By on June 3, 2022

We continue our Abandoned History coverage of the Ford Cruise-O-Matic transmission today, shortly after the three-speed automatic established itself as a reliable motivation source for Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury products. Developed by the Warner Gear division of Borg-Warner, the new automatic caught Ford up to the competition as far as an automatic offering was concerned. Efficient and economical to build, Studebaker got in on the Cruise-O-Matic action for their cars too.

After the box proved itself on Ford and Mercury cars, it spread to the luxurious ’55 Lincoln lineup where it replaced the four-speed GM Hydra-Matic. We pick up there, as efforts got underway to improve upon the original Borg-Warner design and add whiz-bang features. This entry doesn’t end up where you’d expect.

The activation method of an automatic transmission was something worth marketing in the Fifties. While levers were so boring, pushbutton automatics became all the rage. Chrysler got the jump on the other Detroit automakers when it introduced a pushbutton TorqueFlite automatic into its lineup in 1956 (we’ll have a TorqueFlite series soon). Ford decided immediately that it needed a similar feature.

Dearborn began the development of pushbutton controls of its own, which it launched under the name Keyboard Control. The feature debuted in 1957 on the Mercury line and implemented five separate buttons. Those buttons weren’t labeled how you’d expect: The longest button was at the top of the control panel as Drive. Underneath, the four smaller buttons were Brake (park), Neutral Start (neutral), Hill Control (low), and Reverse.

Those fun names lasted on Mercury cars for exactly one model year. The Keyboard Control was reworked for 1958 and renamed to Multi-Drive Keyboard Control. New labels appeared on the buttons, which then numbered six. Drive was split into Performance and Cruising, while the Park button became a lever that moved forward and backward. When pushed in the car was in park, and the buttons were locked from activation until the lever was pulled back out.

Both versions of the pushbutton automatic were a bit of a gimmick and did not prove all that popular with consumers. The system went away after 1958, and in 1959 Mercury vehicles were equipped with a ho-hum column gear selector.

While bewildered consumers pressed buttons in the Mercury showroom, transmission development carried on at Ford. The Ford-O-Matic was used as a starting point for two new transmissions Ford on their own. The company needed more versions of the three-speed as domestic passenger vehicles, in general, grew larger, sprouted fins, and carried ever greater quantities of heavy chrome.

The larger bejeweled cars weighed more and required bigger engines to push them across the country. But consumers wanted more than adequate power; the latter half of the Fifties was the unofficial start of the horsepower race in Detroit. More horses and more torque meant a need for a tougher transmission.

What Ford developed on the basis of the Ford-O-Matic were its MX and FX versions. The MX was the larger transmission, while the FX was smaller. Still three-speed automatics, both versions used the same planetary gearset as the original F-O-M but relocated the transmission’s pump from the rear to the front of the box. The MX and FX also carried a new valve body that allowed them to start in first gear in drive, rather than second.

The larger MX was destined for use in the powerful V8 vehicles from Lincoln, Mercury, and higher-end Ford cars. All MX boxes were built at Livonia Transmission (1952-present) in Michigan. FX was used only in Ford and Mercury models, and mostly in midrange offerings. The FX was made in the Fairfax Transmission plant in Cincinnati, alongside the then-dated Ford-O-Matic.

The new transmissions’ capability to start in first gear posed a branding problem for the old Ford-O-Matic. While it was technically also a three-speed, it differed in that it didn’t start in first gear like the FX and MX. Ford decided to market it as a two-speed after FX and MX debuted, which surely confused some existing owners who considered their cars a three-speed prior to 1958. Further, both new versions of the transmission were marketed under a new family name: Cruise-O-Matic.

But that wasn’t enough naming confusion, as a new version of the Ford-O-Matic arrived for the ’59 model year. It was a simpler version of the original Ford-O-Matic and used a torque converter with a compound planetary gear set. There was a multi-disc clutch at the front that handled high gear, while a band on the clutch drum handled low gear, and a band on the rear gear drum created reverse. The simplified two-speed was offered only on select Ford and Mercury models, as well as Edsel.

The world of automatic transmissions stayed in stasis at Ford for the next few years with the gen-two Ford-O-Matic, and MX and FX three-speed Cruise-O-Matics sufficient for all of the Blue Oval’s passenger cars. Elsewhere in the world, other nations were also wading into the waters of the automatic. But instead of suffering through the development of their own transmission, they stole Ford’s. Let’s talk about the Soviet Union and GAZ.

