Automotive History: The Mysterious Disappearance of the Chrysler Pushbutton Automatic – A Government Conspiracy?

The sudden disappearance of the pushbutton transmission on Chrysler Corporation vehicles at the end of the 1964 model year has resulted in a lot of speculation over the years.  Was it simple market pressure?  Or were they outlawed by the government?  That question has been batted about here on CC for several years now.  But as we are in a debunking of old wives’ tales kind of mood lately, the time has come to tackle this one.

Before 1964, the regulation of equipment on private cars and trucks was a patchwork of state laws with a little federal law thrown in for some spice.  But in the years following the creation of interstate highways, accidents were happening at higher speeds and were claiming more lives.  The pressure to “do something” was growing.

On August 30, 1964, Congress passed Public Law 88-514, entitled “AN ACT to require passenger-carrying motor vehicles purchased for use by the Federal Government to meet certain passenger safety standards.”  That act stated that the Government could not buy a vehicle for its own use that did not comply with reasonable passenger safety devices “as the Administrator of General Services shall require.”

The law’s following section gave the Administrator of General Services one year to publish a set of standards.  The entire statute is a short one and can be read in full right here:  STATUTE-78-Pg696

On January 26, 1965 the GSA’s standards appeared in the Federal Register at pages 797-801.  Among them was (on page 800) Standard no. 515/11, entitled “Standard Gear Quadrant (PRNDL) For Automotive Vehicles Equipped With Automatic Transmissions.”  The rule stated:

“The order of selection of the gear quadrant shall be park, reverse, neutral, forward drive, and low forward drive (P R N D L). Neutral shall be positioned between reverse and forward drive. In no case shall reverse be positioned adjacent to a forward drive. Reverse, forward drive and low forward drive may be modified to permit various gear ratios in these positions at the option of the manufacturer. Lowest forward gear selected position shall provide a braking effect for downhill driving and the lowest selected gear shall be locked in at 25 miles per hour and under.”

The rule concluded by stating that it was to take effect one year and ninety days after publication (or April 26, 1966).  The Federal Register for that date can be perused here.   FedRegJan1965

The shift quadrant of the very last Studebaker produced.


And there we are.  After April of 1966 the government could not purchase a new car or light truck with the traditional General Motors Hydra Matic quadrant (PNDLR or PNDSLR), but it said nothing about requiring that the acceptable gear order be operated by a lever.  GM, of course, probably saw the handwriting on the wall and eliminated the last of the old PNDSLR cars after the 1964 model year.  Studebaker, being a purely Canadian manufacturer as of mid 1964 did not care what the U.S. Government would or would not buy, and thus retained its traditional PNDLR quadrant to the bitter end in 1966.

1964 Imperial pushbuttons


Now, back to the Chrysler pushbuttons.  This rule is a little ambiguous as to whether it would have affected the government’s purchase of Chrysler vehicles.  All then-current pushbutton arrangements in Chrysler products placed the Neutral button between those for Reverse and Drive, so on that score the Chrysler buttons were fine.  Chrysler did not, however, make use of a “Park” button.  Park was engaged by a lever adjacent to the buttons.  So, did the rule which referred to “Park” as being one of a continuous series of choices on the “quadrant” (a term that went undefined) exclude the separate Park lever of the Chrysler system?  Or would a separate Park lever have complied with the (not completely clear) rule?  This, folks, is how lawyers make their money.

But . . . did these Federal actions have any impact on Chrysler’s decision to ditch the buttons?  As of the August 30th enactment date of the 1964 statute the 1965 model production was surely getting underway.  And by the time the actual regulations were published in January of 1965, the pushbutton-free lineup from Chrysler was pretty much half way through its first year of production.

Had these rules been enacted a year or two earlier, Chrysler would have undoubtedly faced with a dilemma.  The company could have kept the buttons and waited to see if their cars and trucks made the lists of authorized purchases.  If they did not, Chrysler surely could have filed suit for a judicial determination, one that I suspect they might have won . . . after years of lost governmental sales.  But given the August, 1964-January, 1965 timeline, it is hard to see how these GSA rules could have had any impact at all.

Although it is possible that the government had given some clear advance signals on where it was headed on the shift quadrant issue, it is hard to see how even early informal intelligence on the subject could have come about in time for the engineering and manufacturing issues that the changeover from buttons to levers would have involved.  It was in all likelihood impossible that the order for the change came after early 1963 at the very latest.  Which, coincidentally, was a little over a year after Lynn Townsend got behind Chrysler’s steering wheel.

It has been well documented that the buttons were very popular with Mopar buyers and not popular with others.  Lynn Townsend saw them as a dated impediment to sales growth and wanted them gone.  I had long wondered whether there a reason for the button-to-column-lever transition being a hard change for all 1965 models, regardless where they were in their life cycle?  I have always wondered why Chrysler didn’t make a slower transition, with the buttons staying on each line until it was redesigned.  Why, for example, would it make sense to design a new steering column for the low-volume Imperial?  Perhaps because Lynn Townsend saw no upside for the sales growth he sought with pushbuttons still on the dash.  I had always wondered if the impending changes in the legal landscape might have stoked the desire to avoid the possibility of getting entangled in the regulatory web that was starting to peek over the horizon.  But this research leaves no doubt that the discontinuation of Chrysler’s storied pushbutton transmissions was purely a business decision.

1964 (top with pushbuttons) and 1965 (bottom with lever) Imperial instrument panels


Another data point worth considering is that Chrysler made substantial revisions to the Torqueflite automatic for the 1966 model run.  Among the changes was the replacement of an expensive two cable shifting mechanism and external parking pawl with a single shift rod and internal parking pawl.  These changes would not have been very compatible with the older pushbutton design and were surely in their design and engineering phase no later than 1964.  The timing of these changes would seem to indicate changes that were part of a larger product plan rather than a quick hack job made to accommodate impending regulations.

In the time following the 1964 law, certain people active in automotive safety began to ask why government employees deserved safer cars than Mr. & Mrs. Public could buy.  This, coupled with a groundswell of public opinion following the publication of Unsafe At Any Speed by Ralph Nader, led to passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which began the federal regulatory apparatus which continues in effect today (at 49 CFR 571.102) .  Which, by the way, did not mention pushbuttons or mandate a lever.  In fact the newer rule eliminated the ambiguity of the GSA rule by dropping any reference to “Park” as an assumed part of the shifting order.  But the buttons were long gone by the time the newer rules went into effect, so the point was a moot one.

So – – – Final Answer:  The Federal Government Did Not Outlaw Chrysler’s Pushbutton Automatic Transmissions.  Instead, the decision was driven purely by the business judgment of a new management team which was running as far away from The Forward Look as it could.  Had Chrysler wanted to keep the buttons, there might have been legal issues down the road, but only after the spring of 1966.  However, the decision to switch to a column shift lever clearly came long before the feds got involved in automotive gear selector mechanisms.  So now we know.

Special thanks to Daniel Stern, who provided invaluable input into this analysis.