A Bit About Car Heater History

If your vehicle’s cabin is cold, then you simply switch on the “heat” and soon your car will be warm.  It wasn’t always that way, though.  In motoring’s early days, most cars didn’t have heaters.  Instead, cars were essentially open carriages with motors. What passengers did was bundle up as if one was outdoors. This meant heavy clothes, snow boots and winter gloves. It wasn’t long, though, before vehicle manufacturers realized that a few creature comforts, like enclosed cabins and heat in the cabin, would help sell cars.  As you may think, though, the technology evolved as cars became more advanced and popular. Here’s the story:

Car Heater History
Image by Flickr

Hot Brick Heat:

The earliest car heaters were odd.  In the early 1900s, “heater boxes” were popular. They were low-profile metal boxes covered with a fabric that you could slide a heated brick into.  The bricks were usually heated in an oven or fireplace before any trips.  After the hot brick was placed in the oven or fireplace, they would then be placed on the car’s floor and would help heat the feet and legs of the passengers and driver. Heater boxes were crude but they provided a little relief from the bitter cold.

Then, there was the exhaust manifold:

Engineers later realized that a lot of heat was being generated by the engine and blown out of the tailpipe.  The result was that throughout the 1920s, several manufacturers designed special exhaust manifolds that allowed some of the exhaust heat to be funneled into the passenger compartment.  That was done by casting a second passage above the engine exhaust ports that connected right to the passenger compartment. These “heater manifolds” could throw out tons of heat.  Back then there were not any dash controls or electric fans to distribute the heat so what you got was more than enough heat, all the time.  This kind of heater was a solution to the problem but not a good one.

Then, there was heat from the cooling system:

In the 1930s, engineers looked to the radiator and coolant system.  According to this West Mifflin, PA Chevrolet dealer, it was easy: the engineers ran the hot coolant developed in the engine-radiator system into a “small radiator” located underneath the dash and an electric fan blew the air throughout the cabin.  This was the beginning of the modern automotive heating system.

Modern-Day Heating/Cooling Systems:

Nowadays, heating systems are built into cars with air conditioning systems so that the temperature of a car’s cabin can be controlled regardless of what temperature.  If heat is required, then the heater comes on. If it needs to be cooled down, then the AC comes on. These units are complex with tons of heating/cooling ducts, vacuum motors and sophisticated electronic control systems.  When it comes to the heating portion of the systems, though, the basics still apply.  The hot air that comes out of a new vehicle is still heated by the engine’s radiator coolant system.  It’s just done with a myriad of 21st century technology, which isn’t thought about by most people on a daily basis!

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