Dynaflow, Turboglide, Roto Hydramatic, and Other Early GM Automatics

CONTROLLED COUPLING HYDRA-MATIC

In 1952, engineers P.J. Rhoads and Kenneth Gage of the Detroit Transmission Division began work on the second-generation Hydra-Matic, a project that ultimately cost some $35 million. The new transmission, which went on sale for the 1956 model year, was known by a variety of trade names — Oldsmobile called it Jetaway Hydra-Matic while Pontiac christened it Strato-Flight and AMC dubbed it Flashaway — although all were functionally identical. The patent application, filed in November 1953 by engineer Walter Herndon (who had been part of Earl Thompson’s original Hydra-Matic development team), called it a “controlled coupling” transmission; it is sometimes known as the 315 Hydra-Matic.

The controlled-coupling transmission was a thorough redesign of the original Hydra-Matic. Like its predecessor, it had three planetary gearsets, giving four forward speeds plus reverse. A fluid coupling took the place of a conventional clutch; the engine drove the coupling’s impeller through the front planetary gearset, to reduce creep at idle. There were two oil pumps and an external oil cooler to prevent overheating. With a cast iron case (except the front torus cover, which was aluminum), the complete transmission was fairly heavy, at 240 lb (109 kg), and quite bulky.

Most of the changes to the new Hydra-Matic were designed to smooth its notoriously jerky shift quality. The first major change was replacing the troublesome brake bands with sprag (one-way) clutches for both the front and rear gearsets. (A rear band was retained, but it was used only in Low range.) The second and most dramatic change was the addition of a second, smaller fluid coupling between the front and rear planetary gearsets.

1940 Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic chart
The chart above shows the gear and band engagements for the original Hydra-Matic; the chart below shows the corresponding positions for the controlled-coupling transmission.

controlled coupling hydra-matic chart
The neutral clutch was another new feature of the controlled-coupling Hydra-Matic, necessitated by the removal of the brake bands; in the original H-M, neutral was obtained by releasing all clutches and bands. There was also an overrun clutch, added to improve engine braking in downhill coasting.

The new coupling, which was about 25% smaller than the main coupling, replaced the original Hydra-Matic’s front clutch pack. The coupling’s impeller was driven by the ring gear of the front planetary gearset, while the turbine was connected to the front planetary’s sun gear. Since a fluid coupling can’t be mechanically disengaged, it incorporated valves that would allow the oil in the torus housing to be drained or refilled in only 0.4 seconds. In first and third, the coupling was empty and thus effectively disengaged. In second and fourth, it was full, driving the sun gear of the front planetary at the same speed as the ring gear, putting the front gearset in direct drive.

These changes made Hydra-Matic substantially smoother than its predecessor. The 1-2 shift, which was achieved by filling the front coupling, was almost imperceptible. The 2-3 shift, which still involved the engagement of the rear clutch pack, could still elicit a modest thud, but it was far less pronounced than before. (When the new transmission was first shown to the press, engineers admitted they would have preferred to replace the rear clutch pack with a fluid coupling as well, but cost and space considerations had ruled out that possibility.) The redesign also eliminated the need for periodic band adjustments, which most owners had neglected anyway.

1957 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Holiday Coupe front3q
The older Dual-Range Hydra-Matic remained optional on some Oldsmobile and Pontiac models in 1956, when the controlled-coupling transmission was introduced; the earlier transmission was dropped by the end of the model year, although it was still used on trucks into the early sixties. The new Hydra-Matic was standard on all Cadillacs and on big Oldsmobiles, like this 1957 Ninety-Eight Holiday Coupe.

Like the earlier Dual-Range version, the controlled-coupling Hydra-Matic sought to provide a gear for every occasion. It retained the Dual-Range H-M’s second (D3 or Super) Drive range, which would keep the transmission from shifting to fourth gear at speeds under about 75 mph (120 km/h); Low range kept the transmission in second up to about 40 mph (64 km/h). The new Hydra-Matic also offered both part-throttle and full-throttle kickdowns for passing.

Owners soon discovered that the new Hydra-Matic was not quite as efficient as its predecessor was, nor was it as durable. Aggressive driving could destroy the sprag clutches, operation in extreme temperatures could be erratic, and the aluminum torus cover was prone to hairline cracks. Nonetheless, most buyers considered the new Hydra-Matic a welcome improvement.

Thanks to its daunting production costs, the new Hydra-Matic found fewer users than its predecessor did. It was used by Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac and was sold to AMC for use in some 1956-1957 Nash and Hudson models, but GMC and Chevrolet trucks stayed with the earlier Dual-Range transmission until the early sixties, as did Rolls-Royce, which built the Dual-Range H-M under license.

