Jon de Vos – Shifting the night away
Winter Park, CO Colorado
The last time American automakers led the industry was 70 years ago when General Motors first came out with the automatic transmission. Folks flocked to the dealerships to see for themselves: Yup, there’s no more doggone clutch pedal. They marveled as the car automatically shifted up and down, all by itself. GM’s Hydra-Matic transmission was a $57 optional upgrade available on every model of the 1940 Oldsmobile.
European car makers were slow to catch up. It wasn’t until 1955, 15 years later, that Rolls Royce offered such luxury, but then, if you own a Rolls, you’ve probably not spent much time in the front seat and could care less how the car shifts. But when the Rolls Royce engineers chose a transmission, they chose the engineering leadership found in the GM Hydra-Matic.
Slower to follow still was Jaguar, owner of the proud Daimler brand that first offered automatic transmissions in their venerable automobiles in 1962. Daimler chose the American company, BorgWarner, to provide the 4-speed automatic transmissions for their luxury line. Last to follow in 1972 was the Ferrari 400, the first Italian super model to shift for itself. More notably, they too turned to the American GM Hydra-Matic.
Self-shifting cars caught on so well that by 1950, most cars sold in America were equipped with automatic transmissions. They caught on big in no small part because it allowed the right arm to be used for things other than shifting gears, like draping around some sweet young thing’s shoulders. Things were going so right for the American auto industry that there was nowhere to go but wrong. But enough of today’s woes, let’s stick in the past.
Late in high school, my best friend Phil and I did a lot of cruising around in his mother’s Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon. It was half a city block long with a hood that could easily double for an emergency heli-pad. It was a ghastly sea-foam green with fake “Woody” panels and genuine Naugahyde upholstery.
My buddy pretended the Safari was his and we both pretended it was a lot cooler than it was. It had a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission that shifted only once on its difficult journey to a top speed of about 105 miles per hour, modest enough by today’s standards, but enough to rattle that bucket of Detroit sheet metal like Steve McQueen driving a trash truck down a cobblestone San Francisco street.
Phil and I were dating sisters, an activity that ranks high up there in men’s rites of passage. The compartment of the Safari was large enough to indulge in team sports, like double-dating at drive-in movies. This was a little past that time in history when Sigmund Freud asked his famous question, “Women, what do they want?”
We decided to find out by burying a tape recorder under the seat and flipping it on as we left for a leisurely stroll to the concession stand for popcorn, thumbing our noses at the dateless creeps in the car next to us. We left the two sisters to share their most intimate discussions with us later when we planned to review the tape.
What we returned to was an empty car and a tape recorder way out there on the end of the hood. Our dates had left with the creeps in the next car.
Stunned, later that night reviewing the totally ego-shattering tape, we came to a chilling part when one sister says, “Hey, do you hear a little whirring noise?”
“Yeah, I do. It seems to be coming from under the seat.”
“Well, look at this!”
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