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Bryan
Hagerty Employee

A brief history of missing clutch pedals and almost-automatics

Since the dawn of the automobile, automakers have sought to make driving easier and more approachable. Oftentimes that has meant engineering ways around our beloved clutch pedal and gear lever. Early motorized vehicles were a jumble of confusing sliders, levers, buttons, and dials that would confuse any modern driver. The quest to simplify these controls took several twists and turns, achieving with varying degrees of success.

 

Read the full article on Hagerty.com:

https://www.hagerty.com/media/automotive-history/a-brief-history-of-missing-clutch-pedals-and-almost...

 

32 REPLIES 32
Flashman
Instructor

I learned to drive in a Chrysler with Fluid Drive.  The best thing about it was you didn't have to coordinate the throttle when starting from a stop; just pop the clutch and go.

Sutton12
Pit Crew

Let's not forget VW's automatic shift stick that was available on the VW beetle and Karmann Ghia.
deckerbilt
Intermediate Driver

That was my first thought and even more so as the Saab version was brought up.
audiobycarmine
Advanced Driver

A friend of mine had one and he'd LIKE to forget it.
Studenorton
Advanced Driver

Both Buick and Mercedes offered the "Vacuumatic" clutch arrangement, in which the clutch was (dis)engaged by a vacuum servo whenever the shift lever was touched. It was...touchy.
Morrisgould51
New Driver

You need to recheck your history. Oldsmobile offered the 4 speed hydromatic transmission in 1939, not 1948 . Just about every car manufacturer used this transmission ,including Sherman tanks and Rolls Royce
sego
Intermediate Driver

Hopefully the writer made a typo and he's not ignorant or a revisionist.
BillHanlon
Intermediate Driver

... and Rolls kept manufacturing the Hydra-Matic under license until 1966.
golfnut53083
Intermediate Driver

I had a '39 Chevrolet Master Deluxe with a vacuum assisted clutch supposedly making shifting easier. Had a lot of fun repairing the vacuum leaks!!
MrKnowItAll
Detailer

The original Semi-Automatic, Borg-Warner Overdrive not even got an honorable mention.
How about Hudson Super-Matic Drive?
VW Automatic Stick Shift?
MrKnowItAll
Detailer

Needed to read my copy before posting... appalling grammar!
JSievers
Detailer

Numerous grammatical and factual errors, but an interesting overview. Mercedes had an automated clutch with a fluid coupling and manual transmission in the 1950s (Hydrak). Porsche did the same thing with a torque converter the 1960s and 1970s (Sportomatic). Even Ferrari got into the act with the Ferrari Valeo model, which had an autmated clutch similar to the Saab Sensonic system. Of course the Ferrari F1 automated manual transmission and the (much unloved) BMW automated manual gearbox (AMG) were widely used in those marques for many years until relatively recently. A few current Hyundai/Kia models are available with an automated clutch, but not in the U.S. market.
keeton
New Driver

This brought back memories. My grandfather had a 1948 Chrysler with the 4-speed Prestomatic Fluid Drive which soldiered on into the 60's. The transmission was fine when the rest of the car collapsed.
Not mentioned was the Rambler E-Stick. This was offered in the early 60's and our family had a 62 Rambler American with this. It was a regular three speed manual but with a friction clutch (no fluid coupling) that was actuated by engine oil pressure. A switch in the column gearshift would release the clutch when the lever was moved away from an engaged position. The clutch wore out twice in the time our family owned it and it was difficult to find a shop that would work on it.
I had a chance to drive the Saab Sensonic via a friend who worked at Saab corporate. He was amazed at how easily I adapted to the semi-automatic. I told him of my days of underage driving in that old Rambler and the Sensonic was old news.
One thing all of the later semi-automatics (VW's AutomaticStickShift, Porsche Sportomatic, Fiat Idromatic, Saab Sensonic, Chevy's Torque Drive, the E-Stick etc.) had in common is that they were universally unpopular in the marketplace. If you wanted to shift, get a manual, if you wanted an automatic, just get one and be done with it.
ree
Pit Crew

what about the american motors "e-stick"?

had a 61 rambler american with this setup with a 3 on the tree. worked just the reverse of standard clutch, that is the clutch remained disengaged normally. clutch engagement was off engine oil pressure, that is as rpm increased so did the oil pressure, this would cause engagement of the clutch by a slave cylinder. shifts were accomplished by some sort of sensor on the shifter, which would, when motion was detected, would cause bleed-off of engine oil pressure to the slave cylinder, which would release engagement & allow shifts.

it worked ... sort of.

was a interesting, but not very reliable system. failure was excessive clutch wear. as i recall had for about a year and replaced the clutch at least twice, probably no more than 10k total miles. luckily was easy to change & could do on floor in an evening.

sadly, car was totalled due to huge snow in chicago in 1967, while parked, snowplow pretty much ripped & crushed one entire side of car.

turbobill
Intermediate Driver

Cadillac actually developed the Hydra Matic in the early to mid 1930's. One of the engineers on that team was none other than Ed Cole. Oldsmobile was selected to test it in the mid 30's and the Hydra Matic was introduced in 1939 for the '40 Olds models. It also served faithfully during WWII in tanks.

