History of the automatic transmission

Updated April 17, 2017

An automatic transmission allows a vehicle to change gear ratios from a gearbox without requiring its driver to use a shift lever or a clutch. Its origins date to 1894, when the modern automatic transmission was introduced by Frenchmen Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor. Ten years later, the concept was improved by the Sturtevant brothers in Boston, Massachusetts.

Sturtevants' Transmission

The Sturtevant brothers developed the two-forward-speed automatic transmission, but metal technology at the time was primitive and the gearbox was prone to failure due to the stress of changing gear ratios. .

Reo Tries It

Automaker Reo developed the Self-Shifter in 1934 that basically used two transmissions: one used at ordinary speeds and the second when low gear was required to slow the car.


In 1940, General Motors' Oldsmobile marketed a reliable version, the Hydra-Matic, which combined a fluid coupling with three planetary gearsets that were hydraulically controlled.


The Hydra-Matic was soon offered in Cadillacs and Pontiacs, but World War II interrupted mass production for all civilian models and was converted to military uses.

Others Follow

Buick followed with its Dynaflow in 1948; Packard offered the Ultramatic in 1949; and Chevrolet debuted the Powerglide in 1950.


German and Japanese automakers are leading the way today with new automatic technology, with BMW developing the first six-speed automatic in 2002; Mercedes-Benz a seven-speed 7G-Tronic in 2003; and Toyota's eight-speed found in the 2007 Lexus LS 460.

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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.