1958 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Holiday hardtop quadrant
A useful minor addition to the new Hydra-Matic was a Park position — the original H-M had a parking pawl, but it engaged only in Reverse with the engine off. Reverse was still below Low on the shift quadrant, which drew scathing criticism from some experts, including transmission engineer Oscar Banker, who insisted it was unsafe; GM nonethless retained this shift pattern until the mid-sixties. The “Safety Sentinel” speedometer offered on Oldsmobiles sounded a buzzer if you exceeded a preset speed.

Over the next few years, GM made many minor modifications to the dual-coupling transmission, most aimed at improving its durability and cold-weather performance. The most noticeable change came in the 1960 model year, when the case was redesigned to reduce its considerable bulk. None of these revisions altered the controlled-coupling Hydra-Matic’s basic operation, nor did they make it any cheaper to build. It remained one of the most expensive transmissions of this era and only its ample production volume kept the price within reason.

TWIN TURBINE DYNAFLOW

At the same time the corporate Engineering Staff was developing the controlled-coupling Hydra-Matic, they were also hard at work refining the torque converter concept. Although Chevrolet had backed away from the pure torque converter drive approach, Buick remained firmly committed to Dynaflow and was looking for ways to reduce its inherent limitations.

The first result of these efforts was the Twin-Turbine Dynaflow, introduced for the 1953 model year. Like the first Dynaflow, its basic concepts were developed by Oliver Kelley’s corporate engineering team while the production version was overseen by Buick staff engineer Rudolf Gorsky. As its name implied, the new Dynaflow featured a redesigned torque converter with two turbines along with a single impeller and a single stator. The primary turbine’s output shaft now drove the ring gear of a planetary gearset. The gearset’s sun gear was carried on an overrunning clutch. At low speeds, the sun gear was locked in place, causing the turbine to drive the pinions and planet carrier (and through them the transmission mainshaft) at reduced speed, thus multiplying the input torque. The secondary turbine was splined directly to the transmission mainshaft. At low speeds, the impeller drove the primary turbine, but as engine speed increased, the secondary turbine would gradually take over. At cruising speeds, both the stator and the sun gear of the primary turbine freewheeled, causing the torque converter to act like a plain fluid coupling. There were still no perceptible gear changes — it remained a continuously variable transmission.

1956 Buick Roadmaster Dynaflow quadrant
Although the Twin Turbine and Variable Pitch Dynaflow differed internally from the original dual-impeller transmission, the shift quadrant and operation were basically the same from the driver’s perspective. The main difference was that with Variable Pitch Dynaflow, the stator blades would change position if the throttle was floored.

The result of these changes was greater torque multiplication, up to 2.45:1 at stall. Since the multiplication was now partly mechanical, the new converter also provided some relief from Dynaflow’s low-speed lag and slippage. Nonetheless, really brisk takeoffs still demanded the use of emergency low. The latter was particularly useful for passing at around-town speed; while the twin-turbine converter provided adequate multiplication from rest, it had no mechanism to “downshift” for a sudden burst of speed.

To address that limitation, in 1955, the twin-turbine Dynaflow gained a new variable-pitch stator. Like the variable-pitch propellers used on aircraft and boats, the stator blades could switch from a high angle, for greater torque multiplication, to a low angle, for greater efficiency at cruising speeds. Flooring the throttle would flip the stator blades back to the low position with an effect analogous to a kickdown downshift in a stepped-gear transmission. The following year, Dynaflow added a second, fixed-blade stator, increasing the converter’s maximum torque multiplication to 3.5:1. Low could now be held until just past 60 mph (say, 100 km/h), allowing magazine reviewers to record some rather racy 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times.

1957 Buick Roadmaster 75 front
By the mid-fifties, Dynaflow was standard on upper-series Buicks, like this 1957 Roadmaster Riviera hardtop. It was nominally optional on base Specials, but very few cars — probably less than 5% — were built without it. With its standard 364 cu. in. (5,957 cc) V8 and Variable Pitch Dynaflow, a ’57 Roadmaster was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little over 10 seconds and a top speed of perhaps 115 mph (185 km/h), although such performance required using Low gear. Starting in Drive added 2 to 3 seconds to acceleration times.

Although the Twin Turbine Dynaflow was finally approaching the performance and flexibility of contemporary stepped-gear automatics, that was not enough for Transmission Development Group chief Oliver Kelley. Kelley’s team was hard at work on the ultimate torque converter transmission: the triple turbine.

THE TRIPLE-TURBINE AUTOMATIC

If the controlled-coupling Hydra-Matic could be considered a belts-and-braces makeover of the original Hydra-Matic, the triple-turbine automatic was an ambitious extension of the Dynaflow concept. Had it worked as intended, it would have validated GM’s (and Buick’s) faith in the torque converter drive concept and probably would have revolutionized Detroit’s thinking about automatic transmissions.

