Sticktory: The Evolution Of Classic Transmissions

by: Tim Weadock

September 04, 2012

Call it The Boomerang Rule of Cool – everything that fades away will regain its coolness factor at a later date. It is true of fashion, music and, yes, even automobile transmissions. Take a look back at a few once popular transmission styles and see how transmission technology changed throughout history and helped shape the way we drive.

From the early 1900s through the mid-1980s, manual transmissions were more than common in many vehicles; they were sometimes the only option. Engineering innovations like the Pre-selector of the 1930s gave American drivers an appetite for the ease of an automatic transmission. By 1985, only 22 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. were equipped with a stick. Over the last 70 years, automatic transmissions steadily emerged as the preferred transmission type, so much so that by 2007 they made up 97 percent of the market.

Now the trend seems to be coming around again. Many drivers are demanding performance out of their hybrids and grocery getters, leaving millions longing for the stick-shift cars they grew up with.

Here are some old favorites you may (or may not) know existed:

Ford Model T

An enormously innovative vehicle for many reasons, the Model T’s transmission is often overlooked. The “planetary transmission” consisted (at a high level) of a three-pedal design, triple gears, transmission drums, and clutch discs. It was as close to an automatic transmission as a manual could be with low speed, reverse and high-speed gears. A transmission brake made it possible for the driver to stop the car without stalling the engine.


The most desirable manual transmission of the 1930s was the pre-selector. There were several configurations of pre-selector gearboxes, and most popular among them was the Wilson Pre-Selector. Designed by Major W.G. Wilson, who was widely regarded as a genius of gearbox design for his work on the WWI Mark V tank, the Wilson Pre-Selector used a variety of clutches and a fluid flywheel.

Drivers considered the pre-selector a pleasure to operate. It was engaged by sliding the shift lever into position (1-2-3-T) and depressing the foot pedal.

Pre-selectors were favored by automakers Armstrong Siddeley, Cord, Daimler and Maybach, to name a few.

Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic Drive

The first automatic transmission offered in a domestically-built automobile was Oldsmobile’s Hydra-Matic Drive. General Motors developed the transmission in 1938 and selected 1940 (model year) Oldsmobiles to introduce it.

“Twelve out of 15 motions ordinarily required to start your car are eliminated by Hydra-Matic Drive, every time you get away from a stoplight,” touted GM’s advertising team in the Hydra-Drive pamphlet. For a mere $57, motorists could drive with far less effort. Chrysler and Ford soon followed with automatic transmissions of their own.

Hurst Dual-Gate Shifter

While not technically a transmission in and of itself, the Hurst Dual-Gate transmission control was aimed at satisfying men and women alike.

The Dual-Gate or “His and Hers” was a high performance shifter with characteristics of both automatic and manual transmissions. For the man who wanted a manual transmission it featured quick and precise gear selection; for the woman who wanted an automatic transmission it was convenient and easy to use.

With the turn of a key, the driver could engage the “Competition gate” or lock out the Misses, joy-riding teenager or curious parking lot attendant. The Dual-Gate was optional on Oldsmobile and Pontiac models.

Muncie M-22 “Rock Crusher” 4-Speed

The muscle-car era personified the Big 3’s race to produce the biggest, baddest and fastest cars the American public could buy. To give its big block, high torque, behemoth engines an extra advantage, GM created the Muncie M-22 “Rock Crusher” 4-speed.

To improve shifting quickness, the M-22 was designed with straight-cut gears. This resulted in more efficient end loading of the gear train and generated less heat. A side effect of the design was the whine or howl like gear noise, which lead to the “rock crusher” nickname.

Rock crusher transmissions were used on a variety of Chevrolet models from the late ‘60s through early ‘70s, and are most commonly associated with big block Corvettes, Camaros and Chevelles.

Think you know your gearboxes? Check out our Name That Gearbox” quiz in this edition of eNews for a chance to win a free gift from the Historic Vehicle Association.



  1. Charles Sallia Dundee, Oregon

    You failed to mention the first "modern" automatic transmission that works much like the ones we use today. It was commissioned from Borg-Warner by Studebaker to their specifications. It was all-fluid drive except for the use of a dry clutch which made for a more positive shift. It also introduced the first stall converter so the transmission could be left in gear without stalling the engine at idle. It even came with Studebaker's famed "hill-holder" modified to work with an automatic. This transmission worked so well and was so durable that Ford tried to get Studebaker to license it to them as an option for Ford cars and trucks. Unfortunately, Studebaker stubbornly held onto the exclusive right to use this innovative transmission. Perhaps that was a mistake as Studebaker could have made a lot of money licensing the transmission to Ford and other automakers.

  2. daryl judd spokane, wa

    It was Packard who pioneered the "H" pattern for manual shift transmissions and later with their Ultramatic automatic was first to use a lock-up torque converter for high gear also known as direct drive. This automatic had other shortfalls but the lock-up torque converter is used today in most "overdrive" automatics. Also deserving some mention in my opinion is the Ford T & C toploader 4 speed used in many of their car lines. It featured full syncromesh and the gears were loaded into the case from an opening in the top thus deleting the side cover gasket and sealing problems of the M-22. Versions of this transmission are still used today in all NASCAR race cars of all makes including Dodge, Ford, Chevy and Toyota.

  3. Wilson Walthall Dallas Tx

    Perhaps the Adams Farwell Double clutch sliding gear transmission of 1904 could me noted as an idea that did not catch on until the current rage of F1cars and floppy paddle and automatic shifting manual transmissions, although the modern ones use dogs and syncro rings in place of sliding gears.

  4. Philip de Vos Amherst VA

    To keep the doors open the design was sold to BW, simplified and sold to Stude, Ford Merc, Hudson, Nash, AMC, Checker. Jag, etc etc... unbeatable performer.

  5. Frank Ferndale,WA

    You also forgot to mention Fluid Drive. A Chrysler Corp invention with clutch and clutch pedal. You would first start the car and to go forward, push in the clutch while utilizing the column shift lever into first. ,procede for a short and take your foot off of the gas pedal and hear a click. This would bump you into second gear. you would continue and do the same to get into 3rd gear. You could also operate the car as a standard shift car. .....Frank

  6. Steve Blackburn Boise

    And then there was the Buick "Dynaflow"of the early 50's. No perceptible shift at all. Just smooth step on the gas and go.

  7. Bill O'Leary Shelton, CT

    Another unconventional transmission, if one could call it that, was the friction drive used in Metz automobiles, contemporaries of the Model T that were built in Waltham, Mass. My neighbor is storing the pieces to a 1915 Metz Model 22 touring car in my barn while it awaits reassembly some day. The "transmission" involves no actual gearbox. Instead, a shaft extends off the rear of the engine to a spinning aluminum "flywheel" of sorts. A friction wheel, made of a pressed paper compound, mates with the flywheel at a 90 degree angle and drives a shaft with a sprocket at one end, which is connected by a chain to the rear axle. A similar configuration is used on snowblowers and other equipment today. Speed is increased by moving the friction wheel out radially on the flywheel; similarly, sliding the friction wheel to the other side of the flywheel causes the car to reverse. The mechanism is ingeniously simple and apparently proved very reliable in its day. Sadly, the Metz company (named for its German immigrant founder) eventually faded away after anti-German sentiment in the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania stifled sales.