I ask that because I’m currently reading an interesting book in German (“Blick Aus Der Grube”) by a former Mercedes and Audi Development Engineer (Fritz Nauman) in which he says that he essentially invented the floor shift for automatic transmission by accident in about 1961 or so, when he was testing a number of different American automatic transmissions in an old W189 (“Adenauer 300”) Mercedes test mule fitted with the V8 engine for the upcoming W100 MB 600. Hooking up a column shifter for the Chrysler Torqueflite was proving to be very difficult, so he just cut a slot in the transmission tunnel and grafted on a crude shift lever, and sealed the gap with some strips of rubber. Mercedes top engineer Rudolf Ulenhaut drove it once and loved the directness of the floor shift, and that led to the 1963 “Pagoda” 230 SL having a floor shifter for its automatic.
Nauman says “it was to my knowledge the world’s first floor-mounted automatic transmission shifter” (my translation). Well, he was off by almost a full decade, at least. The very first 1953 Corvette only came with a Powerglide, and with a floor-mounted shifter. The question for you is this: was there another production car earlier than the Corvette? And what was the first non-sports car application for a floor shifted automatic?
Definitely the Corvette. Prior to that you only had thirteen years of automatics (three of them with no production due to the war), and all of them were column shift with a bench seat. The floor shift had essentially died out in passenger cars by 1939 (Graham may have held out, trying to remember the last Sharknose I’ve seen, which was twenty years ago) with everybody falling all over themselves to go to the “modern” column shifter, which allowed a third person in the front seat without getting embarrassing. Adding fluid drive or a full automatic cemented the column shifters status because you didn’t have to use the lever that often.
Also, I believe the Corvette was the first (postwar) car with bucket seats. Obviously, someone at GM was taking the MG-TD very seriously.
As to non-sports application of the floor mounted automatic, I suppose you’re talking the late 60’s and the Japanese. Anything prior to that with individual (bucket) front seats and a floor shift had some form of sporting pretentions. And quite a few of them hadn’t caught on to the program yet. Just see the ’58 Thunderbird or the ’62 Impala SS.
In fact, it wasn’t until you got the first Mustang that you had standard bucket seats and floor shift, no matter what the transmission. GM, throughout the 60’s made you pay extra for the console and floor shifter in the Camaro (and, I believe, Firebird).
Always hated the combination of column shift and bucket seats.
And just exactly which car was second?
The 1955 Thunderbird had an automatic floor shifter.
Right. I should have said “non-sporty car”, or four seater.
62 Avanti? The GT Hawk still offered a choice of column or floor shifter. But the Avanti had no column shifter. Sporty, but four seats.
Oldsmobile Starfire, 1961, standard bucket seats with a floor shifter and a tachometer.
Carmine: Bingo! Of course, the “Experimental Division”. And I’d forgotten: that the ’61 Starfire was only offered as a convertible. Bet those are mighty rare.
They are, an older friend of mine recalls that his dad had one brand new, he used to use it to tow his Formula Vee car to races on the weekends. Sometimes he would even race the Starfire on a road course, for fun! Crazy.
He tells me his dad complained that it was a gas hog, even with 1960’s gas prices, he’s recalls it being an 8-10 mpg car, no matter how gently you drove it.
’55-57 Thunderbirds was an odd combination that had a bench seat (based on memory of a high school friend’s mother’s ’57). Low like a bucket, useless in the middle due to the floor shifter, but one long seat cushion.
By the way, in crediting the Japanese, I’m defining “non-sporty” as a four door sedan with buckets and a floor shifter that had no bench seat variation. I seem to remember it starting there, although an earlier English car or two may have done it,.
No bench seat variation that we got – I think it was the ’68 Datsun 510 or maybe the earlier 41x series that established a practice of the column/bench model being RHD only, when they (Mr. K specifically?) noticed that Americans considered both buckets and floor shift sporty, and Datsuns too small to sit three in front.
Since Europeans were used to them in family cars, it was easier to make all LHD cars bucket/floor shift only, Toyota who had previously done bench/column in LHD followed suit and when they started doing automatics they did buckets/floor only without even an RHD column setup. One assembly instead of two or three, and an extra feature to put in the brochure.
nlpnt: Toyota did both benches and buckets in the Corona in the US. Here’s a bench from as late as 1978: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-asian/curbside-classic-1978-toyota-corona-baseball-apple-pie-and-a-corona/
The “real” first post war sports car was the Crosley Hotshot.
It also had standard bucket seats.
The 62 Grand Prix had standard buckets and standard floor shift with console.
Crosley didn’t have an automatic. The Grand Prix was sporting pretentions.
Sorry, misread your post.
I thought you said the Vette was the first post war sports car.
Realistically, the only cars with a floor shift automatic and console had some kind of sport injected into them. Wasn’t that the whole point of the buckets and console to begin with?
The thing about automatics was, right out the gate it was sold as a “luxury” upgrade, in Olds and Buick models – and as such, it wouldn’t be right to have something as primitive as a floor shift, would it?
The Corvette, for whatever reason, bucked that trend. I know little about its early history, but I’m guessing that, in that benighted age, there wasn’t available a four-speed to satisfy the engineers. Only four-speeds available at the time were probably for light- or medium-duty trucks.
With no time and no idea that volume would support it, they probably said the hell with it and ran it out with a PowerGlide.
I expect it took awhile for the next sporty automatic-shift setup to come down the road. Probably either the Falcon or Chevy II.
I think that was about right. I don’t think the Borg-Warner T-10 (of which I believe Chevrolet actually designed most or all) was available yet. The racers in ’56 had a four-speed, but it was an imported ZF unit, the cost of which would probably have made Chevrolet accountants balk.
For some reason, Chevy chose not to offer the ’53-’54 Corvette with the three-speed manual, which became the standard Corvette transmission beginning in 1954. The fur speed wasn’t available until 1957, and then only as an option for many years thereafter. The three speed was common in Corvettes right up into the mid sixties.
I think they made the Powerglide standard because it was somehow seen as very “modern” or advanced to have an automatic in a rather pricey sports-tourer like the Corvette, but it was a poor choice, and limited its sporting abilities in its first years.
The accounts I’ve seen suggest that the Powerglide was just the most expedient solution with the hopped-up six, which had 11 percent more torque than the standard engine. I suspect the issue was that it was easier and cheaper to modify the Powerglide to handle the additional power and torque than to beef up the existing three-speed. The ’55 Chevrolets had a new three-speed transmission with greater torque capacity, so the older unit may have been at about the limit of what it could handle.
That would explain it, although it’s still not a very satisfactory explanation.
With 150 hp, the Corvette certainly wasn’t exactly underpowered for the times, and with a three-speed (at least), it would have been taken a bit more seriously.
I keep on thinking that the First Corvettes were ment for the idle rich to drive to the country club with their golf clubs in the trunk. Or that was what they told corporate so they could get the money to build it.
Well, Ed Cole certainly wanted a manual gearbox, as did Harley Earl, but the corporation was pretty ambivalent about the whole project, so if the souped-up engine was over the existing three-speed’s torque capacity, I can see how they would have ended up against the wall.
With the Thunderbird, offering automatic to court affluent, middle-aged buyers was very much a conscious, deliberate decision; with the Corvette, I suspect it was a combination of expedience and mixed messages.
This application may be off topic, but it is a pre-Corvette use of a floor shift for an automatic transmission: the transmission selector for the M24 Chaffee light tank, first produced in 1944, whose drivetrain used twin Cadillac flathead V8s with GM Hydramatic transmissions.
