When Chevelles rolled off the assembly lines back in the middle of the muscle car wars, most were built for one main purpose: To deliver on-demand power to whoever was tappin' the throttle. Big-blocks, four-speeds, and four-eleven gears were the basic ingredients for getting' the job done on the track... or on the street. But things have certainly changed, some forty-odd years later.
The same guys who wanted monster power and eyeball-flattening acceleration are no longer satisfied with those simple parameters of performance. In the time since classic Chevelles ruled the earth, evolutionary changes have dramatically changed their descendents. Today's musclecars can start, stop, and turn in ways unimaginable back then, and do it all while keeping the occupants comfortably ensconced in climate controlled, plush interiors with their favorite jams played back through concert hall-quality sound systems. Not surprisingly, those same improvements are now being integrated into many Chevelles to give the owners classic muscle car looks and modern-day performance and conveniences. Fuel injection? Yes sir! Bigger brakes? You betcha! Tenacious suspension? Uh Huh! Deeply-bolstered seats? Gotta have 'em!
And while all the aforementioned items are most definitely aimed at enhancing performance, air conditioning is another cool addition that more and more builders are incorporating into their plans.
One of the most notable names in the automotive aftermarket air conditioning game is Vintage Air, in San Antonio, Texas. They've been building retrofit A/C setups for hot rods, street cars, and trucks for over 30 years, so when it came time to choose a system for our '70 Malibu, the decision was a no-brainer. We were especially impressed with their Gen IV Sure Fit series that was engineered specifically for our application. Not only is the entire system comprised of matched components to ensure maximum efficiency, but the kit also includes fully electronic controls, separate heating and cooling coils, plus all the internal air control doors are servo-operated for infinite temperature control and blending of the floor, dash and defrost outlets.
One of the things that we noticed during the installation was that the Sure Fit series is designed to bolt up with minimal modifications to the original firewall and existing hardware. This is important because it doesn't compromise the factory design and makes it easy to return everything back to stock in the future, helping retain the value of your investment. This is a very important consideration if selling your Chevelle is a possibility somewhere down the road.
While we were upgrading our '70 Chevelle with air conditioning, we also decided to include Vintage Air's FrontRunner accessory drive system into the buildup. This kit converts the archaic factory v-belt configuration into a compact, reliable and attractive serpentine setup that utilizes a spring-loaded tensioning system for trouble free operation. It comes with a new, compact Sanden compressor, a new Delphi-Saginaw power steering pump, and a 140-amp, one-wire alternator, plus a Stewart aluminum, reverse rotation water pump. It also includes ARP hardware. The entire system is supported completely by four stainless studs that install in place of the water pump mounting bolts, and a billet aluminum truss that mounts the accessories.
We also tapped Detroit Speed Inc. for their power steering pump hard line and flexible stainless line kits that allowed us to complete the connection between the pump and our steering box. Sure, you could probably cobble something together and make it work, but with ready-to-go hardware at your disposal, why even spend the time and trouble?
So, while adding new-age air conditioning to a middle-aged muscle car is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, it is also a fairly involved project that will consume the entire weekend, require a good assortment of hand tools, and access to a special "bead lock" crimping tool for installing connector fittings, or a shop that can do the job for you. Plan accordingly. For our installation we ended up removing the front seat, the complete dash, the passenger side front inner fender, hood, radiator, hood latch, and the grille assembly. With all that out of the way, we were finally ready to begin our installation.
Of course, once you've completed your Vintage Air installation, you'll still need to have a vacuum pulled on the system to evacuate it and determine if you have any leaks. If you have a leak-free system, you'll be ready to have R-134a refrigerant added. But unless you have vacuum pump and a refrigerant recovery and service unit at your disposal, you'll need to take your Chevelle to a professional automotive A/C shop to have them put the final touches to your new Vintage Air system. Be sure to follow the instructions and charge with 1.8 lbs. of 134a refrigerant. With that done though, the inside of your Chevelle will now be just as cool as all the other upgrades you've done to it!
Driven To Success
Even though the Vintage Air kit comes with a new compressor and the brackets to mount it all up, we decided to take the opportunity to update the front of our engine with one of their Front Runner accessory drive systems. That would eliminate the old v-belt system, replacing it with a contemporary serpentine belt and reconfigure all our accessories in one nice, tight package that takes less power to drive. It's available in natural aluminum or black, and with or without a new, small Saginaw pump that mounts tightly to the rest of the system.
Making A Dash For It
One of the reasons we decided to install the Vintage Air Sure Fit system is that it minimizes the modifications necessary to cool our classic Chevelle, and that it would give us the appearance of a "factory-original" setup. To achieve that look, Vintage Air created vent adapters, a glove compartment modification, and even a new control unit that looks "factory" and installs using the original mounts. The end result speaks for itself, and once the installation is complete the integration of new with the old is difficult to detect unless you're really paying attention.
Scaring The Crimp Outta Ya!
As well-engineered as the Vintage Air Sure Fit kit is, there are just a few variables that you're gonna have to deal with. One of them is routing, cutting, and crimping the hoses from the compressor, condenser and evaporator. We further complicated matters by adding the FrontRunner drive system, which positions the compressor on the passenger side of the engine, rather than the driver side. No matter what, you'll have to determine the proper length of the hoses, position them properly, and mark them for correct clocking, then crimp the correct fittings to them.
The hoses all use a "bead lock" crimp, which requires a special crimping tool. Once you have the hoses and fittings marked you can bring them to a local A/C repair shop and have them complete the job for you, or you can beg, borrow, or buy the proper tool and do it yourself. You can also send the hoses to Vintage Air, and they will crimp them at no charge (you'll just have to cover the freight).The Bead Lock crimper is a fairly expensive tool, however, so unless you're planning on making a living installing or repairing A/C systems, buying one is probably out of the question. We were lucky enough to have a friend with a bead lock crimping tool, and while his shop was closed one weekend, we borrowed it to complete our job.