In broad strokes, the triple-turbine automatic was not unlike the contemporary Borg-Warner or Chrysler TorqueFlite transmissions, which had a torque converter and two planetary gearsets. It could, in a very general sense, be deemed a three-speed transmission (which is how some sources incorrectly describe it). However, it’s more accurately described as a continuously variable transmission with three overlapping ranges; like Dynaflow, it provided seamless changes of ratio, with no distinct shift points.

The triple-turbine transmission had a five-element torque converter with a single impeller/pump, a variable-pitch stator, and three turbines, the first two mounted on overrunning clutches. The first turbine drove the sun gear of the rear planetary gearset; the rear planetary’s ring gear was locked in place, driving the planet carrier and the driveshaft at reduced speed. The second turbine drove the ring gear of the front planetary, while the sun gear was locked, driving the planet carrier. (The two planetary gearsets were actually identical, but driving the ring gear rather than the sun gear provided a different ratio.) The the third turbine drove the output shaft directly with no mechanical reduction.

1958 Turboglide diagram
A much-simplified diagram of Turboglide. The flex plate drives the impeller (red), which successively drives the first turbine (purple), second turbine (blue), and third turbine (purple) at different speeds. The sprag clutch (gray) holds the sun gear of the front planetary and the ring gear of the rear planetary stationary. The stator (orange) redirects the flow of oil out of the turbines, increasing torque output. (author diagram)

As with the twin-turbine Dynaflow, the three turbines each had a different blade pitch, making them effective within a certain range of speed and load. As engine speed increased, the first turbine would exceed its maximum effective speed and begin to freewheel. As did, the second turbine took over, followed by the third. The effective gear ratio at any given moment depended on the relative speeds of the three turbines. At cruising speed, the third turbine was effectively hydraulically locked to the impeller, giving direct drive like top gear in a conventional transmission. The mechanical ratio, which was infinitely variable, was multiplied by the torque multiplication of the stator, which also varied continuously based on speed and load.

Unlike the earlier Dynaflow and Powerglide, there was no Low range and no way to manually lock the transmission into a lower (higher numerical) ratio. The only manual control provided, other than Park, Neutral, and Reverse, was a “Hill” or “Grade Retarder” position, intended for descending steep hills. It locked the ring gear of the rear planetary gearset to the case, causing the driveshaft to drive the front turbine; the turbine then acted as a brake on the impeller, mimicking the effect of engine braking. (Some owners made the mistake of treating it like Low in Dynaflow or Powerglide, which was worse than useless from a performance standpoint and sometimes resulted in transmission damage.)

Although we’ve referred to the triple-turbine automatic in the singular, there were two distinct production versions: Chevrolet’s Turboglide and Buick’s Flight-Pitch Dynaflow. Both were based on a common design, developed by GM’s corporate Engineering Staff, but they differed in many details and as far as we know, they shared few if any parts. The biggest differences between the Buick and Chevrolet transmissions were gear ratios and stator design; while both used variable-pitch stators, Chevy’s had only two blade positions, while Buick’s stator was infinitely variable.

1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible Turboglide quadrant
Although Turboglide and Flight Pitch Dynaflow/Triple Turbine were similar in their basic operating principles, they had different ratios: Turboglide’s mechanical ratios were 2.67:1 for the rear gearset, 1.60:1 for the front gearset, with a maximum converter multiplication of 1.60:1 at stall, giving a ratio spread of 4.30:1 to 1.00:1. The Buick’s ratios were 2.86:1 and 1.54:1, with a maximum converter multiplication of 1.66:1, giving a ratio spread of 4.75:1 to 1.00:1. (That spread, incidentally, is very similar to that of modern continuously variable transmissions.)

TURBOGLIDE AND FLIGHT PITCH DYNAFLOW

Turboglide went on sale in late 1956 as an option on 1957 Chevrolets, priced about 25% higher than the two-speed Powerglide. Contemporary reviewers were impressed with Turboglide’s smoothness, although they found its stepless operation somewhat disconcerting. As with a modern CVT, the relationship between engine speed and road speed was not linear, which made the transmission feel as if it were slipping badly. (There was some slippage, but not as much as subjective impressions suggested.)

As with early Dynaflows, Turboglide performed best when cruising or in steady acceleration. Although it could easily squeal the tires on quick takeoffs, its responsiveness in the real world left much to be desired. Even with the variable-pitch stator, jabbing the throttle for passing or to accelerate out of a turn would cause the engine to bog as the turbines fought to overcome their rotational inertia. Unlike Powerglide or Dynaflow, there was no longer the option of engaging Low, so drivers had little recourse beyond flooring the throttle and hoping for the best. Inevitably, fuel consumption in stop-and-go driving was profligate, although cruising economy was reasonable enough.

