The History of Car Heaters

by Contributing Writer

Modern car users take very high degrees of comfort for granted. But in their short history, automobiles have gone from rustic horse replacements to venerable rolling palaces, with a lot of hit-and-miss engineering in between. Climate control is one area where much effort has been spent to keep the motoring public happy--with heat a particularly important aspect.

First Modern Rides

In the late 19th century, cars were seen as a natural evolutionary step up from horse-drawn carriages. Suffice it to say expectations were low, and most motorists thought of cars in horse terms--so inclement weather meant staying put. Modern electric and gas-powered cars began appearing in the 1880s, but they were mostly open-bodied, with no windows and certainly no heat.

Getting Warmer

As cars grew in popularity, demand for more comfort increased. In 1907, the first enclosed cars emerged, including glass windshields. These helped keep the elements at bay. In the meantime, motorists used heavy clothing and portable heaters such as gas lamps and burners to warm up the interior. These were the same heaters used in horse carriages for centuries.

Exhaustive Search For Heat

Engineers and users soon tired of these portable heaters, which were inherently dangerous. Instead, they realized exhaust fumes could be used as a cheap onboard heat source, so by 1917, the first heaters turned up that circulated exhaust gases into pipes. These gave off faint heat in the cabin. By 1929, even this design was obsolete, when the first real heaters appeared on the Ford Model A. It sent hot air from the engine into the interior, but wasn't very consistent and took a while to warm up. In 1933 Ford made the first in-dash heater, a small gas-fueled boiler.

The Water Option

While gas heaters proved popular at first, a competing design relied on redirecting coolant from the engine and using that for heat. While the first designs to do so appeared in the 1920s, it wasn't until 1930 that GM pioneered the now-standard heater core. This uses a radiator that gets hot coolant from the engine, then propels heat into the compartment using a fan. Since then, little has changed in the basic design.

Refining The Process

In 1937, Nash Motors advanced climate control using filters and much-finer controls that enabled motorists to regulate airflow and temperature. By this time, heater cores were the norm, because gas heaters were too costly and risky, and simply using ambient heat from the engine wasn't potent enough. GM introduced car seat heaters in 1939 on select cars. World War II proved a major catalyst, because for the first time, military vehicles were able to provide comfort for troops fighting in cold weather. This cemented the current design of heating and climate controls.

Getting Closer

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, car makers began using outside air for climate control. Before, the heater core warmed up whatever air was under the hood, but the more modern design uses rams and scoops that actively gather air and bring it to be heated up. The late 1950s witnessed a standardization of heaters, so that models shared the same parts, cutting down costs. By the early 1960s, modern heaters became standard on all GM cars, with other manufacturers around the world following soon after.

More Recent Developments

The energy crisis of 1973 brought renewed interest in the electric car, which doesn't have the hot fluids and gases of an internal combustion design. Instead, most electrics use positive coefficient electric heaters, similar to the ones used in homes, only thriftier in energy consumption. Cadillacs were the first cars with fully automatic climate controls--adjusting interior temps to those outside. Since then, little has changed--almost all gasoline cars still use the heater core design, including hybrids, and most depend on heaters rather than air conditioners to provide effective heat in cold weather.