Ford Fairlane & Fairlane 500 – 1958

Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod (GAZ) did have a legitimate relationship with Ford in the Twenties. In 1929 as The Great Depression approached, Ford contracted with GAZ: The brand new Russian company was to build the Model A under license. Ford supplied the engineering documents to GAZ, who set to work. The contract was via the USSR’s international commerce division, called Amtorg Trading Corporation (1924-1998). Amtorg was the first business presence the USSR had in the United States, and it was headquartered in New York City.

While Amtorg was contracted with Ford, it also contracted with Albert Kahn’s architectural firm. Kahn designed many Ford plants but was struggling for American business during the Depression. Kahn worked for Amtorg and cooperated via the company with Ford to design the very first GAZ plant in the USSR, at Niznij Novogrod. They were going to build Ford cars anyway, why not?

After cooperation with Amtorg began, Kahn helped start a government office in Moscow to help with the development of Russian architects and engineers. The office, Gosproektstroi, worked specifically with regard to widespread factory design in the established Ford and Kahn models. Top ranking staff from Kahn’s firm moved to Moscow to work at Gosproektstroi. The office was in charge of the standardization of building construction across the USSR. This activity did not go down well with many people in the United States, who quickly accused Kahn of supporting communism.

The deal with Amtorg and the USSR office didn’t last long though, as the GAZ factory was opened in November 1930, and Kahn’s contract with Amtorg ended in 1932. The first GAZ was the A – a near copy of the Model A, which then was developed into the AA pickup truck. Cooperation between GAZ and Ford lasted through 1935, and one wonders how many calls of communistic support were directed at Dearborn.

Some 20 years later, it was no surprise that when GAZ needed an automatic transmission an examination of Ford products was at the top of their to-do list. By then GAZ was among the most highly regarded automakers in Russia, with a full lineup that included executive and luxury cars for high-ranking members of the politburo, as well as off-road vehicles and trucks of varying duties. We’ll pick up our story with the GAZ translation of the Ford-O-Matic next time.

[Images: Ford]

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


  • avatar
    eggsalad

    The bit about pushbutton selection… Is the pushbutton selector in the steering wheel hub of Edsel coming next chapter?

    • 0 avatar

      Can certainly cover that too.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff S

        If I remember correctly the push button on the steering wheels on the Edsel was only offered on the 1958 and after that the 1959 and 1960 Edsels had column shifts. If I recall Ford had problems with the push buttons. Also by 1965 all manufacturers either had to use a column shift or a shift on the floor like a console shift. That is why the last year for push buttons on Chrysler cars was 1964.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    I remember that the “O” in Cruise-O-Matic was centered on the “D” when in drive. I was in Kindergarten when the Edsel was introduced and the hoopla was dazzling. I had a 1/24 factory model we got from our friends at the local Ford store. That beautiful model Edsel was turquoise body and white top. I think I traded it for a ’58 Rambler Classic station wagon which presaged my bizarre sense of style.

  • avatar
    millerluke

    I’m still bewildered by the hatred (or confusion?) people had and still have with push-button transmission controls. Allison has used push-button controls in their heavy-truck applications for decades – I drove an early 90’s International with push-button selection, so they’ve been offered for at least 30+ years.
    Don’t get me wrong, I like shifters as much as the next guy or gal, but why does buttons confuse everyone, or so it seems?

    As an aside, a series on Allison transmissions would be cool – seeing how much (and little) they’ve changed since the 40’s would be interesting (at least to me, who’s driven them exclusively for the past 15 years.)

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      The oldest transit bus I’ve ever driven was a 1983 MAN SG310 center-driven articulated bus. It had pushbutton controls. They worked fine.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      Don’t hate push buttons. My parents had 2 cars with push buttons-57 Chrysler Windsor 4 door and a 59 Plymouth Sport Suburban 9 passenger station wagon. Ford had problems with the push buttons on the 58 Mercury and Edsel and by 59 both went back to column shifts. On August 30, 1964, Congress passed Public Law 88-514, entitled “AN ACT to require passenger-carrying motor vehicles purchased for use by the Federal Government to meet certain passenger safety standards.” That act stated that the Government could not buy a vehicle for its own use that did not comply with reasonable passenger safety devices “as the Administrator of General Services shall require.” On January 26, 1965 the GSA’s standards appeared in the Federal Register at pages 797-801. Among them was (on page 800) Standard no. 515/11, entitled “Standard Gear Quadrant (PRNDL) For Automotive Vehicles Equipped With Automatic Transmissions.” This rule is a little ambiguous as to whether it would have affected the government’s purchase of Chrysler vehicles. All then-current pushbutton arrangements in Chrysler products placed the Neutral button between those for Reverse and Drive, so on that score the Chrysler buttons were fine. Chrysler did not, however, make use of a “Park” button. Park was engaged by a lever adjacent to the buttons. So, did the rule which referred to “Park” as being one of a continuous series of choices on the “quadrant” (a term that went undefined) exclude the separate Park lever of the Chrysler system? Or would a separate Park lever have complied with the (not completely clear) rule? Chrysler wasn’t sure that the push button would comply and decided to do away with them for the 1965 Model Year.

