There’s no question that, in most tangible ways involving performance, efficiency, and comfort, modern cars are far, far better than what came before. This is pretty much indisputable. To get to this point, though, modern cars had to give up something wonderful and significant: the unexpected. Modern cars are built in ways that generally make sense, and while that’s great and all, it’s also boring as hell. It’s also why the automotive world will never encounter an object and design as unexpected and shocking as the optional air conditioning system installed in Opel GTs. So spread a dropcloth under your chair so you’re ready when I show this to you.
First, let’s make sure we’re all up to speed on two things, starting with the Opel GT itself. The Opel GT, built (in its original form; I don’t care as much about the 2007-2009 one, which was basically a Saturn Sky/Pontiac Solstice) from 1968 to 1973 was a charming and curvy little sports car that resembled a Corvette that had been injected with that shrink serum they use to make baby corn. There are a lot of interesting and charming details about the Opel GT (the hand-cranked, sideways-opening headlamps, the weirdly long rod used to actuate the brake booster, etc.) but the one pertinent design quirk I want to be sure you know about is just how densely the little car is packed with stuff. Look at this cutaway:
See what I mean? It’s like they took the drivetrain and all the other components and just wrapped the body around all that stuff as tightly as possible. It’s a front-mid engine design, with the either 1.1 or 1.9-liter inline-four positioned aft of the front axle and just about barging into the passenger compartment. So there’s just not that much room in there for anything else, like an AC system. But that didn’t stop Opel.
People get hot. They don’t like being all hot and sweaty, especially when crammed into a little sports car, so if Opel is going to sell these things in, say, California or Texas or Florida, AC is pretty much a must. Now, lots of cars back in the lat 60s to early 1970s didn’t come with AC standard, and optional AC units were common, and were often clunky add-ons, which usually consisted of a compressor in the engine bay and then a vent/duct/control unit mounted under the dash. For example, the old ’71 Super Beetle I had in high school had an AC unit that looked like this:
So, that AC unit just bolted up under the dash. Sure, it took up a lot of knee room, but there was plenty there, so it’s a worthy trade-off for cooled, conditioned air. This type of solution was common on lots of cars, though American cars, which were more likely to have AC optioned from the start, would usually have a more integrated AC solution.
Okay, so we have the background we need: the Opel GT general packaging situation, and the general state of most add-on AC units. Have all of that absorbed? Good. Now look at what the Opel GT AC system looked like:
Holy crap, look at that thing! It’s a huge unit that lays over the transmission tunnel, perforated with cavities for the parking brake, gearshift, and the manual headlight-opening lever, culminating in a huge pyramidical Mount Vents over there. I’ve never seen an AC unit that, um, exuberantly shaped! It’s a whole temple back there, a towering ziggurat of cool air (our own S.W. Gossin suggested the ziggurat shape, though I always thought of ziggurats as having a stepped design, like the Ziggurat of Ur or something, but I think it works anyway) that’s even taller than the gearshift!
There was a compressor, too, of course, and while it’s pretty bulky, it does fit in the engine bay:
Delco made these units, and it looks like there’s another design that’s a bit more symmetrical, though no less bulky; that one mostly seems to be used with automatic transmission cars, and you can see it on the right here:
It sorta looks like a gray sheet draped over some furniture on the center tunnel there. It’s so incredibly strange.
I hope this thing worked well, at least. I mean, it better, considering how much of the interior real estate of the car it gobbled up. That center console relief map/middle school volcano project/vent and control assembly was just part of it: the whole thing was T-shaped and also devoured some of the cargo room behind the seats:
I know it may sound like I’m mocking the fine Delco engineers that developed this AC system, but I promise I’m not. I’m impressed, pretty genuinely. The GT was an incredibly tight, unforgiving package, so they had to be incredibly creative to figure out how to cram in all the necessary components for an AC system, and they did. Lesser engineers and designers would have just given up, but not Delco, and not Opel. They spread AC equipment all over the interior of that car and let the stuff already in there push through as best they could.
Was it elegant? No. Hell no. Is it amazing? Absolutely. And, I think it’s pretty safe to say there will never be another AC system designed like this ever again, so drink in the majesty, friends.
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Got to give the engineers credit for using the only available space since there probably wasn’t enough room for the more common under dash unit. It’s funny how big the compressor is relative to the engine.
Kinda looks like you’d have to turn the AC off for a moment every time you want to pass someone on the highway.
1960s GM air conditioning, even on a big engine the compressors looked massive, would practically blow ice chunks out of the vents though (and if you started with a powerful enough V8 to begin with, you wouldn’t notice a meaningful power loss in regular driving, but on the GT, I imagine it might feel like suddenly engaging the parking brake while in motion)
AC on a 72 El Camino would have you cracking the windows to let in some summer heat.
Can confirm on the Mopar side, too. I had a 318-powered car and the AC could make the car uncomfortably cold… in Hawaii.
Yeah, my grandparents lived in Miami in the 70s, and all of their ACs (Mopar and Ford) could still keep meat fresh even in the middle of the summer. I finally showed my grandmother that the temperature control actually made the air not freezing if you moved it over once the car interior cooled off.
Would definitely want a Ziggurat of Ur AC distribution device if available for any car I owned.
I thought it strange my Jeep have under dash AC (even my former big old SJ Cherokee.)
“culminating in a huge pyramidical Mount Vents over there”
I’m surprised you didn’t go with “Mount Ventsuvius”.
