Sunday, July 14, 2024


As winter approaches, cooling the cockpit of your classic car or hot rod is most likely not a priority, until that first hot day in September! Air conditioning servicemen are plentiful, but no enthusiast really wants to trust their best wheels to an allrounder, which is why Rohan Hutson of Australian Auto Air enjoys a steady stream of classics through his Echuca workshop.

Rohan is quite capable of chilling or heating everything from farm equipment to prime movers, but street rods and classics are his passion. Taking credit for some of that are his parents, Graeme and Cheryl Hutson, who have been immersed in the rodding scene for most of their lives.

“I’ve been a mechanic since I was 15,” informs Rohan. “I bought a couple of NATRAD radiator shops in Mornington, probably 20 years ago, and we brought air conditioning into it because it’s also about cooling. At the time I had a ‘63 Parisienne and I wanted to put air in it, so I got the bits and pieces and made the kit up and it was good. Then I thought well, I can improve on this, and because I’m in the car scene I looked around and Vintage Air was the best, so we became an authorised dealer.”

Rohan began to offer AC installs on collector cars alongside his busy radiator shop, until he decided to level up.

Install on this tough F100 is well advanced, with the condenser mounted in front of the radiator, compressor in place on the tough Cleveland and work about to begin inside. The 1965 Chevy Impala has the advantage of being air conditioned from factory, so a concealed system will be mounted under the dash and plumbed through the original outlets in the dashboard. Ideally the billet control panel can be mounted in the dash, otherwise it will be installed beneath in a pod. “I normally talk to the customer and see which way they want to go,” says Rohan. “Concealed systems are the way to go, then it gives you defrost and all the extra functions.”

“About ten years ago I started pushing it hard, because I enjoyed doing it and making all the engine brackets for compressors, alternators and all that. I had issues trying to buy brackets, but there was a company that was making them, so I bought the business along with all their templates. I kept making them and introduced a few more models and designs from that.”

Weekends for Rohan and his family were often spent playing in the Echuca Moama region on the Victorian/NSW border and they’ve since made it their home. Selling the radiator business enabled Rohan to purchase a factory in Echuca and plan a new house in Moama, along with a barn large enough to keep his toys in. 

1960 Dodge Phoenix will command extra time to craft custom brackets for mounting the engine-driven compressor, locating pulleys and so forth, but Rohan enjoys the challenge, and the result is worth it.

“After 18 years we’d had enough and wanted a river change. We always came up here with the caravan and the boat, so we sold the business and moved up here. We rented a factory in town for a while; since I opened the doors, I haven’t stopped.”

Today Rohan specialises in custom installations, using proven parts and his own bracket and accessory kits which he does sell separately to DYI enthusiasts. Most punters are happy to hand him the keys however and while services a large clientele in Victoria, he enjoys customers from interstate as well.

Unlike engine choices, AC options are not unlimited. The biggest decision is whether you want an under-dash system or an integrated (concealed) system. If you’re lucky to have a classic that came out with factory air and already has outlets in the dash, then the latter is always the best option. When it comes to hardware, Rohan only uses respected brands such as Sanden compressors and Vintage Air systems. Strong, precise mounting brackets are critical and for Rohan, traditional belt-driven components are still the best.

Cool Ford Fairlane is even cooler now with its new under-dash mount AC. Rohan informs that this car is about ready to go and that it’s a reasonably straight forward install. Of the variety of under-dash units available, he prefers styles with a little chrome on them. Mounting the compressor to the Cleveland is relatively simple using his bracket kit and he’s adept at locating the other drive components.

“There are electric compressors, but I don’t like them. The problem is that the number of amps they draw is insane, you nearly need to run a separate alternator to run them, and they’re not cheap either.”

You can budget between $4,000 and $6,000 for a drive-in, drive-out conversion, but much of that depends on the type of system, the type of car you have, how easy it is to adapt everything to your engine, and how shiny you want it to be!

“For an integrated Vintage Air install like the Impala, you’re round about the five and a half grand mark. This one is about four,” Rohan explains as he nods toward the two-tone Tank Fairlane with an under-dash system. “Different cars require different pulleys. Chevs are easy to get pulleys for, Fords are a bit harder, and then you get the Mopar stuff which can be difficult. But once you know where to look, it just takes time. If I have a rare car coming in, I just have to do some homework beforehand.”

Laser cut brackets are ready to be used for Rohan’s more popular installs on Chevys, Holdens and Fords. He’s still required to design and manufacture custom brackets for more obscure engines and vehicles, but when he does, he will often take extra time to make templates for future installations.

If you’re building a car and you’re planning an AC install, a little forethought can go a long way, especially when it comes to insulation.  

“It depends on how far you want to go. To make it 100% you should do the roof, but especially the firewall; exhaust and engine heat makes a difference. Tinted windows help, but tinted windows don’t always look good on an old car.”

Keeping your engine cool as well the occupants is also critical, but most street cars can cope with their previously installed radiator if it’s good gear and functioning right.

“We’ve done radiator upgrades, did one the other day a ‘52 Customline with a tough 351 in it. We put a bigger alloy radiator in it to cope. It’s more the condenser in front, because they generate heat and it’s right in front of the radiator, so you’re putting hot air through the front of the radiator. A bigger radiator always helps to dissipate heat better, but most people when they build a car have a better radiator in it anyway.”

Rohan is well known at the drag strip, his black ’55 Chevy capable of nine second passes with a blown 540 big block. He’s also a regular contender in the Street Machine Drag Challenge. “It gets a bit of attention because it’s old school,” says Rohan, pointing out the full interior and all steel bodywork. His ’55 wagon runs a 327 V8 along with a four speed auto, power steering and of course, air conditioning. It has the pleasure of being one of those cars that everybody just likes. 

We quizzed Rohan about the refrigerant used in today’s systems and he tells us it’s R134a, which has been the standard since the 1990s. 

It’s difficult to commit to exact turnaround times, but if everything goes to plan Rohan can generally get your car back to you in two weeks, that is once he gets it in the shop. When we spoke, he was booked out for a couple of months in advance, so if you’re looking to utilise his services before next Summer you best start thinking about it now. For those that buy one of his DIY kits, help is never far away.

“The phone and emails never stop, even over the weekend!” he laughs. “There’s no such thing as a nine to five job, that’s what you do when you’ve got your own business.”

Amazingly Rohan still finds some time to enjoy the old car hobby away from work, drag racing his black ’55 sedan or cruising with the clan in their ’55 Chevy wagon. There’s a few more projects waiting in the wings too, like an LS-powered ’55 coupe, another ’55 Chevy for his son Jai (age 12), and a 1968 Camaro for his daughter Piper (age 10). When we stopped by, he’d just added a 1965 Impala convertible to the fleet.

You’ll find Australian Auto Air in Echuca, a little over 200km north of Melbourne. Don’t let the distance deter you, it’s just a tow away!

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