Jack Chisenhall, founder and president of Vintage Air, will be presented with the 2011 Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hotrod & Restoration Trade Show’s Grand Opening Breakfast on Friday, March 18.
Chisenhall is a lifelong car buff who created a whole new market sector that has helped make year-round rodding possible. After 35 years in business, Vintage Air, the company he founded in 1976, continues product innovation in high-performance air conditioning components through its full in-house R&D, engineering and manufacturing facilities.
Chisenhall was born in 1947 in Fort Worth, Texas. His father was a master sergeant in the Air Force, so the family moved to five cities in the United States and Germany before being transferred back to the United States in 1954 and settling in Schertz, Texas, where Chisenhall’s father was stationed.
Chisenhall was a car guy from an early age, and grew up reading Hot Rod and the other car magazines of the day. Even as early as age 12, he told his parents that he would one day make hot rod parts for a living. While his father was assigned overseas duty for a series of years, Chisenhall’s mother would take him driving in the country looking for old cars.
He bought his first old car, a 1936 Chevy, for $20 when he was 13. Six months later, he sold the coupe for $100 and rescued a 1930 Model A sedan from a local junk yard. He rebuilt it, first installing a 1950 Mercury engine with a 1939 Ford transmission and then moved on to a 1957 Pontiac engine and four-speed, a fabbed tube axle up front and a Corvette rearend.
After graduating from high school, Chisenhall enrolled at Southwest Texas State University and joined the ROTC program. While in college, he started his first business, a small hot rod shop that specialized in engine swaps, custom tube headers and fabrication. He graduated in 1970 with a degree in industrial design and as a first lieutenant in the Air Force, where he received his pilot training. The Vietnam War was winding down at this time and the Air Force offered Chisenhall an “early out,” giving him the opportunity to get to work on the things that he had always wanted to do, which was make hot rod parts.
Chisenhall had installed and maintained air conditioning in his daily drivers, but when it came time to install air conditioning in his hot rod, it was clear that there were very few specialty parts for these cars.
In January 1976, Milton Jones, an old family friend, proposed an alliance with Chisenhall and his brother, Gordon, to open an automotive air conditioning business that would service and distribute Mark IV air conditioners. The business began in February 1976 and the three-way partnership was organized with Chisenhall running the business in San Antonio, Texas, and Gordon running his auto accessories business in another part of the building, while Milton ran his air conditioning business in Harlingen, Texas.
While initially installing air conditioning systems in late-model vehicles, trucks and heavy equipment, and wholesaling air conditioning parts and new car air conditioning systems, Chisenhall laid plans to build some basic street rod air conditioning products and show them at the 1976 Street Rod Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, thus launching Vintage Air.
Three components were ready for the first show-a correctly designed 1932-1939 Ford vertical air conditioner condenser, a Chevy small-block/Sankyo compressor mount bracket, and a small behind-the-dash air conditioner evaporator package. Street rodders were ready for these parts and demand for Vintage Air products grew, with the company expanding into its own building in 1978. Chisenhall bought out his partners in 1988 and moved Vintage Air into a 10,000-square-foot building.
Today the company operates out of a 56,000-square-foot building on 10 acres of land. In addition to developing and manufacturing kits for street rods and muscle cars, Vintage Air has also worked with several OEM companies.
In 1995, Chisenhall ran 241 mph at Bonneville in his street-driven 1953 Studebaker with the air conditioning on to demonstrate the reliability and performance of Vintage Air air conditioning systems. After the event, he changed tires and spark plugs and drove the Studebaker more than 2,000 miles from Los Angeles to Detroit on the Hot Rod Power Tour.
Chisenhall was recognized with a Pioneer Award from the Mobile Air Conditioning Society in 2001 for innovations in the automotive air conditioning industry.
He was a founder and the first president of the SRMA (Street Rod Manufacturers Association), which later became SEMA’s HRIA (Hot Rod Industry Alliance) council.
Chisenhall was instrumental in establishing the original SRMA Winter Trade Conference, which eventually became the Hotrod & Restoration Trade Show.
Chisenhall is a supporter of the Goodguys Young Guys program, and sponsors the NSRA 29 Below program.
The Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award is presented annually by the Petersen Automotive Museum to pioneers in the hot rod and restoration industry.
Past recipients include “Speedy” Bill Smith and Jack Roush. For more information on the Grand Opening Breakfast, click here.