By on May 24, 2022

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]

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41 Comments on “Abandoned History: Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)...”


  • avatar
    eggsalad

    It’s really hard to overstate the importance of early automatic transmissions from the “low-priced three”. Were they good? Not really. But to Americans who were tired of shifting (often manual transmissions with unsynchronized 1st gears) they were a godsend.

    • 0 avatar
      bullnuke

      Most of the early autos weren’t great but it could be argued that the Powerglide 2-spd auto was pretty damned good and was used with minor mods for many more years.

  • avatar
    Syke

    I always liked the look of the ’55 Lincoln. Something quietly understated, attractive, and classy.

    No wonder Cadillac wiped the floor with it in sales.

    The ’56 wasn’t bad looking either, despite having been hit with Fifties-itis. Ok, by ’57 things were starting to slide downhill.

    • 0 avatar

      As a whole the 57-59 domestics styling, just sheeeesh.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Take a good look at the 1952 Lincoln Capri. It might not have sold well against the power-dome Cadillacs, but by 1957, GM had cribbed the Capri design – the 1957 Pontiacs were too similar, especially the front end, for it to be an accident.

      By 1957, the power-dome was gone from Cadillacs, just in time for GM design to get hit with Chrysler’s Forward Look. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that GM design retook the initiative. There’s another series on Detroit automotive design right there.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff S

        Going to say it was the 1961 GM models that GM became a design leader again. Even influenced Chrysler. Chrysler downsized their cars in 1962 thinking that the 1961 GM cars was the direction of the market later to realize they made a mistake and up sized their cars.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Corey–Since you are a Cincinnatian why don’t you do a story on Powell Crosley with the Crosley cars. Interesting history of a famous but forgotten Cincinnatian who was the Henry Ford of radios creating his own radio station (at one time it could be heard across the globe) and then TV station. There was Crosley Aviation, Crosley appliances with the first refrigerator to put shelves on the door, and the mini Crosley cars. Owner of the Cincinnati Reds which later named the stadium before River Front, Crosley Field. Powell Crosley was like a Henry Ford and Thomas Edison rolled up into one person.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s a good idea. There are many Crosley collectors around here, have seen a Farm-O-Road and a HotShot at the Ault Park Concours when I attended in past (been a few years).

      There’s also a couple on display at CVG.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff S

        Yes there are two Crosleys displayed at the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport. I live a few miles from CVG. Cincinnati has an interesting history and Powell Crosley was an important part of it.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    So, huge corporation builds a plant with nasty materials, abandons it, and those materials destroy the local ecosystem. Huge corporation walks away scot free.
    Meanwhile, American politicians are spending their time protecting elementary school students from graduate-level college learning material.
    Maybe we should re-evaluate our priorities?

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      GM also did a number to the area when they pulled out of Norwood, just down the road from Fairfax. It’s currently an office park and shopping centers, but I recall there was a major mess there as well.

      Also around that time, just further south on Montgomery Ave from where GM was in Norwood was the BASF plant. Everyone who lived in Cincinnati when that plant exploded remembers that day. It was right by Xavier University and I remember my uncle, and then a few years later, some friends of mine rented the same house across from the empty field. The house was leaning. Somehow, after all of these years and after hearing that the land will rival the area around Chernobyl in terms of how long it will take to build on, now the houses have been torn down and apartments, shopping, and Cintas Center post-game entertainment areas have been built there.

      They had a huge footprint in Cincinnati until around 1987. After that, they packed up and left a lot of hulking, rusting, rotting wrecks behind.

      • 0 avatar
        bullnuke

        The insurance money from that BASF plant on Dana Avenue bankrolled a new OEM automotive coatings plant up in Greenville, Ohio, where I worked for 16 years. That plant is still mixing paint resins and clears for the OEM automotive industry to this day. The folks that came up here after the big bang were not at all sorry to leave that area.

        • 0 avatar

          That area is better than it used to be, because it’s full of offices. Almost nobody lives right there. Sort of a no man’s land between real Norwood to the east and south, and Bond Hill to the west.

        • 0 avatar
          theflyersfan

          @bullnuke – I never knew that. I was wondering what happened after that plant blew up. I remember my uncle saying they had no windows that weren’t shattered and there was significant damage, but when you’re a “landlord” renting to college students, a lot of stuff slides. I’m just amazed what has been built there over these past few years. Heck, X has more than doubled its size and a large part of that is due to the BASF land and teardowns nearby.
          @Corey – I started at X in the fall of 1992 and that entire GM plant area was still being torn down and redeveloped. Surrey Square had just opened. I do remember that wide open area of nothing off of Red Bank where you wrote about the above. All this time, I never knew it was a transmission plant – I only knew about GM tearing the heart out of another community. Thanks for sharing that – you do learn something new every day!

      • 0 avatar
        indi500fan

        My 67 Camaro was built at Norwood. Quality was definitely not Job 1, but it is a nice looking car.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff S

        @theflyersfan–I worked with a guy who was a manager at that Norwood plant. He said the sabotage of new cars was so bad that is one of the reasons GM closed the plant. Workers would damage the vehicles on the line and get overtime for fixing them. Not saying all workers did this but managers actually caught workers on tape damaging cars. The Norwood plant was producing cars from 1923 thru 1987 and the last cars produced there were Camaros and Firebirds. I believe Rookwood Commons a lifestyle shopping center was built on the site of the GM plant. At least Cincinnati was not as dependent on GM as Dayton with the Delphi plant and the Loraine Plant which closed and hit Dayton much harder. I am sure at some point in this series Corey will get into the Ford transmission plant in Sharonville which is basically suburban Cincinnati.

