By. Gary Sand
The older I get, the more interested in creature comforts I become, so air conditioning for my '64 Valiant convertible found itself near the top of the modification list. Perhaps I'm nuts for putting A/C in a convertible, but it's my daily driver and 100 degree weather is common in north Texas so it seemed to be the thing to do.
This is the recipient of the Vintage Air A/C unit. No, those are not stock seats. They are from a 1997 Chrysler Sebring convertible.
For those of you with similar foolish ideas, Ill share the trials and tribulations experienced while installing A/C in the tight confines of an early A-body. You might do things differently, but what I did worked for me. I make no guarantees or promises about the accuracy of this installation, so keep that in mind. Also remember that cars with different equipment might require a different approach when installing some of the parts. I dont think I have to remind anyone that owning a Mopar often requires us to be creative.
I considered several aftermarket A/C manufacturers, but decided on San Antonio-based Vintage Air. Everyone I talked to who bought these units was very happy with their choice, so I went the happy customer route. Cost was similar between the manufacturers I checked, so price wasnt the deciding factor.
One thing I quickly discovered was that aftermarket A/C parts are not made specifically for a slant 6-powered anything and the term early A-body was a foreign language to the Vintage Air people. The sales and tech support people were very helpful, but their knowledge of Mopars was limited, so the entire project became mine to design and install.
Let it be noted that you can order custom kits for popular Ford and GM cars and trucks, but almost nothing is special-built for a Mopar. The one exception in their catalog is a compressor bracket for the small block V8.
Note how the A/C vents fit in the area formerly occupied by the stock heater controls and lighter. The AM/FM/cassette is from a Neon.
I knew that I would be taking several months to install my system so I only ordered the parts I needed for each stage of installation. Since I was in the midst of re-furbishing my interior I ordered the evaporator first, and because convertibles are more difficult to cool than a hardtop or sedan, I selected their newest, high-capacity, Gen II Super Cooler system. Its air conditioner, heater and defroster all contained in one unit. Its also one of the physically larger units they sell.
While waiting for the unit to arrive, I tore out the old heater unit and fiber-glassed the open duct in the plenum. Since the stock under-dash passenger vent system could not be used with this A/C unit, the plenum hole had to be closed anyway. The reason I went this route instead of a metal plate was because the plenum duct flange had rusted out on my car and the fiberglass resolved a rather severe leak problem at the same time.
I removed the Valiants heater controls and cigarette lighter, since I decided to install vents in the location occupied by the control knobs in the stock dash. Purists will want to ignore this choice, but I want a car I can enjoy driving, not just talk about and look at. A general stock appearance was wanted, but since I couldnt use the stock heater controls with the A/C unit, I butchered the dash in favor of the improved vent location. The Vintage Air lighted control panel and the lighter/cell phone jack now reside on the custom console along with a tach and vacuum gauge.
This view of the evaporator shows how much it looks like something Ma Mopar might design. The fuse block you see was added because of the additional circuits required for the A/C, power seats and seat belt module. I also replaced the original fuse box under the driver's side of the dash to take advantage of modern parts.
To check for fit and location, I made a cardboard mock-up of the evaporator based on the dimensions specified in the Vintage Air catalog. Dont bypass this step since measuring can be misleading and you need a three-dimensional mock-up to visualize how it will fit and look. In this case, it was a tight fit, but I determined it would work with some creative thought and a little luck.
I was able to mount the evaporator high enough to get it up out of sight, and still leave room for the vent hoses to clear under dash objects. If you didnt know better, the part visible below the dash looks like a factory heater box.
Something to note at this point is the fact that cars of this era had their windshield wiper motors and arms located under the dash. Because of this decision, it is extremely difficult to route the hoses in a way they dont interfere with the wiper moving parts. I had to remove my glove box to make extra room, so Ill have to build a smaller one if I find a need for more storage space. For the time being, the glove box door allows access to the vent hoses and inside AC connections.
I wanted my installation to look like it might have come from the factory, so I installed two of the vents directly into the upper dash and two outboard vents below the dash in plastic housings that came with the kit. There was no room to install the lower vents in the dash.
Fortunately, the trim plate on the upper dash is almost exactly the height of the vents, so they fit very well and appear to be stock to anyone unfamiliar with A-bodies. I did slightly bevel the back edges of the vent bezels so that they fit snugly against the trim plate.
The lower vents don't look stock, but there wasn't enough room in the dash to install them. They could be painted, but I took the easy way out.
