retain the factory climate control panel and integrate it into our systems whenever we can. To simplify installation and improve aesthetics, with our systems we relocate the evaporator core from beneath the hood to inside the car.”
Love says the typical installation should take between 24 and 30 hours for the average DIYer. Granted, that's more time than you'd spend polishing your billet battery hold-down, it's a small price to pay to keep cool, dry, and happy in your hot rod for years to come.
The Vintage Air Gen IV SureFit A/C system for 1969 Chevy Camaros (PN 961169, $1,394.97 from Summit) comes with every last nut and bolt necessary for installation. The kit includes a compressor, an evaporator unit, a condenser, a heater core, ducting, vents, brackets, hard lines, a wiring harness, and even an ECU.
To prep the 1969 Chevy Camaro for installation, raise it up on jackstands and then remove the wheels, drain the coolant, disconnect the battery, detach the cooling fan, and remove the belts. While removing the fenders isn't necessary, they must be loosened in order to free up access to the factory heater assembly.
The A/C compressor brackets mount to the water pump and driver-side cylinder head with 3/8-inch bolts. For cylinder heads that have a larger 7/16-inch bolthole, the hole in the bracket must be enlarged using a drill. Brackets are available for big-block Chevys with both long- and short-style water pumps. For proper belt alignment, Vintage Air recommends using GM water pump (PN 14023155) and crank (PN 14025185) pulleys.
Once the bracket and compressor are in place, reinstall the factory fan and accessory drive belts. For cars equipped with power steering, Vintage Air recommends using a 62-inch A/C compressor belt, which should be routed on the second groove (from the front) of the crank and water pump pulleys.
After removing the hood latch and grille, slide in the condenser and drier assembly in front of the radiator. It attaches to existing factory holes in the upper and lower radiator core support with 5/16-inch bolts. Since the condenser is responsible for removing the heat absorbed by the refrigerant inside the passenger compartment, providing it with a clean supply of ambient airflow from behind the grille maximizes A/C system efficiency.
The factory heater box is a bulky monstrosity that eats up underhood space. Since the Vintage Air evaporator assembly features an integrated heater, the factory heater box can be completely eliminated. Although it's not a mandatory step, removing the fenders and the hood vastly simplifies the process of removing the heater box.
Inside the cabin, there's quite a bit of factory hardware that needs to be removed, including the dashpad, instrument cluster, ventilation control panel, glovebox, ashtray, and defrost ducts. After removing the steering column bolts, the column must be lowered to more easily facilitate the installation of the new Vintage Air ducts and hoses.
Since the factory fresh air vents will not be reused, remove them and cap them off using the vent cover supplied with the Vintage Air kit. There are two vents in total, located near the bottom of the A-pillars (behind dash).
By reaching in through the glovebox opening, remove the driver- and passenger-side OEM defrost ducts and replace them with the new Vintage Air units. Line the new ducts up with the openings in the dash, and drill a 7/64-inch hole into the bottom mounting tabs. Next, secure them into place using No. 10 sheetmetal screws.