1958 Chevrolet Impala hardtop front 3q
Chevrolet advertising for 1958 promoted both Turboglide and the new “Turbo-Thrust” 348 cu. in. (5,694 cc) engine; this Impala Sport Coupe has both. Even with the big engine, it’s not an outstandingly fast car — in January 1958, Car Life magazine clocked a similar Impala with the 250 hp (186 kW) engine and Turboglide from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a tick over 10 seconds.

Turboglide’s complexity posed a variety of manufacturing challenges and early production was slow. Many of its difficulties related to its die-cast aluminum case, the first aluminum transmission case Chevrolet had ever built (Powerglide retained a cast iron case until 1962). As with the later Corvair engine and the Buick/Oldsmobile aluminum V8s, complex aluminum castings were at the bleeding edge of GM’s metallurgical capabilities and it was not uncommon for early Turboglide cars to split their transmission cases, particularly if the transmissions were overheated. There were other teething problems as well, many of which were beyond the skill and training of the average technician. Toward the end of the 1957 model year, Chevrolet quietly extended warranty coverage for owners of Turboglide cars who complained about transmission problems.

Buick’s triple-turbine Flight Pitch Dynaflow, introduced the following year, had an even less auspicious debut. Pre-production units were so buggy that it almost wasn’t ready for production in time. Buick’s increasingly harried general manager, Ed Ragsdale, became so frustrated that he ordered his engineers to do whatever it took to make it work, regardless of cost. The tooling bill eventually came to a harrowing $86 million (more than $650 million today), which didn’t include development expenses.

1958 Buick Limited Riviera four-door sedan (clicks1000)
Buick’s Flight Pitch Dynaflow, introduced in 1958, was standard on Roadmaster and Limited, optional on lesser Buicks. The Limited, a name Buick had used in 1941-42, was revived in 1958 for a new top-of-the-line model; fewer than 7,500 were sold, most of them Riviera four-door hardtops like this one. (Photo © 2007 Clicks1000; used with permission)

Flight-Pitch went on sale in the fall of 1957. Despite the last-minute fixes, it was grievously unreliable until late in the 1958 model year, doing considerable damage to Buick’s already-checkered reputation. In years past, Buick’s quality control had been among the best in the business, but the division’s explosive growth in the mid-fifties had stretched its manufacturing processes beyond their limits. The 1957 Buicks had already been notorious for poor quality and the problematic Flight Pitch (and the equally disastrous air suspension, introduced at the same time) made the ’58s even worse. Buyers, nervous about reliability, dissatisfied with Buick’s overwrought styling, and spooked by an economic downturn, stayed well away. The result was the lowest sales Buick had seen since the end of the war.

By 1959, Buick and Chevrolet had resolved most of the triple-turbine transmissions’ mechanical problems, but buyers remained understandably wary. The Powerglide and Twin Turbine (nee Variable Pitch Dynaflow) were known quantities and few customers saw the point of spending up to 30% more for the triple turbines, particularly given their checkered reputation and dubious resale potential. Sales were very low.

1959 Buick Electra 225 convertible front
Buick’s 1958 sales were so dire that the division abandoned most of its previous model names — and the Dynaflow trade name — in 1959. The Variable Pitch Dynaflow became Twin Turbine while the Flight Pitch Dynaflow was renamed Triple Turbine. The latter cost $295.63 on LeSabres, $75.25 on Invictas and Electra 225s (over the standard Twin Turbine). Although $75 doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s the equivalent of nearly $600 today.

The commercial failure of the Flight Pitch/Triple Turbine caused a lot of finger pointing at Buick, much of it directed at Oliver Kelley, who had become the division’s chief engineer in 1957, not long before Flight Pitch debuted. Both Kelley and Ed Ragsdale were ousted in 1959, Ragsdale taking early retirement, Kelley moving on to become chief technical adviser to the head of GM’s new Defense Systems Division. Buick dropped the Triple Turbine as soon as Kelley and Rollert were gone; it disappeared after 1959.

Chevrolet stuck it out with Turboglide through the 1961 model year. The late-model Turboglide was reasonably trouble-free, but it still suffered the same basic design limitations as the early models. Some owners replaced it with Powerglide and survivors are relatively rare today.

In retrospect, the triple-turbine automatics were an interesting concept that was rushed to market before it was ready. Unfortunately, public reaction was so negative that GM never revisited the idea and it became a dead end.

1959 Buick Electra 225 convertible dash
Although the Triple Turbine was much improved in 1959, most buyers opted for the cheaper and better-regarded Twin Turbine. The easiest way to tell the difference is the shift quadrant: Twin Turbines had a PNDLR pattern, Triple Turbines PRNDG.

