Automatic Transmissions: A Brief History

by | Jan 9, 2014 | Uncategorized

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One of the common types of transmission is the automatic. An automatic transmission was the answer to those who had problems with manual transmissions. It made driving easier. Yet, without the manual transmission, there would have been no automatic version.

History of the Automatic Transmission

No one can say for certainty who invented the automatic transmission. Some historians state the beginnings date to the late 1800s while others point to 1906 and Ford’s use of planetary gears and transmission bands in two models: T and K. General Motors may also be cited. It employed fluid coupling in its vehicles by 1937. The companies, including GM, Cadillac and Oldsmobile, called these new trannies automatic safe transmissions or AST. They employed them in their vehicles until 1939 – the year the first true automatic transmission came into production.

GM in 1939 introduced the first of automatic transmission. This was their Hydramatic automobile. All other claimants aside, the GM Hydromatic is without a doubt the first mass-produced automatic vehicle, although some claim the 1948 Oldsmobile was the first “true” automatic. The new Hydromatic engine had been developed by Earl Thompson, an engineer working for GM. Borg Warner at Ford, was behind their version which they introduced in 1954. Meanwhile, at Chrysler, the company created a semi-automatic in 1942.. They did not produce their first automatic engine until 1954. This was the Power Flite.

The GM and similar “automatics” were four-speed vehicles but those that followed it came in two and three-speed models. These and other early automatic transmissions were extremely basic in nature. The park setting did not exist requiring the driver turn off the engine before selecting reverse. This would lock the transmission and prevent the vehicle from moving. You did have a lower gear to throw in when climbing up or down a steep, dangerous incline.


The 1950s was a time of subtle change in the refinement and engineering of the automatic transmission up until 1955. In general, it was all about modifying the transmission to suit the needs. The basic system remained the same. In fact, it was commonly used in civilian and military vehicles alike. Many companies were reluctant to let go of the simplified hydromatic form. In the 1990s, it still remained an integral part of many drag racing and hot rod cars.

The car industry, however, began to move up. GM disposed of the hydromatic in favor of the Jetaway (1956). This, too, fell replaced by the Turbo Hydromatic. Rolls Royce. Mercedes and Daimler began to offer their own adaptations of the automatic transmission. As the years progressed, special features became the means of identifying one type from another. Since the late 1980s, computers have increasingly played a role in design aspects of transmissions. They have resulted in electronic controls with various sensors employed to control the ratio of shifting to gears.

Today, you can have anywhere from three to eight speed automatic transmissions. Today, they shift smoothly creating a quiet acceleration. Computers help drivers in every step of the way including the operation of the transmission. The automatic transmission has truly evolved, coming a long way from its basic roots as the wonder of the age – a Hydro Matic wonder.

When it comes to understanding your Automatic Transmission, you should look no further than Trans Works Transmission. We are the specialist in all types of transmission repair, rebuilding and related work. Our qualified experts can help. Contact us at anytime.



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