Sticktory: The Evolution Of Classic Transmissions

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.