The caption to the photograph described the transmission setup and other driver’s controls as follows:
“The driver’s controls are detailed here. The driver and assistant driver each had a set of pedals and levers (although the assistant driver lacked knobs on the steering lever ends to activate the parking brakes). The transmission range selector lever allowed the driver to select neutral, drive, or low range. This lever did not shift gears, but positioned the valves in the transmission control mechanism for the appropriate range. Low range allowed shifting through first and second speeds to take advantage of engine braking. The transfer unit shift control lever had positions for neutral, high and low ranges, and reverse. The accelerator pedal controlled both engines, and the neutral pedal allowed the driver to temporarily throw the tank into neutral without moving the transmission range selector. Releasing the pedal returned the transmissions to the selected lever position. Even though the transmissions were automatic, switching the transfer unit shift control between ranges required them to be in neutral, and the neutral pedal allowed the driver to do this without shifting the transmission range selector into neutral. (Picture from TM 9-729 Light Tank M24.)”
I don’t think off topic at all. Glad you posted this.
I’ve always wondered what the driver’s position in a tank was like, thanks! An Automotive History on a tank would be great. Even better if it’s a TOAL (Tank of a Lifetime).
When writing my previous message, I forgot that there was an earlier military application of the same Cadillac V8/Hydramatic drivetrain used in the M24: the M5 Stuart light tank, produced from 1942-44. I have not been able to find a photograph or description of its driver control layout, but it may be safe to assume that is used a similar transmission control lever. Again, not a car, but perhaps the earliest use of a floor-shifted automatic transmission.
Now that I think about it, it’s hard to imagine a tank with a column shift. 😉
Although it came a couple of years after the 53 Corvette, the 55 Thunderbird also had a floor-shifter for the Ford-O-Matic. Not really a sports car, and certainly before 1961.
61 Oldsmobile F85 may have been the first non-sportscar with a console shifted automatic.
I’m not so sure about that. The ’61 Cutlass brochure shows a column shifter. I think the console and floor shifter came in 1962.
that is quite possible. My brain is more mushy than usual today. Heck who am I kidding…it is usually pretty mushy
Interestingly, the Corvette’s floor shifter was a very late change — the early cars had a warning light hastily added in the hole intended for the column shift lever. I don’t know why they changed it at the last minute, but my assumption is that someone got self-conscious about the lack of a stick shift and decided to make sure the Corvette at least looked the part even if it didn’t have the hardware.
After the Starfire in 1961, I would go with the Buick Wildcat and Riviera in 1962-1963 and the Pontiac Grand Prix in 1962, Chrysler had consoles, but still had pushbuttons at this time, so that only half counts, Ford started offering a floor console and shifter on the biig cars around 1962-1963 too? Maybe?
Damn my Carminepedia isn’t working today.
The 62 Ford Galaxie 500XL had a floor automatic for sure – I remember them well. What year did Impala SS first offer an automatic on the floor?
BTW, my small midwestern town had a smattering of new Grand Prixes and Starfires from 61-through 67 so they weren’t that rare to me at the time and the interiors were really chrome-laden.
I think the hundreds of thousands of Mustangs rolling off the assembly line with floor automatics really made this feature a solid industry trend.
To answer my own question, it looks like the first automatic on the floor in the Impala SS was 1963 – long handle, white knob.
1953 Corvette(C1) was the first with a auto shifter on the floor. In fact in 1953, the auto trans was the only trans offered at all. There was no manual trans until mid 1955 model year and it was a 3 speed
Europeans are notorious for ignoring U.S. automotive firsts. I’ve read several U.K. car magazines over the years that claimed the Porsche 911 or Saab 99 or BMW 2002 were the world’s first turbo cars – ignoring the fact that Chevy and Olds had production versions more than 10 years earlier. Crosley’s first production use of disc brakes is also forgotten as Jaguar usually gets credit. The mid-90s Mercedes SLK is also often credited with the first mass-market convertible hardtop, with no mention of the 1950s Ford Skyliners. So no surprise that a Mercedes official is claiming to invest the automatic floor shift.
Actually, the first commercial hardtop convertible was the Peugeot 402 Eclipse of the 1930s-early 40s. Also, it is quite well known that Ford drew upon the 402 Eclipse for inspiration of the Skyliner.
Technically the Peugeot is the first hardtop convertible, but I believe it was not really a mass-production car (i.e. it was coachbuilt).
