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1950s antifreeze/overheating car question

Hi experts,

I’m fact-checking a book, and have very limited car savvy. Does this passage make sense for a description of a car problem in 1958?:

As we left Oklahoma, crossed the Texas panhandle, and went into New Mexico, the car began to overheat because he had antifreeze in the radiator, not surprising since the driver was from Pittsburgh. He was not eager to stop. I suggested that we turn the heater up full blast and open the windows. The heater in a car of that era functioned in a sense as an auxiliary radiator. This technique worked and we continued across New Mexico and Arizona into southern California.

Would antifreeze in a radiator cause a car to overheat?

Thanks in advance for any insight.

There had better be antifreeze in the radiator. That’s what makes the system work. I guess it should read “it had no antifreeze in the radiator”.
You can technically cool a car down by running the heat at full blast but only if the system has antifreeze or coolant in it because it needs to circulate. Even then, it could work for a little while but doubt it would cool the car down all that distance.
It would make more sense that the radiator had a leak, causing it to overheat and if he made the car run the distance by just adding water to the radiator periodically.

"not surprising since the driver was from Pittsburgh"
makes no sense to me. is it a foregone conclusion that anyone from Pittsburg doesn't know about cars? I don't get it.

Having antifreeze (or Prestone as most people referred to it back then) wouldn’t cause the over-heating. Some people just used water back then and drained the block when it got down to freezing. Some may have used alcohol instead and have no idea if that would cause a cooling problem or not.

Bing may have hit it. Back in the 1950s and earlier, there was permanent antifreeze, ethylene glychol and methanol. The latter boiled at 180 degrees. DuPont sold the permanent antifreeze, ethylene glychol under the name of Zerex and the methanol under the name of Zerone. Motorists who used the non-permanent antifreeze often drained it out in the summer and used water.

Yea but the car wouldn’t overheat because it had antifreeze in the radiator, would it?

Yes. That statement makes sense. As stated early antifreeze was alcohol based. This worked in northern states as it prevented the coolant from freezing. But in hotter states where the coolant got hotter the alcohol would become volatile where it would start to boil causing overheating.


Yes, it’s possible. If you drained your cooling system and installed 100% antifreeze your car would run warmer. If you installed 100% water it would run cooler. Straight antifreeze does not conduct/exchange heat as well as plain water.

A heater core is nothing more than a tiny radiator, placed inside the car to warm it up the inside.

It might be plausible but the story would make more sense and be more understandable IMHO if the car was just overheating because it needed water added to it. Unless the point about antifreeze is needed to illustrate someone’s stupidity or differences between northerners & southerners.

Cars of that era did not have a coolant recovery system. When the system got hot enough to push water (or antifreeze+water) past the pressure cap, it just sprayed out on the ground. Periodically more coolant needed to be added, especially on hot days.

If you go back to 1958 you are dealing with different antifreeze, not the stuff we have today. You also do not have coolant recovery tanks so there was always air in the cooling system, which means much less efficient cooling. Boiling over and overheating were much more common. The motors handled these conditions without blowing head gaskets and warping heads since aluminum and other more exotic materials were not yet used in motors of this era. If you overheated, you simply pulled over and popped the hood and waited a 15-20 min. Then you could took off the radiator cap and added water.

Most folks in the south carried a jug or two of water in the trunk for such situations. Also many folks in the south simply didn’t use antifreeze at all, ever. In the north it was a yearly thing to change to antifreeze for the winter and back to water for the summer.

I think I put an aftermarket coolant recovery tank on my '67 Mustang so most cars of the '60’s didn’t have them, but by the 70’s most did. Permanent antifreeze started showing up in the 60’s but didn’t really get popular until AC became more common. Then the antifreeze was reformulated to make it a better coolant than plain water.

I think the statement is appropriate for the time. The fact that the heater is in effect a mini radiator was true then and is still true today.

The information about the different kinds of antifreeze now and then are helpful. And, to be clear, Pittsburgh was mentioned because it’s a colder climate, not because we’re assuming that “anyone from Pittsburg doesn’t know about cars”! Thanks so much for the replies!

It seems obscure. Even the mention of different types of antifreeze seems a bit over the top.
For instance, I’m fairly well versed on cars, even have had cars of that era and read everything.
Never having lived in a warm climate, that reference would have gone totally over my head. In the fifties, I could have been that person, wondering why my car was overheating, if I was asked to drive my car from CT to CA.

Unless the book is about the inner workings of radiators, it seems very distracting.