In the 1930s, Oldsmobile managed to weather the Great Depression and put some more shine on its reputation as a technological innovator.
That reputation was polished with the introduction of the Hydra-matic automatic transmission for the 1940 models. While not the first automatic transmission, the Hydra-matic was the most successful, backed by a years-long marketing campaign. Aside from Charles 'Boss' Kettering's electric starter for the 1912 Cadillac, no other invention did more to make it easy for virtually anyone to drive.
LIGHT AFTER DARK DAYS
Oldsmobile responded to the slumps and bumps of the depression with stylish new cars, bouncing back quickly. In 1933, the company adopted a sleeker, more streamlined look. Designers closed up the fenders, raked the radiator back a few degrees and rounded off the roofline.
The 1934 F series and L series pushed the streamlining further. Oldsmobile also introduced new features such as standard four-wheel hydraulic brakes, improved steering and 'knee action' suspension.
In the 1935 model year, Olds produced 132,000 cars, the first time since 1929 it had topped 100,000. That year, Olds also introduced the 'turret top,' an all-steel roof that was offered by other GM divisions.
It seemed things had finally stabilized when production totaled more than 200,000 in both 1936 and 1937. But sales started sliding precipitously in the late summer of 1937 with a new economic decline. Production collapsed back to 103,000 cars in 1938. Oldsmobile sales wouldn't approach 200,000 units until 1940.
By the end of the 1930s, Oldsmobile was preparing to introduce a major innovation: the automatic transmission.
In 1937, Oldsmobile and Buick introduced the automatic safety transmission, a forerunner of the fully automatic. Offered as an option on eight-cylinder engines, it required a standard clutch pedal for the driver to get the vehicle rolling and to switch between two forward gear ranges, low and high. Once the car was in motion, the transmission shifted from gear to gear in each range. But the transmission didn't catch on. Buyers deemed it a gimmick and balked at its $59 price. In addition, reliability problems because of clogging from overheated oil led Buick to drop it in the middle of the 1938 model year.
AUTOMATIC FOR 1940
The new Hydra-matic, billed as the world's first fully automatic transmission, was introduced as an Oldsmobile exclusive on 1940 models. The division's advertising made much of the innovation: 'No clutch to press! No gears to shift!'
General Manager Charles McCuen was instrumental in the development of the Hydra-matic. Work had begun in secret for Cadillac in the late 1920s. The project was headed by Earl Thompson, who had joined GM after developing the synchromesh manual transmission to help eliminate gear grinding during shifts. With the Depression's cash crunch, Cadillac stopped funding the project in 1934. But McCuen heard about the transmission and lobbied hard to get it for Oldsmobile.
Using hydraulics to shift gears made the Hydra-matic smaller than earlier mechanical automatics. The Hydra-matic also could alter its shift points based on throttle position and speed, whereas earlier automatics shifted at the same speed, regardless of power demands.
The Hydra-matic was offered to Oldsmobile buyers on all 1940 models for a below-cost price of only $57. To counteract reliability concerns, it was offered with a one-year guarantee.
The new transmission was a hit. By February 1942, more than 200,000 Hydra-matics had been built, aided by Cadillac's adoption of the feature for 1941.
Even though World War II interrupted car production, more than 73,000 Hydra-matics were built for war use, many in tanks - a fact that helped engineers improve its operation greatly.
Automotive News Engineerng Editor Dale Jewett contributed to this report.