In 1935, there were no truly automatic transmissions on the market. But Hudson made an effort to offer the next best thing with a fascinating feature called Electric Hand.
This fact has been a bit mislaid by history over the years, but in its day, the Hudson Motor Car Company was a technical innovator. While the independent Detroit car maker was a fraction of the size of Ford or General Motors, with a fraction of the resources, Hudson was often able to hold its own in engineering. Advanced features in 1935, for instance, included a one-piece, all-steel top, Baker Axleflex independent front suspension, and a fascinating automated gear-shifting feature called Electric Hand. While Electric Hand was not an automatic transmission in any true sense, it’s a clever gadget that’s worthy of a closer look.
Developed for Hudson by the Bendix Corporation of South Bend, Indiana, Electric Hand was, in simple terms, a vacuum-electric pre-selector system. The transmission itself was a conventional three-speed synchronized mechanical unit, as usual. But mounted on the steering column was an electrically operated switch module with a tiny H-gate, just like a standard-pattern three-speed shifter in miniature, that allowed gear selection with the flick of one finger.
Or pre-selection, shall we say. For example: While in first gear, the driver could move the thumb lever to the second-gear position, but the gear change was not accomplished until the driver either pushed in and released the clutch pedal, or removed his/her foot from the throttle pedal and then reapplied it, which triggered a vacuum-powered clutch servo. All upshifts and downshifts could be accomplished this way, but in a patient and deliberate manner. Speed-shifting was not part of the program.
While not nearly as simple to use as a modern automatic transmission—today, we just drop the selector in D and go—-Electric Hand required considerably less physical effort and bother than a conventional transmission of the time. Also, it allowed drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel, which Hudson smartly promoted as a safety feature. One more benefit of Electric Hand was that it got rid of the traditional shift lever in the middle of the cabin floor, allowing for real three-abreast seating in the front.
The illustration above shows the workings at the transmission end of the system. The large cylinder, powered by the engine’s intake manifold vacuum, performed the long portions of the shifting pattern, while the smaller cylinder on top pulled the shifter across the H portion of the pattern. As the drawing shows, the system worked through the transmission’s existing shifter mechanism. In fact, a conventional shift lever was furnished with the car, stowed away in the cabin, in case the Electric Hand suffered a failure.
That leads us to an amusing feature of Electric Hand: If you pull back the floor mat, install the mechanical shift lever in the transmission receiver and run the steering column control switch through the gears, you can watch Electric Hand move the big shift lever through the gears as if operated by an invisible robot hand. What fun. You can view demonstrations of this stunt on YouTube, here for example.
Electric Hand was an available option on all Hudson and Terraplane models from 1935 through 1938. However, the feature was discontinued in 1939 when Hudson, taking a lead from Buick and others, adopted a column-mounted mechanical shift lever. The column selector, which Hudson marketed as Handy Shift, negated one of Electric Hand’s key benefits—three-abreast seating. In 1942, Hudson would offer a more advanced quasi-automatic transmission called Drive Master.
The story doesn’t end quite there, however. Bendix also supplied the same basic system to Cord for use on the 810/812 front-drive models of 1936-37, where a conventional mechanical shift linkage would have been cumbersome indeed. Here the feature was marketed simply as Remote Control shifting. And since the star-crossed Tucker 48 used salvaged Cord transmissions, the Bendix system can be found there, too.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage