For the second Pioneer Award of Wire & Gas 2022, the theme shifted to another equally important sector of the early car air conditioning industry, the workshops and the technical entrepreneurs who were at the front end of mobile air conditioning installations.
Among the most significant of Australia’s installers was Greg Thomas, whose Sydney workshop, Autofrost still operates to this day. It is possible that Autofrost could be the only mobile air conditioning workshop that still operates as a stand-alone business, when the vast majority of the others either closed the doors, or were forced to diversify to stay in the auto game. The main reason for this was that there had to be someone left in Australia who had the historic knowledge necessary to look after the growing fleet of vintage vehicles, and who could still install air conditioning into anything on wheels.
Greg and his father-in-law bought Autofrost from the big Australian manufacturing empire, James N Kirby in 1983, long after Greg had absorbed his air conditioning knowledge from probably the best training ground Australia ever had – Mark IV, where he became a product engineer.
Before setting up on his own with Autofrost, Greg and a partner ran a large regional air conditioning workshop called Hailes and Thomas in Orange which introduced air conditioning into agricultural equipment like headers and tractors. He returned to Sydney to work in the air conditioning division of the big James N Kirby group and ended up buying the Autofrost name from them when they decided to leave the air conditioning industry.
Autofrost became a significant Mark IV agent and earned an enviable reputation for designing the specialised installs for vehicles like prison vans, classic cars, forklifts and all kinds of trucks. They’ve also air-conditioned aircraft, boats, hearses and mortuary vans. There was also some highly secret stuff for the SWAT team.
Greg has another hobby. He still owns a rare vacuum forming machine that he bought from Rick Pickering’s AMC when it closed down in the late 1980s. He has used this to make cases for coils, fascias and consoles and a variety of ductings. More than that, Autofrost became the go-to place for unique props in the film industry. For example, in the 1993 Australian movie Reckless Kelly, the story of Ned Kelly, the famous postbox helmet worn by Kelly in his shootouts with the police was made at Autofrost, and it was worn by Yahoo Serious who played Ned Kelly.
But movies aside, tonight’s pioneer award honours Greg Thomas for his long and productive history, and his willingness to share information and nurture others in the mobile air conditioning industry of Australia.
Accepting the award, Greg said, “I’ve never won many awards and I guess I admit that this is the first time I’ve got one for being an old fart”.