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Pushbutton transmissions
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1956 DeSoto pushbutton.jpg
1956 DeSoto pushbutton.jpg
Sept. 4, 2013 5:19 p.m.

Q: Greg, I enjoyed your column on the Chevy powerglide and engines. Currently, I have a 50th anniversary Corvette. I know the first one in 1953 had a straight six "Blue Flame" engine and a two speed slush box of some type. Perhaps you could cover the early Corvette engine and transmissions, because it sure didn't have much performance the first couple years.

Also I remember my dad's '57 Chrysler Windsor with the pushbutton transmission. Was it a mechanical or hydraulic? My current Corvette is the six speed manual, and I also enjoy driving our five speed manual Neon.

Thinking back, I once had a girlfriend that had a diesel Mercedes with a five- or six-speed on the column. Perhaps another column could go into strange transmissions and controls. Not many people these days would even know what “three-on-the-tree” was. Thanks, Bob Curry, Washington.

A: Bob, I’d be happy to comment. My ’59 Edsel is a “three-on-the-tree,” which means you shift the car via a gearshift attached to the steering wheel column.

Many foreign cars featured “fours-on-the-tree,” including Saab sold here in the states. However, you might be surprised to find that the GMC/Chevy van produced from 1964 to 1970 had a rare option featuring a “four on the tree.” I’ll bet not many people remember those.

Although I can’t recall the Mercedes-Benz “five or six on the tree,” there are several good stories concerning the pushbutton you mention. The ’57 Chrysler you mention had the best of the pushbutton systems, coupled to perhaps one of the best ever three speed automatics ever, the Chrysler Torqueflite transmission (488, 904 and 727 series).

American Motors/Rambler also dabbed in pushbutton transmissions, using a Borg Warner pushbutton automatic from 1958 through 1962 on their larger cars like the Ambassador. Edsel had a unique pushbutton layout, as the inaugural 1958 model featured a pushbutton design right in the middle of the steering wheel. By 1959, it was gone as it was quite troublesome.

Chrysler’s new pushbutton Torqueflite, a hydraulic controlled unit with three forward speeds versus two in the earlier Powerflite, arrived in 1956 with the pushbutton unit to the left of the dashboard (some later models had right side access).

This design lasted for many years in all types of Chrysler cars, which also included Desoto, Dodge, Plymouth, and Imperial vehicles. I had a ’61 Plymouth Savoy slant six with a pushbutton Torqueflite and it was never a problem. In 1965, Chrysler went with the column shift automatic, and the pushbutton was gone forever. Other American manufacturers that dabbed in the pushbutton automatic in the Fifties were Packard and Mercury, too.

In ending, the 1953 Corvette you mention indeed came with an early GM Powerglide two speed, and the “Blue Flame” engine was the tried and trusty inline “Stovebolt” six cylinder with multiple carbs. Other than the carbs, it was pretty much the exact same engine that powered the other 1953 Chevrolets.

By 1955, Corvette featured the small block V8 and come full forward to 2014, it’s one of the best sports car buys in the world.

Thanks for your letter and enjoy your Corvette.

Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and welcomes reader questions on auto nostalgia, old-time motorsports and collector cars at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840 or email at greg@gregzyla.com.

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