SENIOR COMPACTS

Even if the triple-turbine transmissions hadn’t been so flawed, the late fifties was not a good time for radical new designs. The new car market slumped in 1956, and by 1957, the U.S. was in a recession, sending buyers in search of smaller, cheaper, more economical cars. During the recession, GM began work on the X-100 project, later known as the Y-body, which would give Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac their own compact models for 1961. The corporation also dictated that the 1961 full-size cars would be moderately downsized, making both shorter and narrower than the Brobdingnagian 1959-1960 models.

The new, smaller cars called for new automatic transmissions. The existing Twin Turbine and controlled-coupling Hydra-Matic were too big and too expensive for the Y-body and in any case, it made little sense to mate a 350 lb (159 kg) Olds “Rockette” engine to a 229 lb (109 kg) Hydra-Matic. Pontiac’s “rope-drive” Tempest, meanwhile, needed a rear transaxle.

The senior compacts were originally intended to be one of GM’s first true inter-divisional projects, sharing engines, suspensions, and powertrains. The ongoing rivalry between the divisions frustrated those ambitions and the three cars ended up being quite different; among other things, each had a completely different transmission.

The Pontiac Tempest’s optional automatic, dubbed TempesTorque, was a two-speed torque converter transaxle. Many of its internal components were shared with the rear-engined Corvair’s Powerglide, repackaged for their new application; the torque converter was mounted at the back of the transaxle, behind the planetary gearset and the differential. TempesTorque also differed from the Corvair transmission in its unusual split-torque top gear (see sidebar below), which was intended to reduce slippage at cruising speeds.

The Buick Special, meanwhile, had a new two-speed transmission called Dual Path Turbine Drive. Developed by Gilbert Hause of the corporate Engineering Staff, it was a compact, extremely lightweight transmission; weighing only 96 lb (44 kg), it was actually about 10 lb (5 kg) lighter than the Special’s standard three-speed manual. Dual Path had a single planetary gearset and a three-element torque converter with a single turbine and a single variable-pitch stator. Unlike the Twin Turbine unit on full-size Buicks, Dual Path started in low and shifted automatically to high; in high, it used the same split-torque system as TempesTorque. Dual Path’s greatest novelty was that it did not use a conventional reverse gear — in reverse, a clutch locked the torque converter turbine in place, allowing the freewheeling stator to drive the transmission backwards.

1962 Buick Special convertible front 3q2
The 1961-1963 Buick Special/Skylark was the only user of the Dual Path Turbine Drive. Unlike Powerglide, whose first gear ratio was 1.82:1 (1.76:1 on big cars), Dual Path’s first gear was only 1.58:1, close to the second-gear ratio of most three-speed transmissions. Most of the Dual Path’s low-speed multiplication came from the torque converter, which provided a ratio of 2.5:1 at stall speed.

SIDEBAR: Split Torque

A planetary gearset has three basic elements: a central sun gear, an outer ring gear (or annulus), and a planet carrier with three or more pinion gears. It obtains different combinations of reduction, overdrive, direct drive, or reverse gearing by driving and holding these three elements. For example, applying power to the sun gear while the annulus is held in place will cause the planet carrier to turn at a reduced speed (reduction); if the annulus and sun gear are locked together, the whole assembly will turn at the same speed (direct drive).

A planetary gearset can also be designed for what is sometimes called “split torque.” If you apply power to any two elements without holding any element stationary, the two driven members will rotate the third element with their combined torque. This principle is commonly used in multi-engine or diesel-electric locomotives and ships, allowing them to combine power from different sources.

Hydra-Matic used this principle from the start; because the impeller of the main fluid coupling was turned by the front planetary gearset, it provided torque-splitting in third and fourth gears, significantly reducing slippage. Buick’s early-sixties Dual Path Turbine Drive and Pontiac’s 1961-1962 TempesTorque used the split-torque principle in high gear as well. In high, the torque converter impeller was locked to the ring gear of the front planetary gearset while the torque converter turbine simultaneously drove the sun gear; the planetary gearset’s planet carrier drove the driveshaft with the combined torque from both elements. Because of the multiplication provided by the converter, the torque converter turbine provided 60-70% of the transmission’s total torque output. Buick and Pontiac claimed that the split-torque system provided greater efficiency in top gear, much like a lockup torque converter. Contemporary testers agreed, noting that both transmissions seemed to have a closer relationship between engine speed and road speed than a conventional torque converter automatic.

Pontiac dropped the split-torque feature after 1962, Buick a year later. However, many modern hybrid cars, including the Toyota Prius, use the same principle to blend the output of their gasoline engines and electric motors.

It would have made sense for Oldsmobile’s senior compact, the F-85, to share Buick’s Dual Path transmission, but the Detroit Transmission Division instead opted to develop a new and significantly cheaper third-generation Hydra-Matic: the Roto Hydramatic.

45 Comments

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  1. Hey,how come you can yack all day long about this ones gearset setup,or that ones turbine combination,but no illustrations???
    Just because you can picture the entire mechanical world with words doesn’t mean the rest of humanity can.
    Pictures Please!!!!