To further complicate fit and clearance, I had installed an AM/FM/Cassette from a 2000 Neon in the stock radio location so it ate up a lot of space behind the dash that might have otherwise been used to route vent hoses. I also installed a custom built console that created space and access problems you would not experience with an open floor.
Installing the evaporator is a simple operation. The manufacturer furnishes three strap-type brackets that are easily located and attached to the firewall. I routed the heater hoses through the existing holes in the firewall instead of installing bulkhead connectors. It works fine and the fancy bulkhead connectors are too spendy!
When it came time to install the defroster vent hoses, I discovered the hose end would not slide over the stock vents, nor would the Vintage Air hose adapters fit. The kit contained vents for this purpose, but I wanted to retain the stock parts if possible. I pondered that one for a long time, but finally came up with the idea of using plastic caps from spray paint cans to adapt the adapters to the stock vents. Theyre not fancy, but they work!
Taken through the glove box opening, this photo shows the heater hoses routed through the firewall and the bulkhead connectors from the evaporator secured to the firewall. There are other methods to deal with the firewall connections, but this method proved to be the least expensive.
I also had to design and fabricate adapters to attach the hoses to the A/C vents on the dash.The hoses are supposed to slide over the back of the vent, but I had nothing but problems with the suggested method and when I did get them installed, they came off too easily. The adapters I made were from thin plastic material formed to decrease the diameter and secure the hose. I experimented with a tapered paper cup to determine the exact shape and then duplicated that shape in flat, flexible plastic. Good old duct tape holds the adapters together and they are designed to snap inside the vent and lock in place. They work and thats all that counts. If they wear out, replacements are easy to make.
The next parts I ordered were a refrigeration line kit and compressor. The kit contains enough #6, #8 and #10 hose to fit a typical car. There was more than enough of each size for a compact car. The kit includes a selection of fittings, but I had to order a couple of 135-degree fittings to make the under-dash lines fit in the cramped quarters.
The bulkhead connections are shown mounted to a plate I fabricated for that purpose as well as to cover the hole left by removing the factory heater motor. Note the drier mounted out of harm's way.
The compressor is a modern Sanden unit, which is much smaller than the stock monster and roughly 2/3rd the size of the rotary-style used on later slant 6s. The smaller compressor was not only an improvement, it was mandatory due to limited hood clearance.
Soon after beginning the restification of my Valiant, I bought a 79 Aspen to use as a parts car. Besides containing the Super Six parts I desired, it was an air-conditioned car and I needed the basic brackets to adapt to my system. I took digital photos of the brackets on the Aspen before I removed them and was very glad I did when it came time to re-assemble the cleaned and painted parts.
The Sanden compressor barely fits under the low hood line. I had to rotate it about 80 degrees to make the lines clear. This orientation also provides enough space for an upcoming installation of a two-barrel Super Six manifold. The C-shaped adapter brackets are visible in this view.
I was able to use the stock compressor brackets with only minor modifications. Since the new compressor was smaller than the one used on the Aspen, I was able to fabricate adapter brackets quite easily. They are nothing more than C-shaped plates with holes for the Sanden compressor on one side and holes to match the Aspen brackets on the other. I made them from 1/8 steel plate to closely match the stock material, but I probably over-designed them.
Because of the space taken up by the adapters, I had to grind down the backside of the formed front bracket and spacer to get the pulley grooves to align properly. There was nothing difficult about this operation and it took about 5 minutes on the bench grinder. I should mention that I also used the power steering pump from the Aspen to preclude more bracket modifications.
The rear compressor brace can be attached in the factory location on the motor mount bracket by using a spacer and a long bolt. The hole already existed on my car and I would assume its there on other slants too. I used a grade 8 bolt for this application since the spacer modification will apply more stress to the attach point, but I probably over-engineered it too.
I used the fuel line from the Aspen since it was shaped differently than the Valiant part and it better cleared the compressor and associated hardware. I could have re-bent the original line, but replacing it was faster.
The rear brace needs a spacer to accommodate the shorter compressor. I cut off an old alternator spacer for my installation.
After the compressor was in place, I ordered the condenser and a binary switch to shut off the compressor in case of overpressure or refrigerant loss.
Installing the condenser was easy, but required removing the grille and cutting two holes for the A/C lines in the radiator support. The condenser comes with 4 generic brackets that can be easily bent to accommodate different situations. Mine required only the bottom brackets to be re-formed and a needle-nosed pliers was all I needed. Once located, it was a simple task to match drill holes for attaching screws.
