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Facts You May Not Know About The Automatic Transmission

Today I will be working on an article about the automatic transmission.

5w ago
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Automatic transmissions are now seen in every car type, from sports car to off-road SUV, and sequentials and dual-clutches are both forms of the automatic transmission. What used to typically come with conventional manuals, now come with automatics. In other words, yesterday's manual is today's automatic. Let's start off with these interesting facts!

The first automatic transmission was an Oldsmobile 4-speed

A Hydra-Matic Drive transmission, produced between 1939 and 1956, on display at the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum (photoshooter: Michael Barera)

A Hydra-Matic Drive transmission, produced between 1939 and 1956, on display at the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum (photoshooter: Michael Barera)

The Hydramatic, believe it or not, had four gears. That's right, the four-speed automatic came out before the two- and three-speed transmissions that would later become (very) popular. Even so, the lifespan of a four-speed automatic carried on until the death of the Dodge Journey in 2020. This means the four-speed automatic was more than 80 years old, or around 15 more than the Social Security retirement age.

To compare, the three-speed automatic lived quite a short life, from 1950 to 2002 (or 52 years). The two-speed automatic (used mostly by GM and sometimes by Chrysler, but very rarely by Ford) lived even shorter, from 1950 to 1973 (or 23 years).

"The automatic gearbox debuted at a $57 option in 1940, but pricing jumped to $125 in 1941 when offered by Cadillac." Source: TopSpeed author Ciprian Florea

Automatic transmissions are more common in larger cars than their smaller counterparts, so it made (and makes) sense that the first automatic car happened to be the Oldsmobile 88 with the Hydra-Matic.

Automatics Were Once Slower Than Manuals

Grassroots Motorsports

Grassroots Motorsports

Yeah, you read that right. Automatics (at least before 2006) were known for being sluggish; they often suffered from longer gear ratios and higher drivetrain losses than their manual counterparts. This was before the whole, "dual-clutch" trend came by. Cars equipped with GM's 3- and 4-speed automatic transmissions (even Aston Martins, Bentleys, Ferraris, Jaguars, and Rolls-Royces) are prime examples of this issue.

The V8-powered Camaro and the Corvette were about a second slower in the quarter-mile when equipped with the automatic transmission than with their manual counterparts. This is why, when the automatic 2005 Corvette came out, aside from the restyling and body redesign, it was really a carried-over 2004 with 50 extra horsepower and 0.3 extra liters. In some cases, the 4L65-equipped C6 (2005 only) was as fast, if not slightly slower than, the 4L60-equipped C5 (1997-2004). GM fixed that progressively with a 6L80 for 2006 (Cadillac XLR-V and Chevy Corvette).

What you are seeing here is the 722.6 variant of the 5G-Tronic transmission. I caught this photo on Sportlich-Leicht.

What you are seeing here is the 722.6 variant of the 5G-Tronic transmission. I caught this photo on Sportlich-Leicht.

Arguably, the first "progressive" automatic transmission was the 5G-Tronic transmission by Mercedes-Benz. Its purpose was to shift faster than the average automatic transmission. It also created an AMG Speedshift variant, which debuted in such sports vehicles as the 469-horsepower Mercedes-Benz E 55 AMG and the 617-horsepower SLR McLaren.

These days, you'll pretty much need an automatic transmission if you want a 600+ horsepower machine. Even the Shelby Mustang GT500 has one, and it historically had a manual. Let me admit, if the Dodge Viper, for instance, came out today, it would almost certainly have an auto (be it a Hellcat-style auto with paddles or a Corvette-/Shelby-style dual-clutch). Even all-wheel drive is starting to become standard in many performance cars, but that is for another topic.

Automatics Were Often Marketed to Women

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We all know the saying, "real men drive stick." Allegedly, "sexist marketing sold America the automatic transmission," according to Jalopnik author Ralphael Orlove. I don't know how true it was back in the 1950s, but today, according to Nielsen, women are 19% more likely than men to want an automatic transmission.

Every Ferrari sold today uses a dual-clutch transmission, and oftentimes, men equate a Ferrari to an exotically or extremely beautiful woman. So, it (kinda) makes sense for the two to equate.

"All automatic transmissions use a combination of friction materials that are similar to paper or cardboard, bonded to metal plates and bands, rubber or neoprene seals, and bushings. These friction materials are considered soft parts and will eventually wear out from normal usage." Source: Trans Pro. And you read that right, "soft." Women are still regarded in society to be the softer of the two biological sexes, so it's still allegedly "men vs. women." In the same sort of way, manuals vs. automatics. There is a "man" in manual, and (sort of) a "mujer" (which is "woman" in Spanish) in automatic. But I don't think that has anything to do with the transmissions themselves.

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Comments (3)

  • Calling the friction material in auto transmissions similar to paper or cardboard is really underselling the stuff. They've long used much more durable, and exotic materials. GM started using a woven carbon fiber fabric composite in its torque converter lockup clutches in the mid-90's, for example.

      23 days ago
  • I can't believe that autos are now faster than manuals, always saw them as less efficient and sluggish. That being said, the Subaru SVX could only have an auto to handle the power

      1 month ago
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