It's been 93 years since automobiles were manufactured in Warren, Ohio, but an early automotive innovation in that small Midwest city lives on.
'When you drive your four-speed today, you can thank the Packard brothers,' explains Terry Martin, president of the Packard Museum in Warren.
Specifically, thanks are owed for the H gearshift configuration that was patented in 1902 by James Packard and William Hatcher.
Packard was co-founder of Packard Motor Car Co. Hatcher was a design engineer.
'They were positively the first to use it,' said Martin, who wrote several chapters in the definitive, award-winning book Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company.
'We have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Controlling Mechanism for Motor-Vehicles,' Packard and Hatcher wrote in their patent application, an observation that proved an understatement indeed.
'This invention comprises improvements in devices for controlling the movements of motor-vehicles; and it relates to means whereby the vehicle may be stopped, started and reversed and its speed controlled by the simple forward-and-back movement of a controlling-lever,' the application said.
Hatcher - nicknamed Bert - was a designer who was hired to help build the company's first cars. Before joining James Packard and his brother William, Hatcher was shop superintendent for another early Ohio automaker, Alexander Winton of Cleveland.
The landmark patent application, with three drawings, was filed Feb. 12, 1902, and signed by Packard and Hatcher as inventors and by witnesses E.L. Warner and C.H. Dunlap.
The description accompanying the drawings stated:
'It will be plain that the several combinations of gearing necessary to reverse and change the speed of the vehicle, as well as to stop it, are accomplished by merely moving the plate forward and back. The backward movement of the plate from the normal position causing a reversal of the vehicle and a forward movement from the normal position causing successive increases in speed and a reverse movement of the plate reversing these operations.'
That sounds familiar because it matches the description of our contemporary 'standard' shifting.
The government issued the patent less than nine months later, on Nov. 4, 1902 - almost three years to the day after the first Packard Model A hit the road.
That original Packard had two shifting levers, Martin said, but 'it took them only a matter of months to figure out it was unnecessary to have two levers.'
The new H gearshift configuration provided a designated area for each forward speed and for reverse. Neutral was at the H's crossbar.
John Grundy of Carmel, Calif., the roster keeper for Packard Automobile Classics Inc., a club for Packard aficionados, said, 'It certainly set up the whole automotive industry for that particular pattern for shifting gears. Buick reversed it, but a lot of companies adopted it.'
A description of the 1904 Model L Packard boasted that the car incorporated the 'progressive gearshift' and other advances, including rear-wheel transmission and automatic governor.
Meanwhile, other automakers offered alternative configurations, including Cadillac's three-speed planetary transmission, said Michael Kollins, a retired Packard Motor Car Co. executive and historian.
Those alternatives, of course, failed to catch on.
So, by the 1910s, other automakers were using the H configuration. It showed up, for example, on a 1910 Flanders and a 1913 Pierce-Arrow Martin has restored.
At the time of the H-shift invention, the Packard brothers still lived in Warren, home of their Ohio Automobile Co. In 1903, the company was renamed Packard Motor Car Co. and moved to Detroit.
It was a time of creativity, enthusiasm and energy that enabled the company to pioneer a series of major advances for the industry.
H.F. Olmstead, a one-time Packard in-house publication editor and advertising executive, told part of the story in a company history he wrote before World War II. In addition to 'the gearshift 'H' slot so universally used on cars of today,' he explained, 'the automatic spark advance, now as much an accepted part of every automobile as its tires, was an original Packard patent granted in 1901.'
Among the innovations by Packard that were adopted by other automakers, Olmstead cited the 'interconnected clutch and brake on one pedal, three-point suspension of motors, the toe rest at the side of the accelerator pedal and internal and external brakes on the rear wheels.'
The book that Martin co-authored contains this observation: 'Though it is a dangerous course always to state categorically that someone was the first with something - someone else might come along and discover an earlier 'first' - it is not irresponsible to note the areas in which the Packard pioneered.
'The automatic spark advance, for example, was a feature not to be common on other automobiles for a number of years, and note should be made of the rotating governor built into the automatic spark, which at maximum speed would pull the rotating cam on the shaft beyond the point of contact, so as to stop the spark.'
As for the H-gear slot, Martin wrote it 'would become the most generally used pattern in years to come. And certainly not many vehicles of that era could boast a foot pedal to control engine speed.'
Ironically, when the company's creative juices were flowing, Warren was not especially hospitable to horseless carriages.
Angry horse lovers showed their dislike for 'automobilists' by strewing nail-studded boards and broken glass on roads to ruin the single-tube bicycle tires cars rode on.
Warren's automobilists even hired a lawyer, W.W. Smiley, to help protect their legal rights to the road.
A major reason for the company's innovations, Martin told Automotive News, was that James Packard 'loved the mechanical side' of cars.
'He was a hands-on man,' Martin said.
Meanwhile, brother William provided the financial and management expertise the fledgling company needed.
Olmstead described James Packard, an electrical engineer with a degree from Lehigh University, as blessed with 'the wizardry of a mechanical genius.'
Packard club official Grundy agreed, saying of the H-pattern gearshift principle: 'I bet it was one of the things he fell into, trying out a number of arrangements.
'Any good individual tries a number of different concepts and then selects the best one.
'He was probably the type of person,' added Grundy, 'who didn't take the first thing that fell into his head but asked, 'Is there any other way to do this?.