As prepared for that reveal as I thought I was, I was completely not prepared for that reveal…
I literally was “whaahh whaaahhh whaaahh” out loud, unable to even complete the T & F…
wonder how much power that robbed from the anemic engines in these baby vettes
You mentioned it had a compressor, so I guess it’s not just a blower fan in a box you fill with dry ice, which is what it looks like.
Delco. That is a name that I have not heard in a long, long time…
Slight tangent. Delco was so ubiquitous that, at least in Spain, any alternator used to be just called “the Delco”.
Charles “Boss” Kettering’s company, short for Dayton Engineering Laboratories COmpany. Acquired along with Kettering by GM. Interestingly, most of GM’s automobile air conditioning compressors were branded “Frigidare” back in the ’60s.
Those compressors (used across GM) were made by Frigidaire Division (same folks who built appliances) in Dayton. The legendary “A-6” axial compressors took a lot of power to drive but they could pump the Freon – 3.5 tons of AC at 4000 rpm. Enough to cool a moderately sized home.
Same in France. “Le delco.”
Most of my older vehicles have had Delco alternators swapped into them. For instance my 2 old tractors originally had 6v systems and generators. They are both 12v Delco swapped. The one exception is a 67 CJ5 with a Motorola alternator. I have never seen one before or since and hope it keeps going because it is probably a PITA to find another one.
Management: Great, but it needs Air Conditioning.
Engineer: There’s no room.
Management: Don’t bother me with details, just make it happen.
Engineer: Well, okay…
I feel like the conversation went something like this: (The Expert)
I have been in many meetings like that where the customer has multiple conflicting requirements. I think this is why cost-plus contracts were invented.
I’ve been in ‘creative’ client meetings for Special Effects that we were going to do for TV commercials that were so ridiculous and internally contradictory we started calling them Chocolate Airplane meetings, as that was about how useful the results were…tasty but not airworthy
Seems I had a bootleg Chocolate Airplane album (when they played Mexico City 1973?), if only I could find it…
I wonder how much of it was common to the Kadett which would’ve had a regular under dash arrangement and the same Delco compressor as the big American GM cars, which in a car that small would make it less an air-conditioned car than a self-propelled portable refrigerator.
Yeah, it looks like the same size compressor that my 72 Cutlass had hooked up to a 350 Rocket V8. The AC in that car was spectacular and took something like 4.5 pounds of R12. I think you must have had to choose between being cool or being able to accelerate in an Opel GT. Thanks Torch! I had forgotten AC was an option on these. I think I had seen one for sale many years ago that had this option on it and remember thinking how odd it was, but also amazing.
‘Oliver’ could tell you
What a wild and wonderful way to cram an A/C unit in such a small package. Got to love weird design, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Question is, how well did it work?
While working as a part-time mechanic/full time Marine in a independent garage in SanBernardino, CA circa 1971, I encountered one of these things. It was Canary Yellow with a black interior. The A/C install was just as ridiculous as it appears. The car was in for a simple plug change tune-up so I caught the job. Done in about an hour (normally about 30 min) due to the cramped engine room. When I took it out for a test drive, the power loss was noticeable but not terrible. It wasn’t exactly going to be blowing anyone away in a straight line anyway. It did handle real well mainly limited by the tires. Biggest hassle was in shifting.
“…and then a vent/duct/control unit mounted under the dash.”
In 1959 Ford did such a good job of hiding the factory-installed A/C within the dash (as opposed to the under-dash dealer-installed version that was also available) that they included a badge on the curbside front door so its presence wouldn’t be overlooked by envious passersby:
Ha, yeah, if you’ve got it, flaunt it! A decade later some car manufacturers were still doing that. My dad bought a brand new 1969 Volvo 145 station wagon in the fall of 1968 & he actually got the air conditioning option which Volvo proudly proclaimed with a long skinny rectangular sticker in the rear window that said something like “Volvo Equipped with Air Conditioning. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” My siblings & I would count the “R”s on road trips (as the sticker was clear with blue type so it was readable from inside) & there were usually seventeen “R”s. To this day I don’t know what we’d have done if the number changed…
Having an air conditioned car in the 1950s, especially from a “low price” brand instead of a luxury one, was a major flex – air conditioned movie theaters were still advertising that fact in big letters on their marquees back then.
True. Over the last 37 years I’ve owned four ’59 Fords (currently just one), none of which have had A/C.
That is a very particular fixation. Why not ’58? Or ’60?
The first one was a four-door sedan selected more or less by chance, as my parents got it for me as my combination first car, high school graduation present, birthday present (June!) , and ride to college. It was among the very few vehicles for sale in the local paper for $400 that looked like it might hold up okay. It ended up getting me all the way through grad school, which took [illegible] years.
While in college I made the serious mistake of buying a disassembled Skyliner (the retractable hardtop), which I still have, still disassembled. Never buy someone else’s project.
The other two were short-term vehicles in fairly rough shape that ultimately served mostly as parts cars. One was a four-door wagon and the other was a four-door sedan, bringing the total to four. It’s surprisingly easy to do.
It ended up getting me all the way through grad school, which took [illegible] years
There’s gotta be an story in here!
This makes me want an Opel GT even more now.
I saw a green GT pop up on Marketplace a couple months ago with this A/C system and my brain was having a difficult time figuring out what exactly was going on. In the end, I was also impressed!