I remember as a boy taking weekly shopping trips to the supermarket on a Friday at 7pm with my best friend and his mum. We didn’t have a car so they would drive us in their Beetle, a perfectly running little cream coloured affair with a painted on matt black bonnet protector that covered from the tip to just under half-way. You know the kind of thing, rather like the vinyl cover you can buy to protect your car from stone chips.

As a family with no car, it was an excitement, a blessing (for my mum) and pure luxury, especially in winter and the rain. I remember the rudimentary heating system that took about one and a half miles to warm the car up (half the journey in fact), but it worked. So when did we become a nation obsessed with air-conditioning and more to the point, do we really need it?

car air conditioning unit

I recall the time well in fact, I guess it was around 2001-2003 and I was working for Nissan. I noticed that I was receiving more and more calls from potential customers asking about air-con on the cars. This was before it was a given that your new shiny car would have air-con as a factory fit of course.

This made me question the necessity of even having air-con as an option in a car. After all, we live in the UK where, despite a couple of bad winters, the climate is quite mild in comparison to the likes of Siberia or Canada. And if it gets too hot, we can just open a window & get some fresh air and a nice breeze surely.

Personally, I always found that the standard car heater had proven over the years to be perfectly efficient enough to heat a car. If it got too warm, there was a handy knob on the dash to either shut off the warm air input or to control the fan blowing the warm air into the car cabin.

Most of us know that air-con increases petrol consumption, and in these austere times with the rising cost of petrol and the pressure to ‘go green’ it is rather ironic that some of the advice given to save on fuel is to turn off the air conditioning.

For example, in 2010 a Swiss study carried out by FOEN (Swiss Federal Office for the Environment) came to the conclusion that air conditioning catered for around 5% of the country’s total fuel consumption, rising to 10% in urban environments. While that might raise some eyebrows, it’s small fry compared to the figure of around 30% in hot climates.

Air conditioning and climate control systems require energy to work, and they have to find that energy from somewhere, which means it needs to drain energy from the engine. Your engine runs on fuel, so to replenish it’s lost energy, the engine needs more fuel. That’s putting it very simplistically, but it gives you an insight into why air conditioning uses up precious fuel.

The high 30% figure for hotter climates is explained due to the need for the system to use more energy the higher the temperature becomes. Although the study was quick to point out that air conditioning does have it’s advantages when the going gets hot as a sweaty, overheated driver may have impaired concentration levels due to the heat. 23 degrees is the optimum temperature apparently.

Of course, driving a car with no heating at all and relying on your body temperature to keep things going is not advisable or particularly comfortable. I remember a country drive on a crisp Christmas morning in my Beetle while it was ‘between heating systems’ and it became a very uncomfortable experience as the battle between condensation, opening a quarter light to ease it and actually keeping warm raged on for about ten miles as the sun went down.

beetle petrol heater

A friend used to have an Eberspächer heating system in his Beetle, which he tells me he could control from his bedroom window on cold days to warm the car before having to get into it, which, for a Beetle, was a luxury beyond my wildest dreams.

While the basic Beetle heating system, despite what you may read elsewhere, does work very efficiently (it’s worn parts that stop it working properly, nothing else) there were two things that put me off getting an Eberspächer installed, cost and my own silly nervousness at how the system worked. The Eberspächer works by using an ignition device that ignites air mixed with fuel taken directly from the fuel tank.

Such petrol based heating systems were in wide use in automobiles from around 1930 right up till the 1960s, when the more familiar engine coolant systems became more or less standard.

Back in the early 2000s car buyers had a choice of heating on many vehicle purchases, air conditioning or the standard heating system. And in many ways I wish we could return to those days. I would happily accept a few thousand pounds off a new vehicle for the basic old-style heating. But maybe that’s just because I have driven a car with none or a poorly working heating system on occasions. Do we really need air conditioning in the UK, especially when it eats fuel? Maybe not, you decide. Whatever next, heated steering wheels?

Images from thesamba.com & weblogs.marylandweather.com

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