Abandoned History: Ford's Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

As we finished up our coverage of General Motors’ Turbo-Hydramatic family of transmissions, I asked which gearbox you might like to see covered next by Abandoned History. The comments honed in on Ford, and the various versions of the C family of automatics. Fine by me! Today we head back to the Fifties to learn about the genesis of all the Cs. It was the extremely Fifties-sounding Cruise-O-Matic, built with pride in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Cruise-O-Matic was not designed in-house by Ford but was the first automatic transmission used widely across the Ford-Lincoln-Mercury portfolio. Ford was pretty late to the fully automatic transmission game and only realized circa 1948 that they’d fallen behind the competition. By that time, GM had its four-speed Hydra-Matic on sale for a full eight model years. More on that in a moment.

Ford’s initial idea was to buy an automatic from someone else. The gearbox Ford settled on was the DG, a brand new transmission designed by the Detroit Gear division of Borg-Warner. But there was a problem. It wasn’t designed for Ford, so the folks at Dearborn didn’t own the rights to use it (yet).

The DG was designed for Studebaker, so Ford approached hat in hand and asked if they could purchase rights to build the DG. Studebaker was okay with selling the rights with Ford, but their board had a stipulation. Studebaker would have a one-year exclusive right to use the DG in its cars before Ford could add it to their lineup. And cash-strapped Studebaker was already late to the automatic game too; the DG wouldn’t be ready for two more years – model year 1950 for Studebakers.

Sensing that a 1951.5 debut of a Ford automatic wouldn’t cut the mustard, Ford decided to spend even more money and obtain their own transmission design. They’d already hired an engineer from Borg-Warner to be their VP of engineering, a man by the name of Harold Youngren. Youngren made an easy recommendation: Ford should go and buy the automatic he’d been working on right up to the point he left his former employer.

It was happenstance that the automatic in development at Borg-Warner was not at the behest of a particular automaker. Notably, it was developed by the Warner Gear division of Borg-Warner, not the Detroit Gear division. Ford approached Borg-Warner and signed a contract immediately for the automatic. The agreement said that Borg would build half of Ford’s automatics, while the other half could be produced in-house at Ford or by another supplier.

Ford didn’t want to farm out the transmission work any more than it had to, so it immediately put plans into motion for a brand new transmission plant. When finished, Ford had the new 629,000 square-foot Fairfax Transmission Plant in Fairfax, Ohio, a village within Cincinnati.

At launch in 1951, the transmission was branded as the Ford-O-Matic. In Mercury vehicles, it became the Merc-O-Matic, and at Lincoln, it was called Turbo-Drive. Worth a mention, Lincolns in the early Fifties used the GM Hydra-Matic (gasp!). The Turbo-Drive wasn’t adapted for Lincoln’s use until 1955, perhaps after it had time to prove itself reliable. Ford’s automatic was renamed in 1958 to Cruise-O-Matic, a name that’s better known.

The newly-created Ford automatic had two advantages over the previous automatics the company used here and there. The Borg-Warner design had an integrated torque converter and a planetary gearset, which meant gearshifts happened without any interruption in torque. Remember that until the Fifties, the automatic transmission was not generally any good.

The Borg-Warner box also implemented a modern PRNDL shift pattern, instead of Ford’s previous PNDLR. The old pattern caused excess shift shock (jolting) upon gear changes. PRNDL also made actions like parking and rocking a stuck vehicle back and forth easier, as it removed the low gear range from between drive and reverse.

The transmission’s original design was technically a three-speed, but when put in D it started in second gear and then shifted to third. First gear was used only if the car was in L (low). In situations where a driver floored the gas off the line, the gearbox would shift from second to first in drive, then back to second, and then third when the car was up to speed.

Because it had to go through the trouble of licensing a transmission that was in development at Borg-Warner, Ford didn’t save much time over their initial plans to adopt the DG Borg-Warner unit from Studebaker. The Ford-O-Matic was ready for the model year 1951, which gave Ford about a six-month advantage over the purchase of the Studebaker automatic and subsequent hold on its use.

