Motoring Trailblazers - Oldsmobile Hydramatic

Sat 29th Jun 2019

The world of motoring is hurtling headlong into a bright new future of all-electric, automated, connected technology - and Marty McFly is not behind the wheel! But what were the cars that were ‘back to the future’ of years gone by?

There have been many different trailblazing motors which were seen by the critics to be ahead of their time, and in this series, we will investigate and showcase many of the best in class.

Oldsmobile Hydramatic
Built and backed by General Motors in the 1920s and 30s, the first production model automatic gear system was initially earmarked for a launch with Cadillac, but was switched to Oldsmobile in the late 30s to take the glory.

Oldsmobile was the obvious choice for GM, they produced more cars than Cadillac at the time, and if the public didn’t take to automatic transmission, it would likely damage the brand that launched it. Thankfully, automatic gear-boxes were such a success to the American market that they went on to be the gear-box of choice across the Atlantic forever more.

It was Cadillac engineer Earl A. Thompson who was credited with inventing ‘shiftless transmission’, though legend has it that Thompson actually adapted the idea from two Brazlian engineers, José Braz Araripe and Fernando Iehly de Lemos. Thompson certainly bought up all patents relating to his development of an engine that became known as the Automatic Safety Transmission (AST), and Araripe claims that the AST only made progress when he had travelled to Detroit and GM had paid him $10,000 for his invention.

AST made progress through the early 1930s, but it wasn’t until the Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic went into production in 1939 that the US public got to fully appreciate travelling with automatic gear shifting.

Oldsmobile’s own promotional literature described the Hydramatic as the ‘most important automotive advancement since the self-starter’ saying: ‘The streamlined automobiles of today are a far cry, in appearance, from the pioneer models of the “horseless carriage” era. But the process of driving a motor car - an ordinary motor car - hasn’t changed as much as you might think. In most automobiles, for example, you still must push a clutch every time you shift gears… and you still must shift gears almost constantly in traffic, if you want to enjoy any kind of performance. It wasn’t until Oldsmobile introduced Hydra-Matic Drive to the public in the fall of 1939 that motorists discovered how really simple operating a motor car could be. Hydra-Matic Drive has literally changed the driving habits of thousands of owners from coast to coast. Adn today, as a result of war-time use on tanks, Hydra-Matic Drive has been improved, made even more dependable than ever before.’

Great, bold and revolutionary claims, which must beg the question, just why didn’t us Brits get the automatic drive bug?