      Today most vehicles the shifting mechanisms are electronic instead of manual so there is no mechanical linkage but they all are PRNDL . My Maverick has a rotary dial instead of a shifting lever and that seems to be common because it takes up less space than a shifter or even push buttons. I always liked the push buttons but they for the most part went away by the time I learned to drive except I drove my older brother’s 64 Dodge Polara 4 door with a 440 V8 and that was a great driving car. I am going to say that most manufacturers don’t want to take up the dash board space for push buttons and with air bags and other controls on steering wheels there is no room to put them on the steering wheel. https://www.curbsideclassic.com/automotive-histories/automotive-history-the-mysterious-disappearance-of-the-chrysler-pushbutton-automatic-a-government-conspiracy/

      • 0 avatar
        ttacgreg

        The PRNDL standard was is a smart idea. At one time my parents had a 1954 Oldsmobile and a 1962 Chevy II. Apparantly their automatics had different shift patterns. My dad put the Olds in what he thought was reverse, looked over his right shoulder and drove the car through the wood paneling between the car port and the patio.

        • 0 avatar
          NOSLucasWiringSmoke

          GM’s early automatics were NDLR (no dedicated park, but I think you were supposed to put it in Reverse when parking). Then PDNLR (I think Dynaflow in 1948 was probably the first to have a dedicated Park position). What I heard was it was cheaper that way for some technical reason. However by the mid-50s it was realized that it was safer to separate reverse from any forward gears. I believe that all the new automatics that came out from other manufacturers had PRNDL selector arrangements. GM resisted this for some time, claiming they had put so many cars out into the market with their arrangement that they had some kind of primacy, but by about 1957 they gave up. Certainly 1957 Chevy Turboglides used PRNDL selectors, and maybe other GM automatics were starting to change over then too.

          Pushbuttons as Chrysler implemented them weren’t unreliable (the electric ones on Edsels, Mercurys, and Packards might have had some gremlins), but they were never the reason why cars sold better and by the mid-60s it was thought to be better to standardize. There might even have been some threat of specifying a standard arrangement for vehicles purchased for government use.

          • 0 avatar
            Jeff S

            It was the electric connections and relays that went out on the Edsels not the transmissions. The Federal law that was effective in 1965 was why Chrysler dropped the push button drive not customers who for the most part liked it. The push button drive was a selling point for Chryslers. The closest thing we have to push buttons on modern vehicles are paddle shifters. Also some manufacturers are using dials but all those types of shifters are electronic. I am going to say that if the 57 Chevy Powerglides had PRNDL selectors then the 62 Chevy II had them and my parents 64 Impala wagon had them as well since it was a Powerglide as well. GM was usually very consistent when it came to hardware and controls.

        • 0 avatar
          Jeff S

          My father had a Roman Red 62 4 door Chevy II 300 with a red interior and the straight 194 cu in 6 that he ordered in Sept 61 that both my brothers drove in high school and I drove in high school and first year of college. I honestly cannot remember the gear pattern on its Power Glide despite driving it for several years. He had that Chevy II for 12 years.

      • 0 avatar
        ToolGuy

        Best pushbutton is KGB pushbutton:

        https://youtu.be/1pQBnHuJ7kI?t=123

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    When the 1958 Edsel launched in the late summer of 1957, the Edsel became the first and only Ford division to launch an electro-mechanical push-button transmission system, which it trademarked as Teletouch. Teletouch placed the transmission buttons in a ring within the center of the steering wheel. Edsel’s marketing department promoted the Teletouch as a logical progression in the process of making the steering wheel the central command center for controlling cars. Marketing also pointed out that more of the dashboard view was unrestricted to the driver with the gear handle removed. Edsel even issued a Teletouch “face-mask” for dealers to wear and pass out as an advertising premium promoting the system to would-be buyers.

    n theory, the idea of the Teletouch system made sense, but in its execution, the system quickly became the bane of the Edsel and its owners. Many new car buyers, and most automotive writers, found Teletouch to be a gimmick, while others found it distracting or confusing. Despite its marketing talking points, it required the driver to remove a hand from the steering wheel rim to push a center-pod button.

