The Evolution of Transmissions

The Evolution of Transmissions

Since the advent of the automobile in the 1800s, car transmissions have undergone an epic transformation. Here is some of the history of the automobile transmission.


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Emile Levassor and Louis-Rene Panhard are credited with developing the first manual transmission. Levassor and Panhard used a chain drive on their original transmission. Their invention is still the basic starting point for contemporary manual transmissions.


Louis Renault adapted Levassor and Panhard’s design by swapping the chain drive for a drive shaft and added a differential axle for the rear wheels to improve performance of the manual transmission.


For approximately 30 years automobiles in the United States were built with a non-synchronized manual transmission based on the Panhard/Levassor/Renault design. However, in 1928 Cadillac introduced a synchronized manual transmission, which cut gear grinding by a significant amount and made the shifting process smoother.


General Motors (GM) introduced the first semi-automatic transmission called the Automatic Safety Transmission.


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GM introduced the Hydra-Matic, which was a revolutionary design including a five-speed clutchless gearbox.


Plymouth announced the first standard-equipment column shifter and sold it in their sales brochures as the “Perfect Remote Control Shifting”. Around that same time, Chevrolet and Ford also began offering column shifters in their vehicles.


As automatic transmissions became the transmission of choice for the next 20 years, the column shift was the most popular shifter of that time.


The early part of the 1950s brought about the first three-speed automatic transmission. Studebaker and Ford were among the first producers of three-speed automatic transmission cars. In 1953, Chrysler introduced their own two-speed torque converter.


By the 60s changing aesthetic tastes and a desire for high performance brought about an evolutionary change in automobile interior design. No longer were bench seats in the front of automobiles desirable. Bucket seats and center consoles became popular, which spurred design of floor shifters. By the mid-1980’s, column shifters had largely disappeared from passenger cars.

1970s & 1980s

In the late 1970s, three-speed automatic transmissions began to be replaced with models containing overdrive, in addition to more forward gears. By the early 1980s, almost every car manufacturer was producing their automobiles with overdrive. Overdrive transmissions offered more efficiency and greater fuel economy as compared to their three-speed counterparts.


Image of Continuously Variable Transmission
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Contemporary vehicles by and large now use automatic transmissions that are electronically controlled. There have been great advancements in transmission technology that allows for the automation of gears, torques, and power transfer. The idea is to eliminate, or at least limit, the reliance on friction to achieve torque.

As a result, the continuously variable transmission (CVT) has grown in popularity. With both fuel efficiency and a strong power delivery, the CVT lets the engine run at its most optimum RPM on a constant basis because it offers an endlessly variable set of gears. Additionally, CVTs are small and light, which is a good match for more compact cars.

In addition to CVTs, dual clutch and semi-automatic transmissions have made technological advances and gained in popularity. A contemporary semi-automatic transmission is akin to an electronically controlled manual transmission. It is light, efficient, and gives the driver the option to maintain full control over the shifting or put the transmission in fully automatic mode. 

A dual clutch transmission uses two separate clutch discs, one for the even-numbered gears and one for the odd-numbered gears. A strong advantage to a dual clutch is that the transmission can have the next gear engaged even as the previous gear is released – thus creating a seamless and instant shift in gears.

Dual clutches can be costly to manufacture and maintain, which means they have yet to become solidly mainstream. However, enthusiasts argue that they do offer the best efficiency coupled with high performance.


By and large today’s cars are monitored and/or controlled by computers. Electronic vehicles, which are becoming increasingly popular in today’s market, often operate at torque, which means that there isn’t a transmission in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, contemporary gas-powered vehicles increasingly come with more fuel-efficient automatic transmissions pre-installed. 

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