Later on, deuce and a half's use it and a 8 speed version with a second splitter gear was used in large trucks until the first Allisons (MTseries) in 1956. It also soldiered on as an option in medium trucks/buses into the early 60's. I rode three school buses with the hydra matic, a '57, '60 and '62, all GMC's.

While I like the engineering of the modern dual clutch automatics, I was to scared to gamble on one just yet. Just bought a Golf Sportwagen with the 6 speed stick. (I prefer manuals anyway!)
Eric
Hagerty Employee

story amended to reflect the '39 intro. Thanks for the fix!
Zephyr
Advanced Driver

When VW developed an automatic for the Beetle there was a rash of accidents in which the driver claimed that the brake pedal locked up and wouldn't move, but after the accident the brakes were found to be working normally. The problem turned out to be that VW mechanics were use to adjusting the height of the brake pedal by matching it to the height of the clutch pedal. Without a clutch pedal for reference the brake pedal would sometimes end up being much higher than it should be. Ergonomic engineers finally figured out that during an emergency stop drivers would stab their foot straight at the pedal rather that the usual more circular motion. If the pedal was too high the driver's foot would end up on the bottom edge of the pedal and actually pushing the pedal up instead of down. Since the pedal wouldn't move up the driver would get the impression that the pedal was frozen.
shoulderboards
Intermediate Driver

Many thousands of GM-built city transit buses were built using a 2-speed heavy duty version of the Hydramatic. All throughout the 1950’s the so-called “Old Look” GM bus carried millions of passengers with GM diesel power transmitted by some 4-speed manual transmissions, but mostly Hydramatics.
quaybon1
Pit Crew

VW introduced automatic stick shift in August 1968 for the 69 model year until 1976. It was basically a 3-speed manual without a clutch. It was available on all Beetle models.
Rider79
Instructor

I thought that was available for the 1968 model year...? I have a test of one in a 1968 Road and Track magazine; the package also included the new semi-trailing-arm rear suspension. Maybe something held it up from actual sales to customers?
61Rampy
Detailer

Sorry, but a rather disappointing article. As several people noted, totally wrong year for Hydramatic. Lots of vehicles not mentioned. Even the Model T was semi-automatic (no shift lever). No mention of probably the most famous use of Wilson pre-selector on the 36-37 Cord. No mention of Chevy's Torque-Drive (a Powerglide with manual valve body). One very early promoter of shiftless driving was the Owen Magnetic (a precursor to todays Hybrids). I realize that it is hard to mention every attempt at shiftless or clutchless driving, but I feel that several popular makes were overlooked- VW, Porsche, Goggomobil). OK, so the Goggo wasn't exactly popular. Still, I was expecting more from a Hagerty article.
Rider79
Instructor

I would not really call the Model T tranny "semi-automatic". True, there was no shift lever; but, the "low pedal" was really analogous to both the shift lever, and the clutch, on a conventional tranny. And, there was nothing automatic, semi- or fully-, about it.
cultleader
Pit Crew

Idk how you could even start an article on no-clutch transmissions without first mentioning the most common and famous one, the Model T. Makes me wonder if the author knows anything about a Model T.
farna
Detailer

I've done a little research on "semi automatic" and clutchless manual transmissions from the 50s. EVERYONE had one, even GM -- though they had the Hydramatic, it was still a rather expensive option into the 50s. AMC was the last US manufacturer to use an "automatic clutch" system. They called it "E-Stick" (according to SAE paper 620106 the "E" is for "ease, efficiency and economical operation"). It used engine oil pressure to PUSH on the clutch fork -- the clutch acted in reverse (push to engage clutch). The more engine rpm the more oil pressure, and the harder the servo pushed the clutch fork, much like the pressure adjusting linkage (TV cable or other) for an automatic. A series of vacuum and electric switches on the shifter and engine controlled when the clutch was fully disengaged. The main problem with it was that the clutch slipped a good bit, and if you did a lot of in-town driving you'd go through a clutch disc in six months or so. Some in-town delivery companies (or companies like drug stores who used small cars for deliveries) supposedly purchased them to save a bit on the auto trans cost (and clutches, ironically!) and had that experience. It only lasted from 62-63, and was only used in the Rambler American (smallest and least expensive car, and most economical). It wouldn't have fared so well in the heavier cars. I've only owned one, that was used in a rural area (central Idaho). It was still intact and somewhat working when I got it, but changed the trans out to a standard manual. Clutch slipped atrociously, but not due to a worn disc. The engine had just over 90K on it and the oil pressure was a bit low, though no more than you'd expect in a well worn flat-head six of that era. Not enough oil pressure to firmly hold the clutch except cruising on a level. Hit much of a hill or accelerate and you could feel it slipping.
BenjaminHunting
Pit Crew

