Who Invented the First Automatic Car?

Updated April 17, 2017

The invention of the first automatic car is more evolutionary than the result of a single invention. Frenchmen Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor are recognised for inventing the modern transmission in 1894, but it was Thomas J. Sturtevant of Boston, Mass., who designed the first automatic transmission in 1904.


Inventor Sturtevant designed the 1904 Automatic Tourer that featured an internal combustion engine, a 3-speed semi-automatic gearbox, automatic lubrication and vacuum brakes.


The Sturtevant automatic transmission serves as the blueprint for all automatic cars and trucks on today’s roads.


The clutch-less automatic car utilises a gearbox that automatically changes the gear ratio, which allows the driver to simply select one gear to move or park the vehicle.


While automakers experimented with a variety of different automatics, the semi-automatic and the fully automatic transmission received the most attention.


Automatic cars changed gears at specific predetermined speeds, often coming in 2- or 3-speed models, depending on the size of the engine and the options available.


Relatively modern automatic cars, such as 1940-67 Oldsmobiles equipped with “Hydramatic” transmissions, have no clutch pedal, freeing the driver from physically shifting gears.

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About the Author

Rob Wagner is a journalist with over 35 years experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines. His experience ranges from legal affairs reporting to covering the Middle East. He served stints as a newspaper and magazine editor in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Wagner attended California State University, Los Angeles, and has a degree in journalism.