1958 Edsel Steering wheel with push-button auto selectors.

The choice is automatic

These days car makers like to boast about how many gears their automatics have.

Like at an auction, the number keeps climbing. Six, seven and eight gears are now commonplace.

But back in the day, when an automatic was considered an expensive luxury option, it was very different.

General Motors’ HydraMatic was the world’s first mass-produced auto shifter.

It debuted in the 1940 Oldsmobiles.

GM considered it such an innovation they produced a 25-page explanatory hand book, with a forward by Chairman, Alfred P Sloan — to explain the virtues of this wonderous new technology.

After the end of the Second World War, American cars makers got serious about automatic transmissions.

Such was GM’s wealth and technical prowess they allowed Chevrolet and Buick to develop their own automatics — in addition to the HydraMatic.

Buick’s called theirs the DynaFlow.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet wanted a small, cheap and reliable automatic, so they ripped a gear out of the HydraMatic and called it the PowerGlide.

Ford and Chrysler were certainly not going to be left behind in this race.

Their innovation was chrome encrusted push-button selectors rather than a lever sticking out of the steering column.

Chrysler’s dash-mounted buttons went across their entire range, while Ford restricted theirs to Mercury and Edsel, with the Edsel having them located in the centre of the steering column.

American car makers worked very hard to entice buyers to purchase one of these new-fangled transmissions.

Their marketing gurus came up with space-age names that demanded buyer attention and offered a rationale for spending the extra dollars.

The number of speeds was of no concern.

And what wonderful names they invented!

There was Powerglide, TorqueFlite, Flash-O-Matic, Ultramatic, JetAway, Cruise-O–Matic, Merc-O-Matic, HydraMatic, DynaFlow, Flight-O-Matic, Torque Command, StratoFlight, FlightPitch, Turbo Glide, Ford-O-Matic and PowerFlite.

In just one word, car buyers were promised a whole new driving (almost flying) experience and a world of easy motoring.

And what name do we think best sums up all of those early consumer aspirations?

Chrysler’s TorqueFlight is a contender, sounding so strong and forceful.

Then there is Flash-O-Matic from American Motors, with its Buck Rogers imagery.

But the one we like is Oldsmobile’s JetAway.

Who could resist a car with a transmission that promised jet-like speed from the traffic lights?

David Burrell is the editor of


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