    1. Um, no “Thank you for an awesome article and site?”

      There is an illustration of a Turboglide and it’s hardly fair to expect Aaron to write an great article about the development of the automatic AND delve into all the technical details. He does to a degree, but that’s not the overwhelming emphasis of the site, as far as I understand it.

      How about Googling “Turboglide,” “Dynaflow” or “Powerglide?”

    2. Well, the problem is that unlike the cars themselves, the transmissions don’t have devoted fan clubs who like to show off their cunning internal components at shows. I can’t legally scan pages from the shop manuals, so I’m limited to what diagrams I can create myself.

      I’m not a technical illustrator by any means, and some of these designs are very complex — I don’t know that I would be able to competently render (even in a simplified way) how the pieces interconnect. I had hoped to create one for the controlled-coupling Hydra-Matic, but after staring at the shop manual for days, I mainly understood why GM decided it was too complex and too expensive to manufacture. If I have time and feel inspired, I may create some additional diagrams later and add them back in, although I’m not going to be putting any professional designers out of work…

      1. There’s a site here that has a diagram of an overhaul of the controlled coupling hydra-matic. I can really see why GM wanted to get way from this design. Although today’s ZF 8 and 9 speeds are probably worse, but then half of the world industry is sharing the development costs for these.

        1. …And yet, they were damn near indestructible. We had a ’58 Pontiac that took a lot of punishment in the snow, yet worked without any issues, other than a small oil leak, until I had to sell it in late 1964.If I remember correctly, it was cast iron and weighed around 225 lbs.

          1. The ’58 edition weighed about 240 lb. GM was able to trim about 10-11 lb for 1960 by slimming down the case a bit.

  2. In the photo of the Hydra-Matic shift quadrant in the ’50 Olds 88, is that an aftermarket turn signal unit? If so, it’s a reminder of how times have changed! I understand that at that time, a heater was an option on many cars.

    1. I believe turn signals were standard on Oldsmobiles by 1949, at least on DeLuxe models. I’d need to find somebody with an Olds dealer book from that period to know for sure, but my information suggests they were standard fit.

      Pretty much everything [i]else[/i] was at least technically optional at that point, including oil filters, wheel covers, hood ornaments, windshield washers, and (at least until after the war) reversing lamps. Heaters didn’t become standard even on Cadillacs until almost the mid-fifties, and they weren’t standard on cheap cars for another decade after that. Very few cars were built without a lot of these items, but they weren’t included in the list price for many years.

  3. At least they did not charge extra for chrome after the war.

    I remember seeing a ’50s car ad that mentioned the [i]reverse[/i] gear was an optional extra. On the other hand many cars (particularly British) came with leather seats only because it was cheaper than vinal.

    1. I don’t know of any cars that late that didn’t come with a reverse [i]gear[/i], although reversing [i]lamps[/i] were still extra on many inexpensive cars at that point. Turn signals, as well.

    2. Just as well they didn’t charge extra for chrome.
      The ’58 Buicks & Olds would have cost a small country to buy.

      Back on topic, thank you once again for an
      entertaining read.

      Cheers,
      Chris

      1. Well, in essence, they did charge extra for the chrome, though fortunately not by the pound. On most cars of that era the amount of brightwork was tied to the trim level, and naturally the higher the trim level, the higher the price. Beyond that, there were often extra-cost dress-up packages (either factory- or dealer-installed) that primarily consisted of additional chrome trim. Such things didn’t really disappear from American options lists until the rise of Japanese-style tiered equipment packaging quite a few years later.

  4. Thanks for a great website and particularly for the GM transmissions articles. Every article I’ve read has been complete, accurate, and very interesting.

  5. Thank you for the automatic transmission article(s) on GM. Finally, someone has accurately chronicled the myriad development story for us.
    Your site is a valuable and entertaining resource – keep up the great work!

  6. This brought back some memories – I remember when I first got my license driving my Dad’s ’65 Olds F-85 with Jetaway and those 1-2 shifts at about 70mph if you held your foot in it. I have a question – I have an childhood memory of an early 50’s vehicle ( think it was a Chevy ) with a “Torque-Glide” logo on the trunk lid instead of “Power-Glide”, but that can’t be right, can it?

    1. Chrysler had a number of semi-automatics in that period with a variety of bizarre names: Gyro-Torque, Fluid Torque Drive, Fluid-matic, Fluid-Drive, and Plymouth’s Hy-Drive. Maybe it was one of those?

