These days everybody wants air conditioning in their rides, and for good reason. Since A/C is standard equipment in almost every new vehicle today, most of us have felt those cool breezes at some point and wondered how we can make our cars rolling refrigerators as well. Not too long ago, most street rods or high-performance vehicles with A/C would have had to undergo a "custom" installation to get cool. It seems that cars that were never designed to have A/C are considered to be the coolest cars on the road, just not so cool on the inside. One of the cars that fits this scenario to a tee is what is arguably one of the coolest rides of all time, the '57 Chevy.
Yes, a '57 may have had the option of A/C way back when, but it just wasn't that common. Now take that Chevy and squeeze a monster 502ci Rat motor where that small-block (or straight-six) used to reside, and you've created quite a problem when it comes to fitting an aftermarket A/C unit. It's not that it can't be done, it's just that the modifications are going to start piling up real fast.
We set out to find a shop to tackle this type of custom installation. It didn't take long before we heard the name, Buxton Motor Sports of Lake Forest, California. Rex Buxton has been building and designing Pro Stock, Pro Street, Pro...well the list goes on, for years. Buxton has also been in the street rod game for quite some time, turning out hand-built show cars that are as functional as beautiful. Having located a few qualified hands to customize our project's installation, we want to give you a close look at what exactly needed to be changed, modified, or simply moved to cool down this big-block-powered Tri-Five with one of Vintage Air's Sure-Fit climate control systems.
As it comes from Vintage Air, the evaporator unit (under the dash) is plumbed with 90-degree fittings to run the hoses through the heater detail panel. In addition, the condenser and pre-molded hard lines are also designed to be mounted on the passenger side. With the upgraded big-block in place, routing all of the requisite hoses becomes more of a challenge because the compressor has been moved to the driver's side of the motor. To run the lines under the hood in a conventional manner would be a plumbing nightmare since it would require routing the hoses from the passenger-side mounted evaporator to the compressor, located at the front of the engine on the driver's side. We found that the best answer to this problem is to obtain an evaporator unit intended for a '55 Chevy, which has straight fittings allowing the hoses to be routed toward the driver's side under the dash (instead of going through the OEM heater detail panel then crossing over at the front of the engine). Another part that is crucial in eliminating the routing problem is the bulkhead plate, which connects the hoses coming from the compressor to those under the dash.
Vintage Air was happy to swap the '57 evaporator that came with the kit for a '55 model and send us a Proline Bulkhead, which helped make this custom installation come together. The next hurdle was the condenser. Here again, the fittings are on the passenger's side of the engine compartment. Instead of tearing the condenser apart and re-working it, Buxton, an established aluminum fabricator, figured out how to get the fittings to exit on the right side and, at the same time, build a new mounting frame for the condenser to match his custom-built aluminum radiator. The last thing that needed to be done was to make new hoses. To do this first required a visit to the local auto parts store (one that stocked A/C hose and fittings), then paying meticulous attention to lengths and routing.
The key to this type of custom installation is definitely an experienced, well-thought plan. By experienced, we don't necessarily mean that you need 20 years of air conditioning, or even street rod-building knowledge, just basic fabricating and planning skills that can help foresee problems before they happen. Additionally, understanding that things can sometimes be done in different ways to produce the same outcome, is an asset in a project such as this. In the following photos you'll see some of the finer points and changes that had to be made to complete this custom installation and how well the Vintage Air Sure Fit Series unit worked in conjunction with these changes.