Automotive History: 1959-1963 Two-Speed Ford-O-Matic – Ford Builds a Powerglide

There’s a very common tendency to assume that Chevys equipped with the two-speed Powerglide were uncompetitive because the main competition all had three-speed automatics. Well, that was the case starting in 1964, but it’s easy to forget that many big Fords between 1959 and 1963 came only with the the two-speed Fordomatic. And that prior to 1959, the previous-generation Fordomatic only used two gears unless one manually employed Low, which was not recommended for longevity.

Yes, the “new” Fordomatic was of course also used on the lighter Falcon, Fairlane and their Mercury counterparts. But the Fordomatic was the only automatic available on the big Fords with sixes during these years as well as  the base V8 in 1959, and was the base automatic for all V8s from ’60-’63, except the top power option. A lot of big Ford sedans soldiered along with the Fordomatic during these years, as many buyers preferred not to spend the extra money on the three-speed Cruiseomatic.

Let’s clarify a key point here: there were two distinct and different automatics called “Fordomatic”. The original arrived in 1951, and was a Borg-Warner design. But it was not the automatic developed by B/W’s Detroit Gear (“DG”) division, which was developed for Studebaker (“Automatic Drive”) and was more sophisticated, with a lock-up top gear for better cruising efficiency. We covered that box here.

Studebaker wouldn’t share the rights to the DG with Ford, who was desperate for an automatic, as Chevy had their Powerglide since 1950. So Ford licensed another design by the Warner Gear Division of B/W. This unit, dubbed the Ford-O-Matic, was a simpler and cheaper unit, and was in essence the prototype of all future/eventual US automatics, by using a torque converter with a threes peed Ravigneaux planetary gearset. But it started in second gear, unless the shifter was dropped into Low, which was not recommended for regular use.

At some point after 1951, a full throttle start would also drop the transmission into Low from 2nd, but that feature is clearly absent in this description here. As is dropping it into Low for faster getaway.

Towards the end of the original Fordomatic’s life, its three-speed capability was marketed more as in this description from the 1957 brochure. But it was still a two speed for the most part.

The original Fordomatic was developed into the MX/FX automatics for 1958, the MX for the larger V8 cars and the FX for the smaller V8s. These were dubbed “Cruiseomatic”, and eventually were developed into the FMX, the XT-LOD, and overdrive unit first built in 1962, but not produced until 1979, and later called FIOD and then AOD. I’m not going to go into detail into these, but let’s just say that the 1951 Fordomatic begat a long line of offspring. And was essentially the template for Chrysler’s Torqueflite (1958) and eventually GM’s THM400/350, starting in 1964.

But for 1959, Ford introduced an essentially all-new smaller, lighter, simpler and cheaper two-speed Fordomatic, undoubtedly in advance of the 1960 Falcon and Comet. Note that the new two-speed Fordomatic was the only automatic available with the six and the base 292 V8 on the ’59 full-size cars. Also note that Chrysler’s two-speed Powerflite was also available on the large cars through 1961 (but not with the six starting in 1960).

The new Fordomatic had an aluminum case, and a simpler two-speed planetary gearset. Low (starting) gear had a 1.75:1 ratio, and the torque converter had a maximum stall ratio of 2.6, meaning that the maximum effective starting gear ratio was 4.55:1. That was almost as good as the Powerglide’s 4.73:1 max gear ratio at start. Note that both of these are well below the typical manual first gear ratios of the times.

The new Cruisomatic had a 2.4:1 Low gear ratio and a 2.1;1 torque converter ratio, resulting in a maximum starting gear ratio of 5.04, a bit better than the new Fordomatic. Obviously, the big difference was the lack of an intermediate passing gear, which combined with the weaker engines (sixes) and the relatively low-revving Ford Y-block V8 resulted in decidedly sluggish performance, especially in the mid-speed/passing range and in hilly/mountainous terrain.

I say this with direct experience, as my father’s 1962 Fairlane, although equipped with a V8, was anything but brisk. Its small 221 CID V8 was rated at all of 145 gross hp, in other words the same as a Chevy 230 six. teamed with the two-speed Fordomatic, performance was leisurely. My sister would pick me and a friend up on Tuesdays to take us to orchestra, and I’d goad her to floor it. Which she would do, to very little effect. This is a V8?

I’m not going to go into technical details about these transmissions, but as far as I know they were fairly bulletproof. The six cylinder version was apparently air-cooled, and the V8 version was water-cooled.

In 1964, the three-speed C4 automatic went into production to replace and supplant the Fordomatic. It was also a light-weight unit designed to be used with sixes and small-block V8s, although a few were used behind the 351M and even the 390FE.

The Fordomatic was still the only automatic available on the 1964 Falcon. The C4 Cruiseomatic was available in addition to the Fordomatic on the 1964 Fairlane. And wisely, it was the only automatic available on the new 1965 Mustang, introduced in April of 1964.

The two-speed Fordomatic had a fairly short life, and Ford made the right call to replace it with the light three-speed C4. Chevrolet offered the excellent three-speed THM-400 starting in mid-year 1965, but only with the large-block 396. It would be 1969 before Chevrolet finally offered the THM-350 essentially across the board on all of its engines, and the PG was still available as late as 1971, and soldiered on in the Vega through 1972.