  7. Someone left an anonymous message saying:

    [i]under the heading “Twin Turbine Dynaflow,” the second paragraph contains the following statement:

    “The primary turbine’s output shaft now drove the planet carrier of a planetary gearset, adding its mechanical gear reduction to the multiplication provided by the stator;”

    However, it seems to me that if the planet carrier were driven, then the planetary gearset would provide a step-up, or overdrive, ratio, rather than gear reduction. For gear reduction, the power would have to be taken out of the planet carrier and put in on either the sun gear with the internal gear locked, or put in on the internal gear with the sun gear locked.

    See what you think. [/i]

    There was definitely something amiss — I checked and found that I had garbled the explanation of the torque converter layout from the 1955 Buick owner’s manual. The answer is that the primary turbine drives the ring gear; within the primary turbine’s operating speed range, the sun gear is locked, and the pinions and planet carrier are driven at reduced speed. I’ve amended the text accordingly. Thanks for the note!

  8. anyone have a diagram of the dual path? It stopped shifting from low into second and I found a spring in the bottom of the pan. Where does it go?

    1. Sorry, I’m not qualified to give repair advice. You might try seeing if your local library has a service manual for it — I was able to find a copy of the Pontiac dual-coupling Hydra-Matic shop manual that way.

  9. [quote=steve dill]anyone have a diagram of the dual path? It stopped shifting from low into second and I found a spring in the bottom of the pan. Where does it go?[/quote]If you could provide a picture of the spring, I could look it up in my various manuals and give you an answer.

  10. I have a 62 Buick,Skylark,with the dualpath Tranny.the trans is in direct drive,only goes foward,no neautral,park orreverce,is thier a fix for this.

  11. this article was great. It answered my question as to why the 52 Super I just inherited doesn’t shift….that would be because it isn’t made to shift automatically….I read a blog online saying
    1952 Buick – the slowest car I ever loved….so true!

    1. Well, there’s an old saying to the effect that you can make anything fit if you have a big enough hammer. I honestly don’t know how much trouble would be involved in interchanging them, but since they were never designed to be used behind the same engines or in the same cars, I imagine it would take some work.

      At one time, Buick Nailhead engines were popular with drag racers, so if you were asking this question in, say, 1964, there might have been aftermarket kits to mate an older Buick V-8 with a beefed-up Powerglide. (Some drag racers used Powerglide because it consumed relatively little power and they didn’t need a lower first gear.) Today, I suspect you’d have more luck finding some way to put in a Turbo Hydramatic. I’ve never looked, though.

      This is a question that would probably be best put to a performance transmission manufacturer or a shop that specializes in parts for older transmissions.

  12. chevy had 2 auto transmissions in 61and62 1 was a turbo glide the other was –glide that changed by fluid. there was no gears in the trans. on the gear selector was P R D G G was for grade as going up a hill. what was the name of that trans?

    1. The two transmissions were Powerglide and Turboglide. Powerglide was the familiar two-speed-plus-torque-converter Chevrolet automatic, while the transmission you’re thinking of was Turboglide, which is described in the text.

      The G position was for Grade Retarder. It was intended not for climbing hills, but for descending them; it was supposed to mimic the effect of engine braking, of which the Turboglide otherwise didn’t allow very much. The Grade Retarder was not useful for acceleration or hill climbing, although some people had problems because they assumed it worked like the Low position on Powerglide, which was definitely not the case!

  13. Re read this as a refresher on the development of the automatic. Thank you again. Your site is an invaluable resource and I cannot thank you enough for doing what you do.

  14. Thank you for your clear and concise explanation of Dynaflow, and how it differs from the other two GM automatics. As we were a "Buick family," the innate superiority of Dynaflow was never a question; it was an article of faith. I remember the feelings of incredulity and betrayal I felt when I was told for the first time that Dynaflow was "Just Powerglide with a different name," and that Hydramatic was obviously better, because Olds and Cadillac used it. You have restored my faith in Dynaflow.

  15. We have recently inherited a 53 Roadmaster. I think it is an early model serial #26854377 because the 322 nailhead has a weighted pully instead of a rubber loaded harmonic balancer. The Dynaflow is now in the transmission shop and we are finding puzzles. According to the shop manuals the 53 should be the new twin turbine with only 1 pump and one stator. This trans has the words "twin turbine" cast into the bellhousing. But inside it has 2 pumps and 2 stators. Do we have a transitional factory job or a trans shop hybrid? Was the change made to save money (fewer parts) or to improve performance? Will our new Roady rise and fly?

  16. Hi can any body help me
    I have a 1958 Buick Road Master fitted with a Dynaflow Flight Pitch
    gear box can any one tell me where i can get spares for the gear box
    and will ship them to England

  17. Just wanted to say this is a great article. I started out looking to find the difference between the hydra-matic dual range and the strato-flight and wound up learning a lot more.

