Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cooling cool cars: Vintage Air keeps classic autos on the road in style

by Adolfo Pesquera
(originally published Feb. 25, 2008 in the San Antonio Express-News)


An ever-present reminder of Jack Chisenhall's grandiose run on the Bonneville salt flats, the modified 1953 black Studebaker Coupe he took up to 219 mph -- with the air conditioner on -- dominates the available space in the small lobby of the Vintage Air factory.

The sleek "Stude" with its 1,000 horsepower Chevy V-8 is Chisenhall's version of Affirmed: both are champion thoroughbreds. Marketed as "A Cool 200" -- the thermometer at the dashboard read 37 degrees -- his 1995 measured mile put Vintage Air on the hot rod world map.

"It was a stunt," admitted Chisenhall, president of the San Antonio company that pioneered air conditioning on classic cars and hot rods. Chisenhall, now 60, wanted to silence once and for all any critics as to whether his air-conditioning systems were a drag on performance.

The company was already a success by the mid-1990s, but the run catapulted Chisenhall to celebrity status in hot rod circles.

"Everybody knew that Jack was going to do that," said Bob Barry, a retired hot rod restoration specialist in Preston, Conn. "It was in Street Rodder, Popular Hot Rodding, all the magazines."

Chisenhall is today recognized by other celebrities. "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno twice praised Vintage Air's products in video clips on his "Jay Leno's Garage" Web site.

The inventor-manufacturer is cagey about how much his company makes, but the firm stays very busy. He admits to selling between 4,000 and 10,000 systems a year at between $1,200 and $3,500 a piece. The company has 87 employees.

"We sell more than 800 systems a year just for 1955-1957 model Chevys, if that gives you an idea," said Rick Love, executive vice president.

When Chisenhall started his business in 1976 as Chisenhall Auto & Truck Air, the hot rod culture was more a grass-roots movement than an industry. Used parts pulled from junkyards were nearing depletion and the aftermarket parts business was at its nascent stage.

"There was no marketplace at the time," Chisenhall said. "These old car guys were taking the AC out, if the car had one. We had to convince them that AC was a good thing."

But that year, Chisenhall stuffed his first-generation air-conditioning systems in a van and went to the Street Rod Nationals in Tulsa, Okla.

"The minute we opened the door, people started asking, 'What's this?' There was a built-in demand," Chisenhall said.

Bob Barry first met Chisenhall at that Tulsa event.

"It was hot and I wanted an air conditioner," Barry recalled. "I became his first dealer."

Vintage Air now has 850 distributors worldwide and is the recognized leader in AC systems for cars built before the mid-1970s.

As other companies attempted to enter the market, Vintage Air distinguished itself by being the most committed to research and development.

Mike Millsap, general manager of Sachse Rod Shop in Dallas County, oversees a shop that grew with the hot rod industry from the restoration side. Millsap started in 1982 making chassis, but now builds the complete vehicle.

"I've been selling Vintage Air products for over 20 years," Millsap said. "There's a couple of other companies, but they cater more to the universal-related stuff. Vintage will bring in several models of a car. They're going to make sure it fits, repeatedly."

There are very few components in an AC system that Vintage Air doesn't make in-house. The company keeps hundreds of molds for duct work, vents, controls and evaporators. It makes its own aluminum front engine cover mount, tubing, heating coils and more.

"We spend a huge amount of time developing a product," Chisenhall said. "It takes us a lot of sales to recoup that expense."

Vintage Air is best known for compact, efficient AC systems that replace obsolete systems on muscle cars and that are for earlier cars never intended to have AC. The company's reputation for research and development attracts new manufacturers, too.

Ford Motor Co. relied on Vintage Air to design and to build the AC system in its 2003-2006 Ford GTs, a high-tech supercar that does 205 mph and retails for $155,000. Vintage Air also landed a deal with specialty car maker Thoroughbred Motorsports Inc.

Thoroughbred, based near Tyler, launched sales of its Stallion in December. A three-wheeled motorcar that looks similar to a motorcycle, the Stallion actually has a Ford Ranger 2.3 liter engine and is governed to max out at 118 mph, said Cristy Stanley, the company's marketing director.

A hybrid of a motorcycle and a convertible, the Stallion's sides and top are open to the elements.

"If you talk to any person who owns a convertible, they'll tell you when you come to a stop sign, you're still going to want the AC blowing on you," Stanley said.

Orders are especially strong from women who prefer the comfort, Stanley said. The company makes two Stallions a day and anticipates increasing to at least 10 a day this summer.

Vintage Air doesn't just make cool, it's a cool place to work. Hot rod memorabilia litters the desks and halls. Chisenhall claims half his staffers are vintage car fanatics he met at auto shows or grabbed from custom auto shops. Their love for vroom has been integral to the company's success.

"You can teach people a lot of things," Love said. "But you can't teach them enthusiasm."

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