A Brief History of the Automatic Transmission

By Mister Transmission

No more missed shift gates. No engine lugging or racing. No torn-stocking, high-heel clutch-pedaling dramas. None of that. Just press the gas and go.

 

The introduction of the automatic transmission did this by offering a “no-muss, no-fuss” form of shifting. The earliest automobiles offered only manual transmissions, which were similar in principle to today’s stick-shift vehicles. These cars sported two forward gears and one reverse, coupled to the engine via a series of pedals. But as cars grew larger and traffic got worse, engineers began searching for a way to have the car “automatically” shift from one gear to another. Designers spent decades perfecting the modern automatic transmission. Here we offer a brief introduction and overview of the history of the automatic transmission.

The First Automatic Transmissions

The first automatic transmission was invented in 1921 by a Canadian steam engineer, Alfred Horner Munro. Munro designed his device to use compressed air rather than hydraulic fluid so it lacked power and never became sold commercially. General Motors then developed the first automatic transmission using hydraulic fluid in the 1930’s, and introduced the “Hydra-Matic” transmission in 1940.

The 1948 Oldsmobile was the first model to use a true automatic transmission. The Hyrda-Matic, developed by GM engineer, Earl Thompson, was advertised as: “The greatest advance since the self-starter.” The Hydra-Matic went through continual upgrading and refinements through 1955, but the basic design and theory used were consistent throughout its remarkably long life span. General Motors replaced the Hydra-Matic in 1956 with the Jetaway. The “Jet” was not a roaring success and quickly gave way to the Turbo Hydra-Matic in 1969.

The Hydra-Matic Transmission

The original Hydra-Matic transmission was one of the most important innovations in the history of the automobile. It wasn’t the first automatic transmission, but it was the first one that really worked and its resounding commercial success paved the way for every subsequent autoshifter.

The technology came along at an opportune time in history as North America was abundant with victory from World War II and building up steam for the post-war boom. Scads of babies and cars were produced (not necessarily in that order). Into those cars they dropped thousands of automatic transmissions. With its simplicity and ease of use, the automatic transmission offered up the automobile to the masses, fulfilling the promise of President Hoover, whom a generation earlier had promised “a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot.” At the very least it widened the perspective of an increasingly mobile workforce, fed the flow of migration to the suburbs, and welcomed women back into the economy following the war effort.

The most significant changes/improvements in automatic transmission design to date are the number of forward gears transmissions now have and the switch from mechanically controlled to electronically controlled transmission operations. Mechanically controlled automatic transmissions have reached their limit in terms of future improvements while electronically (or computer) controlled automatic gearboxes have only touched the surface of the possibilities.

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Customer Reviews
Zaff was really good.Services: Body &...
Ze Ad
Zaff was really good.Services: Body & Trim, Oil change
Date: June 27, 2022
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I have used this location...
D Anderson
I have used this location (Centennial Pkwy.) for transmission repair and preventative maintenance work on several occasions, with more than one vehicle over the years. Owner Steve is both courteous and knowledgeable. The work done here is honest and reliable. They are not in the business of overcharging for work that isn't required! I would highly recommend this location to anyone in need of transmission repair or service.Service: Transmission
Date: June 27, 2022
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Great service and honest !Fixed my problem with very little headaches!
Date: June 26, 2022
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Doctor Matt and his crew...
Michael Crofton
Doctor Matt and his crew fixed up a bad situation on a 700R4 in an old car. It’s tough to get ANY shop these days to even consider working on ol school Detroit muscle. They’ve touched both my cars and I wouldn’t have anyone else deal with my drivetrain issues. Thnx again Matt
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Dave Nelson
Fantastic place! Staff so friendly I would work there!!
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Excellent people small family business
Date: June 23, 2022
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A true “five stars” service...
Adnan Isakovic
A true “five stars” service by a professional Team of experts!Had intermittent transmission issues with my old SUV and previously tried to get help from the dealership, with no resolution - until I called Eric.Got immediate attention and effective service. Eric is passionate about his business and someone you can trust without reservations. You will get the best transmission job done for a fair price.Highly, highly recommended!
Date: June 23, 2022
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Dan De
Just want to tell you that I had a great experience with AL at this location. Professional, polite and efficient. Most importantly, I asked about putting in a transmission cooler and he told me I already had one. He could have taken me. What more do you want? Honesty and kindness rule here.Service: Transmission
Date: June 22, 2022
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Kelly Copp
They were fantastic with me. I was shown and told exactly what was wrong and how much to repair. As a woman, I was treated with the utmost respect. 10 stars if I could.Services: Transmission repair, Auto engine diagnostic, Vehicle Inspection
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The staff and work was 5 star. Dropped my vehicle off when requested, and it was completed when promised. Thanks 😊
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