But Ford got the last laugh! Studebaker got very few happy years of use out of the DG automatic. The automaker had been struggling for years, and its money troubles were not helped as automatics became more popular because the DG was rather expensive to build. The functionally and dimensionally similar Ford-O-Matic was much more economical.

By the middle of the Fifties, Studebaker was in a transmission jam. They approached Ford with the same request Ford had in 1948: Please let us license your automatic for use in Studebakers. Ford consented and Studebaker began using the Ford-O-Matic immediately in their cars. They branded it the Flight-O-Matic.

The Ford-O-Matic remained in its original guise for the first few years, before Ford began updates to meet more modern passenger car demands. It remained in production through 1965, at which point Fairfax Transmission was already halfway through its life as a transmission plant. Since your author lives about 15 minutes from the site and we’re talking Abandoned History, let’s learn a bit more about what happened when a large transmission plant closed abruptly.

As a small suburb within Hamilton County, Fairfax Transmission was a major employer in the area from its establishment in 1950 until its closure. Fairfax built transmissions like the Ford-O-Matic and its successors for Ford’s large rear-drive cars. But late Seventies downsizing killed the need for the plant’s capacity, and it shut down entirely in 1979.

After closure, Ford held onto the abandoned site at 4000 Red Bank Road until January of 1987, when it was sold off to a distribution company. Said company planned to renovate at least part of the site into warehouse space. Unsurprisingly the enormous site was not maintained going forward, and the 35-acre plot fell into major disrepair fairly quickly.

The chemicals, heavy metals, and asbestos from its days as a plant were not contained or removed before Ford sold the property, and were subsequently ignored by its purchaser in 1987. Slowly, everything from the factory leaked into the ground. The factory made up seven percent of the land area of the village and became a dangerous eyesore and economic hole for decades.

Environmental damage and site decay continued into the 2000s. The situation at the site got bad enough that it was taken over as a project of the Cincinnati Port Authority. The government organization received the property after it established a Covenant Not to Sue against the site’s owner for its various aspects of environmental and general negligence. The owner turned over the deed for no money, and in exchange was not sued for eternity by the city.

The Port Authority took ownership in 2006 and started on a $60 million mixed-use redevelopment. All 629,000 square feet of the abandoned factory were demolished, which meant recycling 1.5 million tons of steel and 120,000 tons of concrete, and digging up tens of thousands of tons of contaminated dirt. Redevelopment was finished in 2009, and today the site hosts a Walmart, a Wendy’s, a Bob Sumerel Tire, and other businesses and offices. The land is damaged to the point where the site cannot be used for residential purposes, and the groundwater underneath it is off-limits.

The effects of the Cruise-O-Matic’s Abandoned History will be felt in Cincinnati for a long time to come. We’ll pick up next time with happier stories of new transmission technology.

[Images: Ford, Cincinnati Port Authority]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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  • Conundrum Conundrum on May 26, 2022

    Excellent story on how Borg Warner made two automatics back in 1950 or so in two different divisions. That I did not know, having assumed the Ford-O-Matic was the Stude transmission. Good stuff, learned something new. Borg Warner then went on to make the rather useless BW35 in Europe for decades, and sold the DG to I believe, Jaguar, among other makes. The original Powerglide of 1950 was schmuck. You had to manually shift from Low to High, so it wasn't automatic. So Grandma probably drove it around in High everywhere. Full auto didn't happen till the '53 model year when Chevrolet finally updated the 235 six to a full-pressure oiling system, Woweee!, instead of dippers on the con rods flinging oil everywhere. So the Ford-O-Matic was a true three speeder and the always semi-useless Powerglide only had two. I drove a '65 283 Chevy wagon so-equipped fairly frequently back in the day, and it was a lardass of the first order. Someone here thinks that two-speed Powerglide was class or something, but it was just a dirt cheap way to have an automatic. Until Chrysler brought out the Torqueflite, the Ford-O-Matic had GM beat squarely except for that jerky but strong original Hydramatic they put in Caddies and Olds. The Buick Dynaflow, let's face it, was a joke from beginning to end, as was Chevrolet's 1958 "version" of it, Triple Turbine or some such clueless name. I don't remember those Ford transmissions as being flaky in the reliability stakes. Must be old wishes springing out of minds tuned to the GM Revionist History channel.

