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


As we finished up our coverage of General Motors’ Turbo-Hydramatic family of transmissions, I asked which gearbox you might like to see covered next by Abandoned History. The comments honed in on Ford, and the various versions of the C family of automatics. Fine by me! Today we head back to the Fifties to learn about the genesis of all the Cs. It was the extremely Fifties-sounding Cruise-O-Matic, built with pride in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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

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

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

Sensing that a 1951.5 debut of a Ford automatic wouldn’t cut the mustard, Ford decided to spend even more money and obtain their own transmission design. They’d already hired an engineer from Borg-Warner to be their VP of engineering, a man by the name of Harold Youngren. Youngren made an easy recommendation: Ford should go and buy the automatic he’d been working on right up to the point he left his former employer.

It was happenstance that the automatic in development at Borg-Warner was not at the behest of a particular automaker. Notably, it was developed by the Warner Gear division of Borg-Warner, not the Detroit Gear division. Ford approached Borg-Warner and signed a contract immediately for the automatic. The agreement said 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 farm out the transmission work any more than it had to, so it immediately put plans into motion for a brand new transmission plant. When finished, Ford had the new 629,000 square-foot Fairfax Transmission Plant in Fairfax, Ohio, a village within Cincinnati.

At launch in 1951, the transmission was branded as the Ford-O-Matic. In Mercury vehicles, it became the Merc-O-Matic, and at Lincoln, it was called Turbo-Drive. Worth a mention, Lincolns in the early Fifties used the GM Hydra-Matic (gasp!). The Turbo-Drive wasn’t adapted for Lincoln’s use until 1955, perhaps after it had time to prove itself reliable. Ford’s automatic was renamed in 1958 to Cruise-O-Matic, a name that’s better known.

The newly-created Ford automatic had two advantages over the previous automatics the company used here and there. The Borg-Warner design had an integrated torque converter and a planetary gearset, which meant gearshifts happened without any interruption in torque. Remember that until the Fifties, the automatic transmission was not generally any good.

The Borg-Warner box also implemented a modern PRNDL shift pattern, instead of Ford’s previous PNDLR. The old pattern caused excess shift shock (jolting) upon gear changes. PRNDL also made actions like parking and rocking a stuck vehicle back and forth easier, as it removed the low gear range from between drive and reverse.

The transmission’s original design was technically a three-speed, but when put in D it started in second gear and then shifted to third. First gear was used only if the car was in L (low). In situations where a driver floored the gas off the line, the gearbox would shift from second to first in drive, then back to second, and then third when the car was up to speed.

Because it had to go through the trouble of licensing a transmission that was in development at Borg-Warner, Ford didn’t save much time over their initial plans to adopt the DG Borg-Warner unit from Studebaker. The Ford-O-Matic was ready for the model year 1951, which gave Ford about a six-month advantage over the purchase of the Studebaker automatic and subsequent hold on its use.

But Ford got the last laugh! Studebaker got very few happy years of use out of the DG automatic. The automaker had been struggling for years, and its money troubles were not helped as automatics became more popular because the DG was rather expensive to build. The functionally and dimensionally similar Ford-O-Matic was much more economical.

By the middle of the Fifties, Studebaker was in a transmission jam. They approached Ford with the same request Ford had in 1948: Please let us license your automatic for use in Studebakers. Ford consented and Studebaker began using the Ford-O-Matic immediately in their cars. They branded it the Flight-O-Matic.

The Ford-O-Matic remained in its original guise for the first few years, before Ford began updates to meet more modern passenger car demands. It remained in production through 1965, at which point Fairfax Transmission was already halfway through its life as a transmission plant. 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 closed abruptly.

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

After closure, Ford held onto the abandoned site at 4000 Red Bank Road until January of 1987, when it was sold off to a distribution company. Said company planned to renovate at least part of the site into warehouse space. Unsurprisingly the enormous site was not maintained going forward, and the 35-acre plot fell into major disrepair fairly quickly.

The chemicals, heavy metals, and asbestos from its days as a plant were not contained or removed before Ford sold the property, and were subsequently ignored by its purchaser in 1987. Slowly, everything from the factory leaked into the ground. The factory made up seven percent of the land area of the village and became a dangerous eyesore and economic hole for decades.

Environmental damage and site decay continued into the 2000s. The situation at the site got bad enough that it was taken over as a project of the Cincinnati Port Authority. The government organization received the property after it established a Covenant Not to Sue against the site’s owner for its various aspects of environmental and general negligence. The owner turned over the deed for no money, and in exchange was not sued for eternity by the city.

The Port Authority took ownership in 2006 and started on a $60 million mixed-use redevelopment. All 629,000 square feet of the abandoned factory were 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 dirt. Redevelopment was finished in 2009, and today the site hosts a Walmart, a Wendy’s, a 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 the groundwater underneath it is off-limits.

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

[Images: Ford, Cincinnati Port Authority]

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