(first posted 6/19/2013) I have long been fascinated with the many stops and starts that eventually led to the automatic transmission as we know it today. We are likely all familiar with the GM Hydra-Matic Drive of 1940, the first fully automatic transmission. Its major competitor for shiftless driving was Chrysler’s Fluid Drive, and the many variations of semi-automatic transmission that were attached to that fluid coupling. Not so well known is that the Ford Motor Company launched its own ill-fated semi-automatic transmission: Liquamatic Drive. This being Lincoln Week here at CC, now would seem like the time to take a look.
Henry Ford was, of course, a mechanical genius – in a self-taught, farmboy sort of way. However, his opinionated way was not conducive to a modern engineering department, as had taken shape to one degree or another at every other major automaker. Henry Ford’s way was Henry Ford’s way, with some skilled mechanics to take Henry’s ideas and fashion them into metal prototypes and further refinement under Henry Ford’s watchful eye. But by the late 1930s, Henry was getting on in years and his products were becoming a bit – ahem – conservative.
Still, it must have been clear that some sort of self-shifting mechanism was going to be part of the price of admission for medium and upper priced cars in the 1940s. And, with great fanfare, Liquamatic Drive was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. America with the 1942 Lincolns and Mercuries.
The Liquamatic was a fairly complicated unit that involved a conventional clutch, a fluid coupling, a three speed transmission and on Lincolns, an overdrive. In normal operation, the unit was to start in second gear, then shift into third at about 35 mph. The 2-3 shift was by an electrically controlled vacuum cylinder, while the shift into overdrive was by vacuum. Of course, the unit could be controlled manually through all gears as well. One feature of the design seemed to be a counter-rotating tailshaft that kept both second and third gears rotating at the same speed.
The bottom line was a manual transmission that was made to shift automatically back and forth between constantly-synchronized second and third gears. A beautiful symphony of mechanical, hydraulic, electrical and vacuum systems to make life easier for the discerning motorist. What could possibly go wrong?
Alas, the new Liquamatic Drive was an utter failure, although the reasons are not completely clear today. The few units that made it into service were almost immediately replaced by Ford with standard manual transmissions, virtually all within the first few thousand miles. The only identification of Liquamatic cars was a dash logo that was replaced as well. Was it a defective design? A design that was too complex for reliable service in the field? Or did Henry Ford step in and pull the plug on the design before it had a chance to get the bugs sorted out? Nobody seems to know, as there were few built and none seems to have survived, at least not installed in a car. Would this make Ford an early pioneer of the automotive recall?
Lincoln would be limited to a 3 speed manual through the 1948 models, and would finally join the ranks of the self-shifting when they began purchasing HydraMatics from GM for the new ’49s. Lincoln would not have a proprietary automatic until the 1955 TurboDrive. But now you know – pre-war Ford engineering, such as it was, at least gave self shifting a good try.