GM’s original Hydra-Matic transmission was one of the most important innovations in the history of the automobile. It wasn’t the first automatic transmission, but it was the first one that really worked and its resounding commercial success paved the way for every subsequent auto-shifter. This week, we take a look at the origins of the Hydra-Matic and its originator, Earl Thompson, who also developed the first Synchro-Mesh gearbox back in the 1920s.
In 2010, Ferrari raised the hackles of automotive purists with the announcement that it would shortly phase out its conventional manual transmissions in favor of F1-style sequential gearboxes. The announcement gave new fuel to an old debate: whether a conventional manual transmission and separate clutch pedal are fundamentally obsolete.
Outside of a small contingent of enthusiasts and professional drivers, the automotive world has long regarded the manual gearbox as at best a necessary evil. The multi-speed transmission, which dates back to the 1890s, evolved to compensate for the limitations of early engines, which had modest power and narrow rev bands. Getting a heavy car moving from rest required short (high numerical) gear ratios that would have the engine thrashing its guts out above about 15 mph (25 km/h), but a ratio optimized for brisk cruising — at say, 40 mph (65 km/h)– wouldn’t have the torque multiplication to deal with steep hills. One of the great attractions of early electric cars, despite their severely limited range, was that they seldom required any gear changes at all, since electric motors produce their maximum torque from 0 rpm. Had early automakers devised a more efficient means of storing electricity, the evolution of passenger-car powertrains might have been very different indeed.
Actually shifting an early manual transmission was seldom a pleasant experience. Even upshifts often required careful timing and patience to avoid grinding gears, while downshifts required double-clutching and rev-matching. Few people ever mastered those techniques, particularly since engine speed generally had to be judged by ear; tachometers were not common on mundane automobiles in those days. Then as now, there were a few who prided themselves on being adept with the gearbox, but they were definitely in the minority. Many drivers opted instead to shift to high as quickly as possible and then stay there for as long as possible.
This hatred of gear-shifting was not limited to the public. Henry Ford strongly preferred planetary (epicyclic) transmissions, so much so that he allegedly did not even learn to use a conventional gearbox until the development of the Model A in the mid-1920s. The Ford Model T’s pedal-operated planetary gearbox at least avoided clashing gears, although in practice it was scarcely less labor-intensive to use than a conventional gearbox.
Shortly after the Great War, a number of engineers, including Britain’s Walter Gordon Wilson and France’s Jean Cotal, developed more sophisticated “preselector” planetary transmissions. With a preselector gearbox, you chose a ratio with a selector lever and then engaged that gear by pushing the gear selector pedal, which took the place of the traditional clutch. Preselector gearboxes were easier to use than was a conventional manual transmission, but they were also less efficient, substantially costlier, and often too complex to be completely trustworthy. As a result, they never quite caught on for passenger car use, although Cotal and Wilson preselectors were used in a number of pricier British and French cars (and quite a few British buses) into the fifties.
The preselector transmissions were automatic in a sense, but, with a number of rare exceptions beyond the scope of this article, they did not relieve the driver of the need to select the appropriate gear ratio for any given circumstance. Although there had been experiments with autonomously self-shifting transmissions since at least 1904, the technical challenges remained substantial, and none of the various attempts had been reliable enough or practical enough to have much success. A conventional dual-shaft transmission, whatever its deficiencies, was at least a known quantity.
Among the many people searching for easier ways to change gears was a young hydraulics engineer from Oregon named Earl A. Thompson. In 1918, Thompson applied for a patent on a three-speed preselector transmission that used a drum-shaped synchronizer to match the speed of each newly selected gear with the speed of the transmission output shaft prior to engaging that gear. The idea was that the driver would select the desired gear and then press the clutch pedal, which would disengage the clutch, synchronize the speeds of the selected gear and the output shaft, complete the shift, and then reengage the clutch automatically.
Thompson continued to develop and refine this idea with the aid of his younger brother Kirk, filing a second patent disclosure in 1923 that included a new synchronizer mechanism using cone clutches to match the speeds of gears to be meshed. He also managed to build functional prototypes of his preselector transmission, which he and Kirk installed in a new Cadillac and several other cars.
Thompson and his brother made several trips to Detroit, where they attempted to sell their invention to the auto industry. Although Detroit’s usual reaction to outside inventions bordered on the categorically hostile, the Thompson brothers eventually managed to secure an audience with Cadillac chief engineer Ernest W. Seaholm and then entered preliminary discussions with GM’s New Devices Committee about the possibility of GM’s purchasing or licensing Thompson’s patents. Those negotiations went nowhere, but Seaholm, who had found Thompson’s design crude but interesting, convinced Cadillac general manager Herbert Rice that Cadillac itself should take an option on Thompson’s transmission design.
In 1924, Thompson moved to Michigan and went to work as a Cadillac consultant, developing his original ideas into production form. His preselector transmission concept was discarded — judging by the patent description, it added a lot of complexity to no obvious benefit — but Cadillac remained very interested in his gear synchronizer mechanism, which would work just as well in an otherwise conventional transmission. After exhaustive testing and more than two dozen prototypes, Cadillac finally put Thompson’s invention into production in August 1928. The new transmission, dubbed “Silent Synchro-Mesh,” debuted that fall on the 1929 Cadillac and LaSalle.
For cost reasons, the early Synchro-Mesh transmissions provided synchronization only between second and third gears, so shifting into first still generally required coming to a complete stop to avoid clashing. (The “all-synchro” transmission with synchronized low gear wouldn’t become universal until around 40 years later.) Still, the system was a considerable improvement on earlier “crashbox” transmissions and made driving a good deal less painful. Synchro-Mesh quickly spread to other GM divisions and was subsequently licensed or imitated by many other automakers in the U.S. and Europe. By the mid-thirties, most passenger cars used something like it. (After the war, Thompson’s gear synchronization design would eventually have a strong rival in Porsche’s patented balk ring system, but that’s another story.)
Thompson became a Cadillac employee roughly a year after the first Synchro-Mesh cars debuted. About a year after that, Seaholm and general manager Lawrence P. Fisher (who had succeeded Rice in May 1925) promoted Thompson to assistant chief engineer. He had taken much of the teeth-gnashing (both literal and figurative) out of shifting. The next step was to make the process automatic.