Hi - author of this piece here. The article wasn't intended as an encyclopedic listing of any and all clutchless transmission designs, but an introduction to the concept that highlighted some of the more interesting gearboxes that made it to market. Thanks for all of the feedback, and for suggesting additional transmissions from manufacturers that weren't mentioned.
02-orignal-ownr
Detailer

Renault had a couple of interesting, and I think unique semi-automatics/automatically-shifted stick shifts.
In the 1950s they had the Ferlec clutch. It replaced the flywheel and was full of powdered iron. the powder was energized by electromagnets embedded in the housing and powered via contacts that rode on brass rings on the housing's exterior. A microswitch in the shift lever's base de-energized the electromagnets, thus decoupling the engine from the gearbox and allowing the driver to shift. Releasing the lever energized the electromagnets and locked up engine and gearbox. You had to learn not to leave your hand on the shift lever unless you were shifting.

In 1963 Renault came up with an even slicker mechanism: a three-speed manual transmission shifted electrically and automatically. It too used a powdered-iron/electromagnet "clutch" that would de-energize when the car's speed fell below 1-2 mph. With the "D" pushbutton selected, from rest, when the driver stepped on the gas, in sequence, a solenoid closed a flap in the intake manifold, cutting off gas/air flow to the engine. Then the power to the clutch's electromagnets was cut, decoupling engine from tranny. Next, a solenoid selected first gear in the manual gearbox. Finally the clutch was re-energized, the manifold flap opened and off you went. This all happened in about 3/4 of a second. The system went through the same routine in the 2-3 shift. Flooring the accelerator would kick down a gear if the engine revs would allow, and it could be shifted manually by pressing the appropriate "L", "2" or "D" buttons on the dash. This was all done electrically (no electronics) using the speedometer cable as the trigger to determine speeds. Extraordinarily clever, but with some fragile components: the clutch contact brushes were too small and exposed to weather, and the shift solenoid allowed tranny oil to leak into it, gumming up the works. It actually got better gas mileage than a conventional manual, but was weird to drive, as it shifted just like a manual, but all by itself.
beeser
Intermediate Driver

Mention should also be made of Citroen's "Citromatic". Introduced on the DS (1955-1975), it was powered by the same pressurized oil system that ran the suspension, brakes and steering rack. Touching the shift lever mounted horizontally above the steering wheel would cause the clutch to disengage. The lever was then moved to the desired gear while hydraulics did the actual gear shifting, and when the lever was released, the clutch would re-engage once throttle was applied.

 

I just recently sold my '52 Chrysler Imperial "Newport" hardtop. As Chrysler's first fully automatic transmission ("PowerFlite") was still two model years away, it, of course, had the semi-automatic. By this point, "Fluid-Drive" had become "Torque-Drive" as the fluid coupling was replaced by a torque convertor. Torque multiplication, plus V-8 hemi power ("Chrysler FirePower") meant the big beast had some real get-up-and-go!

 

 

 

 

cactus
Pit Crew

The Volkswagen Beetle and Karman Ghia "automatic stick shift" had a clutch. The shifter had two brass electrical contacts which would touch when the driver moved the shifter. This sent an electrical signal back to a large vacuum diaphragm which would pull the clutch level, allowing the desired gear to be selected. Those brass contacts would get dirty and have to be filed and adjusted, much like ignition contact points.
jagplates
Pit Crew

Hudson offered the Electric Hand in the late 1930s. As I recall, it was a system of solenoids and vacuum diaphragms that physically moved the shifter lever for you.
cactus
Pit Crew

After posting about the 1968 Beetle and Karman Ghia, I noticed the sidebar article announcing the new Hyundai system, which works in a similar manner. The Hyundai will have an electrical sensor in the shifter which commands a hydraulic motor to engage a slave cylinder to apply the clutch through hydraulic pressure...a slight variation of the nothing new under the sun concept. And that Electric Hand from the Hudson is another...so interesting to see all these old ideas modified and repurposed over the years.

Wsj
New Driver

Hey! I enjoyed your article. Thanks for writing it.
Rider79
Instructor

Interesting article, and good information. I also thought of the Fiat Idromatic.