        • 0 avatar
          Jeff S

          I meant Moraine OH not Loraine. The Moraine GM plant made Frigidaire appliances, then S-10s and S-15s, and finally Trailblazers and Trailblazer clones. GM plant closures hit Dayton hard. NCR also moving to suburban Atlanta and losing Dayco.

          • 0 avatar
            bullnuke

            My neighbor worked for Frigidaire in Moraine. When it shutdown he came home after stopping by the bar up on the corner, went upstairs to the front bedroom, and shot himself in the temple. He didn’t wait the two years for the GM truck assembly to start there.

          • 0 avatar

            Wow, dark end.

          • 0 avatar
            Jeff S

            @bullnuke–How tragic. I bought one of the last new Frigidaire refrigerators an avocado side by side that was made in Moraine. That refrigerator lasted 40 years. Inside the door of the refrigerator it said Frigidaire a GM Product made in Moraine, OH. You cannot buy a new appliance today that will last that long.

        • 0 avatar
          theflyersfan

          I remember hearing those stories as well. They had so many problems at that plant and the cars were so low quality that it was no wonder that GM had to shut it down. Plus that was during the Roger Smith “Everything must go but our bonuses!!!” phase of running GM.

          That site has been redeveloped, but you need to head a bit WSW of Rookwood (Commons and Pavilion, I believe, is Hyde Park.) If you head west on the Lateral, take the Montgomery Ave exit south. Literally when you get onto Montgomery from the Lateral, look left. That was where the plant was. It’s now a massive office park/medical office complex and of course being Cincinnati, a LaRosa’s. Surry Square would have anchored the south end of the plant. It took a long time to tear down, it involved lawsuits, and environmental cleanup. But that really did bring jobs back to Norwood after the plant closure because I recall going through Norwood in 1992 and 1993 and it was by far one of the most economically depressed parts of Cincinnati. Almost a total turnaround now. Xavier anchors the south, that office park area anchors the north, and in between, there’s a lot of rebuilding and cleaning up going on. I recall Marge Schott Buick being right smack in the middle of Norwood as well.

          I know this is an article about Ford transmissions, but since there’s quite a few Cincinnatians here:

          https://www.wvxu.org/local-news/2017-08-25/remembering-norwoods-gm-plant-30-years-later

          • 0 avatar
            Jeff S

            @theflyersfan–My father went to law school at the University of Cincinnati with Marge Schott’s husband. My father said Schott always drove a sharp looking new Buick convertible. My father’s maternal grandparents lived in Cincinnati but my father was raised in Dayton.

          • 0 avatar
            Jeff S

            @theflyersfan–Thanks for the clarification. I know that whole area is really built up and no one from outside of Cincinnati would have ever guessed that there was a GM plant there. The Delphi plant in Dayton was finally leveled but it is just empty fields. The neighborhood around that plant is mostly boarded up and the streets for the most part have chuck holes. I had a site there that I would visit and that area looks like something out of one of these end of the World Armageddon movies. I doubt it will ever come back. Dayton itself is for the most part dead except for attempts to restore some of downtown but the suburban areas such as Beavercreek, Centerville, Oakwood,Yellow Springs, Springboro, Kettering, and Miamisburg are thriving. I was born in Dayton and my family moved to Houston, TX when I was 6–I lived in Houston for 29 years. I had family in Dayton for years.

          • 0 avatar
            theflyersfan

            @Jeff S – the wild thing is that in the WVXU article, the only thing that remains is a small parking garage. There are a lot of medical business office that have moved in and the entire area has been rezoned and redeveloped. Being so close to Xavier, there’s a lot of student traffic (pizza!).
            Dayton has been hit hard with the loss of manufacturing. There’s Wright-Patt and there’s a lot of military, civilian and contractor employees there. It’s the suburbs that have connected Cincinnati and Dayton and then some sprawl in the other directions that make it look like Dayton has something going on.

          • 0 avatar
            Jeff S

            @theflyersfan–That’s exactly right take away WPAFB and the suburbs and Dayton would barely be a spot on the map. Dayton city limits only has 137k population but when you include the surrounding towns and suburbs about 814,049. The largest population Dayton ever had was the 1960 census 262,332. My family moved from Dayton to Houston in 1958 for a warmer climate and more job opportunity for my father. My father’s sister, her husband, and her son stayed in Dayton for years. My older brother taught in Kettering in the 1970s.

            My wife got a Masters in Psychology at Xavier in the early oos.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    “Ford Steps Ahead” – they were a year behind Chevrolet and the Powerglide, the first automatic offering among the Low Priced Three (Chevy/Ford/Plymouth). My mom’s first car was a new ’50 Chevrolet with Powerglide.

    Was the Sharonville plant what took over for Fairfax? The ’95 F-150 I owned had a 4R70W built at Sharonville.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    “The Borg-Warner box also implemented a modern PRNDL shift pattern”

    Yup. Notice there’s not an L1 and L2, just “L”, which held it in first. So if you were on a steep decent and wanted to use the transmission to hold your speed to 30 or 40 mph, no dice. Which could get very interesting in a loaded car with drums on all 4 wheels, ask me how I know.

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    You’re certainly validated as a car geek when you’re excited to read about the history of the Ford C-4/C-6/FMX transmission family….

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Looks neat, but I’m just ready for the automotive world’s attention to chase something new after nearly a decade of off-road obsession.

  • avatar
    conundrum

    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.

  • avatar
    NOSLucasWiringSmoke

    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.

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