Thursday, 2 June 2011

Automatics

"No thanks. I prefer to change gear myself." Some people still look down on automatic transmissions. They probably prefer a dishwasher and a vacuum cleaner to standing over a sink or beating carpets with a stick. Yet there is something about being clever enough to select one's own gear. It's manly to change gear. Automatics are for girls or the elderly.
E-Type Jaguar started with a crunchy difficult gearbox.
Now no car with sporting pretensions can afford to miss out on little paddles beside the rim of the steering wheel so you can change gear looking like a racing driver. How pretentious can you get? This is only an automatic with manual over-ride. Leave the thing to itself. It probably knows better than the driver.
This year marks 70 years since the introduction of the automatic. I wrote this Sunday Times motoring column in December 1990.FIFTY YEARS OF AUTOMATICS
The first mass-produced fully automatic transmission was introduced fifty years ago for the 1941 Oldsmobile and Cadillac. General Motors called it Hydra-matic (the hyphen kept quips about Hi-dramatic at bay).
It was an innovative era. As America entered the Second World War, production cars were furnished with air conditioning for the first time. The first two-speed windscreen wipers appeared and the first Jeep, and the first large-scale production four wheel drive car, a Russian GAZ-61.
The hydra of Hydra-matic stood for hydraulic. The heart of the automatic transmission was an oil-filled turbine pump rather like the "fluid flywheel" used by Daimler in 1930 with a preselector gearbox. General Motors used a gearbox with the gear trains in-line so that they could be changed by means of internal clutches, activated by the speed of the car and the position of the accelerator pedal.
The first automatics were jerky and tended to leak oil, but they were better than the self-changing electric and mechanical systems they replaced. General Motors added another element to the pump to make it more responsive, and the hydraulic gearchanges have been augmented by electronics, which take account of gradients and fuel flow.
The original Hydra-matic cost only 57 dollars and by the 1950s, automatics were the rule rather than the exception in America. They still absorbed too much power to make them viable for small European cars and no practical alternative has ever emerged with the smooth running of the torque converter which evolved from the early "fluid flywheel".
Semi-automatics such as the short-lived Manumatic which had a gear-lever actuated electric clutch and appeared on Hillmans and Wolseleys of the 1950s were short-lived. The Daf Variomatic and its descendents on Fiats and Fords have not caught on. The AP Mini automatic in the sump of the engine was a masterpiece of miniaturisation, but was deeply flawed.
Despite its shortcomings, the manual gearchange will be with us for some time. Its sliding pinions and clashing gears was an arrangement of which the 19th century pioneer Rene Panhard once remarked, "C'est brutal, mais ├ža marche."

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