You will have to cut holes in the radiator support for both the upper and lower lines. I used a hole saw to cut a 1 hole just above the horn mounting location and a 2 hole below the horns for the lower hose. The exact location will depend on which condenser you buy and what model-year you are installing the parts into.
This view shows the binary switch and water shut-off valve. This valve was inoperative due to no voltage at the evaporator wiring. I put in a manual valve and will troubleshoot the system later.
Now comes the most difficult part of the installation; fabricating and routing the refrigerant lines.
I should mention that I bought a tool to crimp the refrigerant line ferrules and was very glad I did. The price was over $150, but it would have been a real headache to try to measure everything and then take it to an A/C shop to have the lines fabricated. Im guessing they would have charged nearly as much as I paid for the tool, and now I have another special tool for the next project!
The first lines I built were those located under the dash. I mocked-up the shape and length using coat hanger wire. There are several ways to do this part, but I wanted bulkhead connectors attached to the firewall for simplicity. I had already fabricated a plate from aluminum to cover the holes left when the heater motor was removed, so I used it as the mounting point for the bulkhead connecters.
With the bulkhead connectors in place, I next made a line to the drier unit. I mounted the drier using the Aspen bracket on the fender well so that it hung down between the transmission dipstick and the firewall. I had to make a slight bend in the bracket to make it fit properly. Vintage Air had provided two clamps for the drier, but they looked flimsy and the single Mopar bracket was much stronger and looked more original.
Space is tight between the radiator and grille. The condenser is easy to mount, but the grille had to be removed to gain access. There is insufficient room to install a pusher-type electric fan.
All the other lines were less critical for length and form, so were much easier to make. There was a little creative thought required when attaching the lines to the compressor since I again ran into clearance problems. The compressor had to be rotated about 80 degrees clockwise from vertical and the lines routed under and behind the compressor to clear the hood and the soon-to-be-installed Super Six air cleaner. This was a touch and go situation since the compressor cant be mounted at just any angle and still lubricate properly. I ended up reworking the compressor mounting adapters to make this work.
After installing and checking the lines for tightness, I drove to the local A/C shop and had the system evacuated and charged with refrigerant. I was pleased to discover there were no leaks and the system was working. Unfortunately, it was not cooling properly and we found that the hot water control valve to the heater was not operating. This allows water to circulate through the heater, which nullifies the cooling air.
I called the manufacturer and they told me what voltages to look for at the valve. As suspected, they were not there. Power to the valve on my unit is routed through the evaporator bundle and after installation there was no way for me to troubleshoot the unit without removing it from the car. To get the unit operating for the time being, I bought a manual shut-off valve to replace the electronic unit. When the weather moderates, Ill drop the evaporator and find out whats wrong, but for now Im enjoying cool air in my Valiant.
After replacing the valve, I put the top up and went for a drive on a day when it was near 100 degrees, and the car interior cooled to a very comfortable level. Considering the number of air leaks in a typical old convertible, I was extremely pleased.
At idle in traffic, the 4-blade fan does not handle the cooling chores adequately so Ill have to upgrade to a 5-7 blade flex fan. I would prefer to install the clutch fan from my donor Aspen, but there is insufficient clearance between the water pump shaft and the radiator core. So far I have been unable to find an electric fan that will fit in the restricted space yet be large enough to move more air than the stock 4-blade. If I eventually find one, I would prefer the electric version to a flex fan.
It's in and it works! This is a much more compact installation than the dealer installed units that were available in 1964.
It would be a lie to say the installation went perfectly, but considering everything had to be custom made for the Valiant, Im happy with the installation and also with the service I received from Vintage Air. There is no way they can be familiar with every car model and we know how Mopars are the forgotten brand when it comes to aftermarket parts.
The only thing Im not satisfied with is the control panel. It doesnt look period at all. Im sure with the old Ford-style logo it would look more at home in a roadster or lead-sled. The knobs are rather cheap-looking black plastic and are somewhat difficult to operate due to their close proximity to each other. Id like to see more chrome on the panel itself and chrome knobs should be optional. And while I understand the companys desire to advertise, I would really like to see the logo more subdued. A happy customer is far better advertising than an unattractive logo will ever be.
I hope this article and photos help someone else who might be contemplating a Vintage Air unit in their early A-body. Ill be glad to answer any questions you might have about this installation. Just e-mail me at the address shown on the top of the page and I can provide more photos that might show the installation more clearly.