Ice, Ice, Baby

A blast of cool comfort for hot machines

Growing up in the Midwest and then relocating to the beaches of Southern California, I find myself taking the little things for granted. But after a recent trip to Phoenix, my eyes were once again opened to the creature comforts of modern-day automobiles. You see out here by the ocean, the weather doesn't drastically change with the seasons. Granted some days are hotter or colder than others, but for the most part the weather is comfortable. We can simply roll the windows down and cruise comfortably. Move inland a few miles and the temps begin to rise, leaving the ocean breeze behind. No doubt about it, it's much cooler (in more ways than one) to cruise with the A/C turned on than it is to sweat the heat from both Mother Nature and that powerful small-block under the hood.

When I was driving the streets of Phoenix and went to roll the windows down, comfortable was the last thing on my mind. More than anything it felt as if I were standing behind a jet engine. I had completely forgotten what summers were like away from the beach. Needless to say I immediately thanked whoever invented that lifesaver known as air conditioning. Then I started thinking beyond that, "What would I do if I were driving my hot rod with no A/C?" I couldn't go a whole summer without the beast, but yet I don't wanna be hooked up to an IV while driving to keep hydrated? I would have to modernize.

Although many hot rods don't have A/C (and probably never did), it doesn't mean they're doomed forever. With a simple call, a classic can be transformed into a modern-day driver with all the comforts of climate control. Companies such as Southern Air even make specialized kits for certain makes and models. One such kit they make is for the granddaddy of all hot rods, the legendary '55 Bel Air. The kit is a complete replacement that not only includes the components to keep the cabin cool, but also controls the heat and defrost functions, as well. The state-of-the-art unit mounts in the location of the stock heater assembly, and uses all-new custom ducting. The Southern Air package comes complete with everything needed to make the swap complete. Worried that the kit won't be compatible with your machine's engine? No concerns here. The kit is made to work with stock applications, Ram Jet 502s, 383 strokers, virtually any kind of combination you can imagine. Here's the best part about it: The finished result blows ice-cold air--key word here is cold. I'm sold!

Installation requires a little time, but if you are mechanically adept and have basic tools, Southern Air has the directions down pat to where they are clear and understandable. Of course, you do have to drill a few holes and mount some brackets, so do yourself a favor, make the time to do it and do it correctly, because the results are well worth the effort. And if you can get a friend to help, the easier it will be. Remember the old saying, two heads are better than one. And we're sure that two cool heads are better still.

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Primedia Tech Center guru Jason Scudellari started off our Tri-Five install by screwing the condenser mounting brackets to the Southern Air condenser. When doing this be sure to not damage the condenser rails.

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The condenser was then mounted in the center of the radiator. Once again don't damage the condenser or the radiator rails.

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Here's what the correct installation of the condenser looks like. Check out the state-of-the-art one-piece radiator and core support assembly from Sweet Components. This is the best looking setup for the Tri-Fives that we've ever seen.

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The fittings were screwed onto the Southern Air dryer.

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The dryer is mounted at the bottom of the passenger side on the core support. Here Jason is outlining two holes in the core support that will be drilled out to make a passage for the A/C lines.

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Our '55 is sportin' a GM Performance high-powered 350 crate engine. Therefore Southern Air sent us the correct brackets and spacers.

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We painted our brackets semi-gloss black solely for cosmetic purposes.

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The correct bracket was mounted to the Southern Air compressor.

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The rest of the brackets and spacers were bolted to the block. Then the air compressor and alternator were attached to the brackets.

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We moved inside and began removing the stock heating equipment.

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The Southern Air vacuum solenoids were fitted and attached to the evaporator bracket.

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Then the vacuum lines were connected to the solenoids.

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The bracket was attached to the evaporator and slid into place. The evaporator should be mounted as far right as possible and horizontally to the dash. The bracket actually allows the evaporator to be mounted covering where the A/C lines will be routed because the bracket mounts the evaporator with a gap between the firewall and unit in order to run the lines behind it. Once in place, mark where holes need to be drilled and remove and drill.

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The ducting is measured and cut accordingly.

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The defroster is mounted before the evaporator is put back in.

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The vacuum lines are attached in the appropriate place on the evaporator.

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Then the proper ducting is securely attached to the evaporator, and the evaporator is mounted.

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Below the radio the center vent is mounted.

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In the bottom corners of the dash the side vents are installed. Once the vents are in place the ducting is attached to the vents.

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A new Southern Air control panel replaces the stock switch plate.

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We moved back under the hood and mounted the electric water valve to the passenger side inner fender. It's extremely important to be sure to mount hardware properly by following the arrow for direction of flow.

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Next the A/C and heater hoses were cut to the correct lengths.

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All of the lines were test fitted to their correct locations to be sure that everything was all squared up prior to having the hose ends crimped in place.

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If everything matches up, it's to the crimper with the hose fittings and hose.

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Lastly, wire the unit according to the diagram on the instructions. Since different cars may have different wiring schematics, it is important that you study this procedure and make sure you understand where everything connects. Southern Air has done a good job of making their kit installer friendly, so be sure to take their lead and do what they tell you.

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The only thing left to do is get the system charged and then be prepared to turn the key on and freeze!

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