While automatic transmissions are used widely today, that was historically not always the case. We have covered the specific history of Allison Transmissions in a previous post, but there are 4 surprising facts about the general history of transmissions you may not know about. This includes why we switched from manuals to automatics on such a large scale over the years.
A Brief History: How Automatics Came About
Two Brazilian engineers by the names of José Braz Araripe and Fernando Lehly Lemos invented the first hydraulic transmission. General Motors (then known as Detroit Transmission) purchased the plans and prototype to introduce this transmission to the market, calling it the Hydra-Matic and producing it in 1940.
4 Surprising Facts
#1: Automatic Transmissions Started with 4 Gears
The first automatic transmission—the Hydra-Matic—was actually a 4-gear transmission. This is surprising considering that two- and three-speed transmissions would later come out and become more popular. In fact, General Motors came out with a new and improved automatic in 1964. Cue the Turbo Hydra-Matic, a three-speed transmission with a torque converter.
#2: U.S. Manufacturers Started Producing Automatics on a Commercial Scale Due to WWII
Just a year after GM introduced the Hydra-Matic, we saw the United States become involved in World War II. At this point, they began manufacturing automatics to power military tanks and vehicles. We also saw the very early development of the Dynaflow transmission, which actually underwent early testing in the M18 Hellcat tank destroyer during the Second World War (though it wasn’t actually used in a car until 1947).
#3: Automatic Transmissions Were Once Slower than Manuals
When they came out in the 1930s, automatic transmissions were considered slower than their manual counterparts. Automatics experienced longer gear ratios than manuals. So while they reduced a lot of the work that drivers needed to change gears, they moved less quickly and wasted more fuel. Compare that to today—if you want to experience 600 horsepower (or more), you would absolutely need an automatic transmission.
#4: Automatics Were Often Marketed to Women
While General Motors introduced the Hydra-Matic on 1939 Oldsmobile and Cadillac models for the mass public, the advertisements and billboards that came out were usually geared toward women—while today, we may see a reversal of this trend.
Is Your Client’s Automatic Transmission Failing?
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