It was on the official Peugeot catalogue, so no, it wasn’t coachbuilt. But a coachbuilder (Pourtout) held the licensing rights.
Is Chrysler in 1955 the first to put the automatic transmission gear selector lever on the dashboard (for one year prior to the pushbuttons) for the PowerFlite? Second may be the 1960 Corvair with Powerglide.
That’ll depend on how you define an automatic. If you’re considering the 1940 Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic as the first true automatic, then Chrysler gets the nod.
However, Reo had something called the Self-Shifter transmission in 1934 – with a lever in the dash. What I’ve never been clear on is whether the transmission was a true (two pedal) automatic, or a (three pedal) semi-automatic. Or, for that matter, how it operated.
There was an article in Special Interest Autos (how I miss that magazine!) back in the 70’s, which is the only place I’ve ever read about the transmission. And my memory of that is a bit lacking.
Edit: Did some quick looking, and the Self Shifter was a semi-automatic. Clutch used only to start out and coming to a dead stop. Dash mounted shifter was a T-handle. Once you put the clutch in, however, everything was totally automatic, no shifting manually between ranges or any of the other inconveniences of a fluid drive setup.
Hudson had one too, dont know if it was the same.
Nope, not related. Hudson offered a Bendix device called the Electric Hand. This was not an automatic or even a semiautomatic transmission — it was essentially an add-on device that allowed a conventional three-speed transmission to be operated by an electrical switch on the dashboard or steering column rather than by moving the lever. You still had to shift, but when you did, an electrically controlled vacuum-powered device would actually move the shift fork. You could combine this with a vacuum-operated automatic clutch which would disengage if you lifted completely off the throttle.
The Reo unit was a four-speed semiautomatic, similar in operation (though not in mechanical layout) to the Chrysler semiautos. Depending on which position you started in, it would give you either first and second or third and fourth automatically. Normally, you started in third, but you had to select low range manually if you needed first and second to climb a hill or something.
How about a gated manual on the column!
Cord Pre-select manual.
I think Tucker used the same one that was in the Cord, but I’m not sure….
My understanding is that many of the Tuckers used actual rebuilt Cord transmissions. There was a Tucker automatic designed, but there were only a handful built before things shut down.
The Cord used a four-speed Cotal preselector transmission, operated by a Bendix Electric Hand device. The Cotal was substantially different from the Reo device and really wasn’t an automatic, semiautomatic or sliding-gear transmission. The Cotal unit, which was also used on some high-end French cars (Talbot-Lago, Delahaye, even some Bugattis), was essentially a manual transmission using a series of planetary gearsets engaged with electromagnetic clutches.
It was a very complex and heavy piece of work and while it was impressive in theory, it was really probably a leap too far for ’30s manufacturing technology and electrical systems.
I don’t think they made any Tuckermatics, they only made like 50 Tuckers total before they closed, they showed the automatic, but they never put one in a car from what I recall.
I’ve always been amused as to the visual likeness of the Cord controls to the Aclo buses here in Montevideo, Uruguay, imported around 1961. They had a pneumatic control, fed by the same pump as the door openers and brakes. Igual remember some of them stuck, as they were run until the late 80’s. Two pedals, preselector if I remember correctly. The lever itself was mounted like the Cord ‘s and had a reversed gate, first to the right and away from the driver. For some reason, after a stop the drivers would first select 4th and then 1st, without releasing the brake pedal.
I’m sure the Ford Skyliner didn’t give credit to the 1930s Peugeot 402 Eclipse either…
I see in pictures that the console of the Chrysler Turbine car has a “thing” that looks like an auto-shifter, but…
I dimly recall (although I’d have to look up to be sure) that the Turbine had a modified TorqueFlite without a torque converter, which was unnecessary with a gas turbine.
That’s right, no torque converter.
Isn’t Hemmings Classic Car the modern version of Special Interest Auto?
I’ve no idea which car was first, but I just had to comment on that Corvette dashboard photo: beautiful!