    Reliability proved poor due to the servo motor’s hot, wet and dirty operating environment between the bell housing and the exhaust pipe just above the road surface, and the somewhat troublesome associated relays, switches, wiring and connectors. On the other hand, the wiring inside the steering column did not move and was extremely reliable, since the pod containing the buttons did not turn with the wheel. The electric control current flowed through a set of slip rings and brush contacts, while the Teletouch buttons were held in the correct position with Neutral at 12 o’clock through a set of planetary gears in the steering column. The steering wheel was directly coupled to the steering linkage as with conventional steering columns.

    Eventually, all push-button transmission selectors became a safety issue due to lack of industry-wide standardization. In addition, since the 1920s the center of the steering wheel had typically held the horn button. While some cars of the late 50s had horn rings, some drivers instinctively hit the steering wheel center in an emergency, sometimes causing them to either damage the controls or cause an unexpected, hazardous gear change (occasionally causing transmission damage). The Edsel’s system included an electro-hydraulic inhibitor switch activated by transmission fluid pressure which virtually eliminated the possibility of this happening.

    The single circumstance under which a Teletouch could be put into gear with the car moving at greater than three to five miles per hour was if the neutral button was depressed first, thereby removing hydraulic pressure from the inhibitor switch, and then the reverse or park button pushed. These actions would, as a result, either shear off the parking pawl or suddenly set the rear wheels turning in the reverse direction, effectively locking them up against the road surface and possibly damaging the reverse bands in the transmission. Ironically, the failed Autolite Packard system protected against this set of circumstances by locking out not only reverse and park, but also neutral while the car was moving with any significant speed.

    For the 1959 model year, Edsel dropped Teletouch as an option, and began the process of abandoning the automotive market by dropping its Mercury-based cars, and eliminating the Citation, and Pacer cars as well as the Bermuda and Roundup station wagons.

    Steering wheel-mounted transmission controls have made a comeback since the mid-1990s introduction of Porsche’s Tiptronic system, although the controls for the selection of park, reverse, and neutral are almost always located elsewhere. They also invariably have the buttons or “paddles” for the functions that are on the steering wheel quite near the rim, for true “both-hands-on-the-wheel” functionality. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teletouch

    • 0 avatar
      CaddyDaddy

      +1 comment. CaddyDaddy is looking for the YouTube vid of a 73′ or so T-Bird slipping out of park and into reverse Driverless. The car went round and round in a parking lot for some time. Murliee IIRC, had a link to the vid in one of his Junkyard finds. …. and I can’t remember if this was all Ford Trans or just an MX or C-6 issue.

  • avatar
    NigelShiftright

    “Brilliant new Mercury models” – absolutely correct, sir!

    Look at that brochure page leading off the article, not a monochrome paint job to be seen.

    I especially like the “creamsicle” scheme on the Montclair coupe top row left.

    • 0 avatar
      bullnuke

      The ’50s were a very colorful time in the US – those Mercury’s in the picture remind me somewhat nostalgically of Mom’s Fiestaware back in my youthful days.

      • 0 avatar
        ToolGuy

        Some Fiestaware glazes were [are] radioactive – but you knew that :-)

        https://www.orau.org/health-physics-museum/collection/consumer/ceramics/fiestaware.html

        Which reminds me – we are out of bananas (which are berries, technically).

        Sigh. I miss museums.

        • 0 avatar
          bullnuke

          ToolGuy – LOL! Mom’s Fiestaware probably corroded my young brain and caused me to split atoms and scatter neutrons for my 21-year Navy career. Cause and effect sort of thing.

          • 0 avatar
            ToolGuy

            @bullnuke,

            Thank you for your service.

            (My oldest kid is a newly-minted mechanical engineer working on nuclear power plants.)

  • avatar
    Pianoboy57

    I really like that ’56 Mercury brochure. I’d never seen those cars before. It’s too bad uglification took hold after that model year. I used to think I wanted the ’56 Crown Victoria in high school. That was in 1973. I never found one but I was offered a ’55 Bel-Aire but decided against it. It was a 4dr sedan with a six and Powerglide.
    It would have been a good one.

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