  • NOSLucasWiringSmoke NOSLucasWiringSmoke on Jun 05, 2022

    Interesting story. A couple of points about these transmissions and their history that I picked up over the years... Ford-o-Matic was revised to provide low-gear starting in Drive range from 1955, although you might have had to floor it to do that. The Ford-o-Matic of 1959 and later was a different, two-speed transmission, pushed into a "budget automatic" role when Ford debuted Cruise-o-Matic in the 1958 model year. They probably realized they only needed something good enough to compete with Powerglide (and the few Plymouths still being built with Chrysler's two-speed Powerflite) and cheapened it, selling Cruise-o-Matic to people willing to spend more. A smaller version was also provided for Falcons and the new smaller Fairlanes. "Turbo Drive" was probably put into '55 Lincolns in place of purchased GM Hydra-matic units at least in part because of shortages caused by a 1953 fire that destroyed the original Hydra-matic plant. GM had trouble building enough automatic transmissions for its own use (some Cadillacs were equipped with Buick Dynaflow, and some Pontiacs with Chevy Powerglide while GM hurriedly set up a new H-M production line at the ex-Ford B-24 Willow Run plant that they bought from Kaiser-Willys). GM sold H-M to a lot of different companies in the early 1950s. In addition to Lincoln it was purchased by Nash, Hudson, and Kaiser-Frazer-Willys notably, and built under licence by Rolls-Royce. The fire left all those purchasers out in the cold, and by the mid-1950s most of them had sourced alternate units from Borg Warner. Turbo Drive might have shared some DNA with Ford-o-Matic/Merc-o-Matic, but likely required "beefing up" for the bigger Lincoln engine, otherwise it would have been in Lincolns sooner. Investing in that for Lincoln's small early '50s volume (40,000 cars was a huge year) might have been less attractive than buying a transmission already proven with big-car engines. Maybe Ford had a plan to stop using H-M anyway, though. Suggestions for this series: 1) Chrysler's long journey through Fluid Drive (which really only ever meant the fluid coupling) and M3/M4/M5/M6 semi-automatic transmissions marketed under various names from 1939-53 as the company resisted fully-automatic transmissions to making some of the best automatics from the mid-1950s and beyond with Powerflite and Torqueflite. 2) Packard Ultramatic: the only automatic transmission developed entirely in-house by an independent automaker, and the first with a lockup torque converter. Spawned some additional variants in the mid-50s before Packards became badge-engineered Studebakers in 1957, including the first pushbutton automatic. 3) Hudson Drive Master/Supermatic Drive: early attempts at semi-automatic transmissions on the "robotized manual" principle. Always problematic, Hudson persevered with them from 1942-50 until they got on the Hydra-Matic bandwagon with the rest of the industry.

  • Lou_BC As others have pointed out, some "in car" apps aren't good or you pay for upgrades. My truck did not come with navigation. It was an expensive option. There's a lame GM maps app that you need to subscribe to "in-car" data. The map does not give you navigation other than to tell you where restaurants and gas stations are located. I'd want Android auto since I already pay for the phone.
  • Theflyersfan Given so many standard nav systems aren't the best and updating could mean a dealer trip, and I stream all music, Android Auto is an absolute must. Wireless isn't necessary and some wireless chargers overheat the phone. And there are some hacks that let YouTube stream on the screen - excellent for listening to concerts.
  • Jeff I going to guess by the condition of the body and interior that there is little to no rust on the frame. Appears to be a very well maintained car.
  • MaintenanceCosts Would not buy a new daily car without it.
  • Namesakeone I hate the thought, and I hope I'm wrong. Mazda. They're a small fish in a really big pond, and they made their reputation on sports cars--a market segment that nobody seems to want to buy new anymore.