  18. The article refers to the Hydramatic’s jerkiness. Actually, many Hydramatics were so smooth that you could not even feel the shift; you could just hear the drop in engine speed. I remember in 1959 riding in a 1949 Lincoln with Hydramatic; it accelerated quickly and so smoothly that I could not feel the shifts. The same was true with some other cars with Hydramatic in which I rode, including a 1950 Pontiac, and those were all before GM introduced the Hydramatic with the second (controlled) fluid clutch in 1956. On the other hand, I rode in a 1953 Cadillac with had very firm shifts.

    The downshift resulting from flooring the accelerator were another matter; they were always accompanied by a mechanical clunk.

    1. The issue with the original Hydra-Matic was that because its shifts were mechanically complex (particularly between second and third, which was the most complicated sequence), its smoothness depended a great deal on how well the bands were adjusted, the condition of the transmission fluid, and other maintenance- and condition-related factors. If everything was perfectly adjusted, it would be quite acceptably smooth (particularly by the fifties, by which time GM had made a lot of minor refinements). If not, it would throw off the shift timing just enough to make the shift jerky, albeit not necessarily enough to really impair the transmission’s function. I suspect a lot of owners who complained to their dealers or mechanics were told, "Ehh, they all do that."

      Even some of the engineers who originally designed the Hydra-Matic thought it was too complicated for its own good, which is why they subsequently got into the torque converter automatics, which didn’t shift at all. The original Dynaflow was very much the antithesis of the Hydra-Matic in a lot of these respects.

    2. My experience with Hydromatic cars was that they were fairly smooth in shifting. PowerGlide cars had a very pronounced jerk when shifting. When my city purchased GM buses in the sixties, the Hydromatic was very rough when shifting with an easily heard lowering in engine sound as speed increased.

      1. The difficulty with making blanket statements in this area is that each of these transmissions was around for a long time in several quite distinct versions, not all of which felt or acted the same.

        Early Powerglide cars did not shift at all in normal driving — like the Buick Dynaflow, the original Powerglide took off on the converter alone in drive. (Powerglide was revised in 1953 to start in first and shift automatically to second.) So, early Powerglides (or Dynaflow) were smoother than even a well-adjusted early Hydra-Matic, albeit not especially quick or efficient. After that, there were early (iron-case) and later (aluminum-case) Powerglide transmissions, tuned in different ways for different engines.

        Similarly, the early (1940 to 1955) and late (1956-1964 dual-coupling) Hydra-Matics were significantly different mechanically — albeit still related — and felt quite different.

        So, while it may sound pedantic, it’s important to qualify statements like, "X was smoother/rougher than Y."

  19. I’ve heard a story about the Hydra-Matic, as follows:

    Supposedly Rolls-Royce acquired a Hydra-Matic for evaluation. They liked it but thought one particular part had too rough a finish. When they fabricated a smoother-finished version of the part and incorporated it into the reassembled Hydra-Matic, the transmission didn’t work. True, or urban legend?

    1. I’ve heard that story in regard to the Turbo Hydramatic (not the original), which Rolls-Royce also built. The way I’ve heard it is more that they tightened up the tolerances, which didn’t necessarily work out well. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s not implausible. There’s an analogy to be made with pistols, where getting everything "tuned" to tight tolerances improves accuracy, but makes the action less tolerant of dirt or debris. (This is why police and military sidearms are not built like target pistols.)

      1. I am reasonably certain that while Rolls Royce licensed & built in England the original HydraMatic, it imported the Turbo HydraMatic 400 from GM in the states.

        1. You’re correct; my previous comment was based on a point I was only half-remembering. They did import them, but asked for higher-than-standard tolerances.

  20. Thank you for this very complete summary. I have been curious about these transmissions for quite some time, and this is quite helpful. Your research is impressive, as is the writing.

  21. The main problem with reliability of the Slim Jim was the weakness of the front oil pump cover; they cracked. An improved pump with webbing on the cover was designed to replace failed units. RHM 375 Model 10’s made at Willow Run ceased in 1962. The THM 350 signalled the beginning of a long slide toward mediocrity by GM.

    1. I have to wonder if the Roto Hydra-Matic’s various weaknesses, including the propensity for leaks and the issue you describe, were exacerbated by the very high operating pressures. As mentioned, the RHM’s operating pressures were substantially higher than the earlier dual-coupling HM’s, which is a lot of added stress to put on what was still fundamentally an adaptation of the earlier transmission.

      I’m not sure how your last statement follows. The THM350, which didn’t arrive until five years or so after the RHM expired, was effectively a replacement for the Powerglide and Super Turbine two-speed automatics, and in that sense were an improvement in most respects. (There have been some harsh criticisms of the later TH200, but that’s a different story.) Since most rivals had long since offered three-speed automatics for most engines, the TH350 was also arguably overdue. It wasn’t quite as heavy-duty as the TH400, but it wasn’t designed to be, trading off some torque capacity for lighter internals and lower power consumption.

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