His Vintage Air conditioning systems are installed by hot rodders and customer car builders, and by automakers producing today’s high-speed supercars
There’s a pretty good chance that if you have done customization or modernization to your collector car, you’ve installed air conditioning from Vintage Air. But it’s not only older vehicles that use Vintage Air systems.
Such modern supercars as the latest Ford GT, the cars produced by Swedish ultra-speed specialist Koenigsegg, and others have picked Jack Chisenhall’s company as their original-equipment supplier.
Since its founding in 1976, Vintage Air, based in San Antonio, Texas, has become the dominant player in supplying aftermarket air-conditioning systems to automotive hobbyists. So dominant that when someone advertises a car on ClassicCars.com they may report that it has Vintage Air, or they may simply say it has vintage air, the company’s name becoming synonymous with an entire category of products, much like Kleenex or Xerox.
And that comes as something of a surprise to the 71-year-old Chisenhall, who thought his future in the hobby would be in supplying the steel chassis for hot rod builders.
Chisenhall grew up on a military base in southwest Texas. His father was often away on duty. “Fortunately, there was auto hobby shop on base,” Chisenhall said.
Chisenhall did his first engine swap when he was 13, buying a Model A but installing a Mercury flathead V8 (which he would later replace with a V8 from a Pontiac, and later from a Chevrolet Corvette). He joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps while studying industrial design at what is now Texas State University, and already had earned his pilot’s license before enlisting in the Air Force. Even while in the service, he continued to work on cars, and attended his first Street Rod Nationals in Memphis.
“There were hot rods everywhere,” he remembers. “I’m home!”
He also remembers telling his mother at an early age that he wanted to make a career of making parts for hot rods. That first visit to the big street rod show only made reinforced his commitment.
“I thought I would be building chassis,” he said, “but this worked out.”
One thing Chisenhall sought was his own niche, and there were plenty of chassis builders. So he went to work in manufacturing plants to learn how to turn designs into products. And, since it was hot in his part of Texas, he started to install air conditioning in cars that didn’t have it, though he remembers spending $270 for parts and being able to charge only $295 to install them, a process that gave him little profit for a full day’s work.
But he built a complete A/C system for a 1932 Ford, took it to the 1976 Street Rod show and it launched his company, which produces air-conditioning and heating systems for all sorts of vehicle and performance applications.
Speaking of performance, Chisenhall not only likes building cars, he likes driving them at high rates of speed.
He tells the story of taking his flathead-powered Model A to the drag strip, where it topped out at 52 miles per hour in the quarter-mile spring, “and I wasn’t even embarrassed.”
He had no reason for embarrassment a few decades later when he went to the Bonneville Salt Flats with a 1953 Studebaker originally built up by Jim Ewing, his friend and axle manufacturer who died in a plane crash in 1993.
“We were a Studebaker family,” Chisenhall said of his acquisition of the car, noting that his father always drove Studebakers and his uncle worked in a Studebaker dealership.
Chisenhall used the Studebaker to test Vintage Air equipment. He set it up to be competitive on twisting road-racing courses — with a front clip from race-car builder Ed Howe — but also to be fast, very fast — with a 705cid engine — fast enough for Bonneville, where he took it in 1995 and, with the air-conditioning pumping out 40-degrees of cold, was able to join the 200 mph club, topping out at 241 mph.
But despite his need for speed, that would be Chisenhall’s only run at Bonneville.
“It’s a lot of work (to get ready and race at Bonneville) and I’m busy,” he said.
One of the things that keeps Chisenhall and his team at Vintage Air so busy is developing products for vehicles old and new, and for making the transition to new coolants as the government changes regulations and as customers change vehicles.
Just one example: Vintage Air already has developed A/C system for electric vehicles. It did its first one 15 years ago.