The first real automatic transmission

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Chrysler is credited with the first push-button automatic transmission with their two-speed Powerflyte introduced in the 1954 models and offered until 1965.

They also made a three-speed unit from 1956 called the Torqueflyte, which was cable controlled, as was the Powerflyte. The buttons were discontinued in 1965 and lever control was used after that.

In 1956 Packard offered a push-button shift for their Ultramatic transmission that used electrical control through solenoids. It suffered from not enough electrical power and blown fuses, especially when shifting out of park on a grade.

The ill-fated Edsel featured Teletouch, a push button electro-mechanical shifter but, as everyone knows, that car didn’t last long, and Mercury also offered push buttons in the late ’50s.

But, as I’m fond of saying, there’s nothing new under the sun, and although truly automatic, clutchless shifting was originated by GM with their Hydramatic in 1938, push button shifting itself was old hat.

Gearshifters

A blurb in a 1914 Motor Age magazine told its readers: “There has been one feature of the 1914 cars which is the bright and shining light in the way of radical changes, just as the adoption of engine starters was the outstanding feature of the 1913 season.

“This new star is the automatic gearshift and is dependent upon and comes as a sequel to the almost universal adoption of engine cranking arrangements.

“Although automatic gearshifting is comparatively insignificant insofar as the number of cars adopting it is concerned, there being only four or five which fit this feature as stock equipment, nevertheless it is such a radical change from conventional efforts, and yet such a logical one, that it is worthy of particular attention.”

How did this “bright and shining light” come to be?

In 1908 a guy named Frank Beemer from Philadelphia filed for a patent for a “gear changer for automobiles,” which was granted Aug. 3, 1909.

This device “provided for shifting or changing the gears of an automobile so the only thing required of the operator is the manipulation of the clutch and of push buttons which may be conveniently grouped at the steering wheel.”

Beemer used electrical relays that in turn operated solenoids to actually push the gear shifting rods into and out of position.

The Vulcan Motor Devices Company of Philadelphia manufactured the electric shifter and it was improved by several more patents, one by Beemer and one by Vulcan’s chief engineer, William A. McCarrell, and the new shifter was introduced to the trade in the summer of 1913.

So far as I can find, only four automakers adopted Vulcan’s offering for their 1914 models, Haynes of Kokomo, Indiana; Pullman in York, Pennsylvania; S. G. V. from Reading, Pennsylvania and Norwalk of Martinsburg, West Virginia, all forgotten marques today — with the possible exception of Haynes.

While Beemer’s original patent showed only four relays, for first through third gear plus reverse, it was adapted, at least by Norwalk, to include one for a fourth speed. There was also an extra button added for neutral that effectively opened up all circuits so no gears could be selected.

Ease of access

One of the big selling points of the Vulcan shifter was safety — the transmission could be operated without removing a hand from the steering wheel to grab a shift lever — however Haynes put the pushbuttons right in the hub of the steering wheel, surrounding the horn button, where a driver would still need to let go of the wheel.

The Norwalk put the buttons in a large nickel-plated box right under the right of the wheel with the shift buttons along its outer edge where they could be easily reached.

There were eight buttons on the box, besides neutral and one through four and reverse, there was one for the horn and one for an electrically operated emergency brake. The driver could select any gear at any time, although reverse should be only selected when the car was completely stopped.

Pushing a button on the shift control preselected the chosen gear but the electrical circuit was only closed after the driver fully depressed the clutch pedal. This operated the appropriate transmission solenoids to move the transmission into neutral and then into the preselected gear.

The driver then released the clutch pedal to reengage the clutch and continue on.

Cutler-Hammer Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee bought out Vulcan in 1914, but already the electric shifter’s “bright and shining light” was dimming.

S.G.V., a luxury car builder (buyers included the Astors and Vanderbilts in this country, and King Edward VII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and Czar Nicholas of Russia) in Reading, Pennsylvania, offered the Vulcan shifter in 1914 with disastrous results.

An entire trainload of S.G.V. cars had to be returned to the factory due to problems with the shifters, dealing the already shaky S.G.V. Company a financial blow from which it was unable to recover.

The subsequent bad publicity seems to have been the end of the Vulcan shifter as well; I can find no evidence that it was offered on any 1915 or later cars.

Hand shifter

In 1935, Hudson offered what they dubbed the “Electric Hand” shifter on their Hudson and Terraplane models. Made by Bendix, this was similar to the Vulcan in that the desired gear was preselected by a small lever mounted just below the steering wheel, while actual shifting took place when the clutch was depressed.

The front wheel drive Cord models 810 and 812 of 1936 to 1938 also used the Bendix shifter system. These gadgets were apparently only marginally more reliable than the old Vulcan units and by 1938 were no longer offered.

Hudson hung the conventional gearshift lever in clips under the dash so it could be inserted in a floor socket and used to shift conventionally if the Electric Hand failed. (I saw several of these Hudsons when I was a kid and they all had the floor shift lever in place.)

So, even though manual gear shifting in those days of square cut gears and no transmission synchronizers required a bit of muscle, good timing, and double clutching, and although inventors strove mightily to find a solution, it took 40 years for GM to find the answer with their Hydramatic, the first real automatic transmission.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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