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Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)


Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)As we were wrapping up our coverage of General Motors’ Turbo-Hydramatic transmission family, I asked which transmission you’d like to see covered next by Abandoned History. Comments focused on Ford and the various versions of the C family of automatics. It’s okay with me ! Today we go back to the 50s to learn more about the genesis of all Cs. It was the extremely fifties Cruise-O-Matic, proudly built in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Cruise-O-Matic was not designed in-house by Ford, but was the first widely used automatic transmission in the Ford-Lincoln-Mercury portfolio. Ford was quite late in the fully automatic transmission game and only realized around 1948 that they had fallen behind the competition. By then, GM had put its four-speed Hydra-Matic on sale for eight full model years. More on that in a moment.

Ford’s initial idea was to buy an automatic transmission from someone else. The gearbox Ford opted for was the DG, an all-new transmission designed by the Detroit Gear division of Borg-Warner. But there was a problem. It wasn’t made for Ford, so the folks in Dearborn didn’t (yet) own the rights to use it.

The DG was designed for Studebaker, so Ford approached hat in hand and asked if they could buy the rights to build the DG. Studebaker agreed to sell the rights with Ford, but their board had a stipulation. Studebaker would have a one-year exclusive right to use DG in its cars before Ford could add it to its lineup. And Studebaker, cash-strapped, was already late for auto play too; the DG wouldn’t be ready for another two years – the 1950 model year for Studebakers.

Sensing that the debut of a Ford automatic in 1951.5 would not cut the mustard, Ford decided to spend even more money and get their own transmission design. They had already hired an engineer from Borg-Warner to be their vice president of engineering, a man named Harold Youngren. Youngren made a simple recommendation: Ford should go buy the automatic transmission he was working on until he left his former employer.

Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

It is by chance that the automatic in development at Borg-Warner was not at the request of a particular car manufacturer. Notably, it was developed by the Warner Gear division of Borg-Warner, not the Detroit Gear division. Ford approached Borg-Warner and immediately signed a contract for the automatic. The agreement stipulated 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 contract out the transmission work any more than necessary, so it immediately implemented plans for an all-new transmission plant. When complete, Ford had the new 629,000 square foot Fairfax transmission plant in Fairfax, Ohio, a village in Cincinnati.

Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

When introduced in 1951, the transmission was branded Ford-O-Matic. In Mercury vehicles it became the Merc-O-Matic, and in Lincoln it was called Turbo-Drive. It’s worth mentioning that early ’50s Lincolns used the GM Hydra-Matic (gasp!). The Turbo-Drive was not adapted for Lincoln use until 1955, perhaps after it had time to prove its reliability. Ford’s automatic was renamed Cruise-O-Matic in 1958, a better known name.

Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

The newly created Ford automatic had two advantages over previous automatics that the company used here and there. The Borg-Warner design featured an integrated torque converter and planetary gear set, which meant that gear changes occurred without any interruption in torque. Recall that until the 1950s, automatic transmission was generally not all good.

The Borg-Warner box also implemented a modern PRNDL shift pattern, instead of Ford’s older PNDLR. The old model caused excessive shift shock (jolts) when changing gears. PRNDL also made actions such as parking and rocking a stuck vehicle back and forth easier, as it removed the low speed range between driving and reversing.

Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

The original design of the transmission was technically three-speed, but when put into D, it started in second gear, then shifted into third. First gear was only used if the car was in L (low). In situations where a driver cut the gas from the line, the gearbox would shift from second to first while driving, then back to second, then to third when the car was at the desired speed.

Because it had to go to the trouble of licensing a transmission that was in development at Borg-Warner, Ford did not buy much time from its initial plans to adopt the Borg-Warner DG unit from Studebaker . The Ford-O-Matic was ready for the 1951 model year, which gave Ford about a six-month head start on purchasing the automatic Studebaker and subsequently suspending its use.

But Ford had the last word! Studebaker has had very few happy years of using the automatic DG. The automaker had been struggling for years and its money problems were not resolved as automatic cars became more popular as the DG was rather expensive to build. The functionally and dimensionally similar Ford-O-Matic was much more economical.

Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

By the mid-1950s, Studebaker was in a transmission jam. They approached Ford with the same request Ford had in 1948: please leave us a license for your automatic for use in Studebakers. Ford agreed and Studebaker began using the Ford-O-Matic immediately in their cars. They named it Flight-O-Matic.

The Ford-O-Matic remained in its original appearance for the first few years, before Ford began updates to meet more modern passenger car demands. It remained in production until 1965, by which time Fairfax Transmission was already halfway through its life as a transmission factory. 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 abruptly shut down.

Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

As a small suburb of Hamilton County, Fairfax Transmission was a major employer in the area from its inception in 1950 until its closure. Fairfax built transmissions like the Ford-O-Matic and its successors for Ford’s large rear-drive cars. But downsizing in the late 1970s killed the plant’s need for capacity, and it closed completely in 1979.

Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

After the closure, Ford kept the derelict site at 4000 Red Bank Road until January 1987, when it was sold to a distribution company. This company planned to renovate at least part of the site into a warehouse. Unsurprisingly, the huge site was not maintained and the 35-acre land fell into disrepair fairly quickly.

Chemicals, heavy metals and asbestos from its days as a factory were not contained or removed before Ford sold the property, and were then ignored by its buyer in 1987. Slowly, everything that came from the factory seeped into the ground. The factory made up seven percent of the village’s land area and became a dangerous eyesore and economic hole for decades.

Environmental damage and degradation of the site continued into the 2000s. Conditions at the site deteriorated enough that it was resumed as a Cincinnati Port Authority project. The government organization received the property after establishing a covenant not to sue the site owner for its various aspects of environmental and general negligence. The owner returned the deed without money, and in exchange was not prosecuted for eternity by the city.

Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part I)

The Port Authority took possession in 2006 and began a $60 million mixed-use redevelopment. The 629,000 square feet of the abandoned factory was 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 soil. The redevelopment was completed in 2009 and today the site is home to a Walmart, Wendy’s, 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 groundwater below is prohibited.

The effects of the abandoned Cruise-O-Matic story will be felt in Cincinnati for a long time. We’ll pick up next time with happier stories of the new transmission technology.

[Images: Ford, Cincinnati Port Authority]

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