Between 1956 and 1964, the carmakers of the Motor City had a brief but serious fling with push-button driving.
Today we look back on the 1950s as a quiet time, but there was plenty enough going on. After all, the ’50s managed to include the Jet Age, the Atomic Age, the Television Age, the Push-Button Age. Change was upon us. And with pushbuttons, now every convenience of mid-20th century life was right at our fingertips. Or at least that was the theory, as suddenly all our gadgets from televisions to kitchen appliances were sporting push-button controls. And sure enough, the push-button fad quickly jumped over to the auto industry in 1956, when the Chrysler Corporation adopted push-button gear selectors for all its passenger cars.
But just to illustrate that seldom is anything new in the car business, this wasn’t the first push-button gear selector. Way back in 1914, the Vulcan Electric Shift was adopted by Haynes, Pullman, and a few other carmakers. The Vulcan system, which used column-mounted pushbuttons and a series of solenoids to actuate a conventional manual transmission, proved to be a flop and was immediately withdrawn from the market. Which brings us to 1956.
While Chrysler wasn’t the only carmaker to offer it, as we shall see, it was by far the major promoter of the push-button gear selector, offering the feature on all its automatic-transmission cars from 1956 through 1964. A ’56 DeSoto is shown above, but all the Chrysler brands used similar controls on the left side of the dash—Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler, Imperial. There were various names; Dodge called its version Magic Touch.
While a number of button arrangements (horizontal, vertical, diagonal) were used through the years, the controls were all mechanical, with a steel push/pull cable between the shifter assembly in the dash and the Powerflite (two-speed) or Torqueflite (three-speed) transmission. Note that originally, there was no P for Park. Chrysler later added an internal parking pawl mechanism to the transmission and a dash lever to operate it.
While the selector worked perfectly fine, it was dropped by Chrysler for 1965 in favor of a conventional column (or floor) lever. There are many theories as to why, but strictly from a product perspective, we can see that over time, the feature progressed from innovative to novel to merely odd. It didn’t seem to attract many buyers at the end, but it may well have discouraged some. In Chrysler advertising, the feature had all but disappeared a few years earlier.
Packard also stepped up with a push-button gearchange in 1956, which it called the Electronic Selector. Standard on the flagship Caribbean and optional ($52) on the rest of the Packard line, it mounted to the steering column on a stalk, above. Unlike the Chrysler system and just as the name indicates, the Packard system, supplied by Autolite, was electrically operated rather than mechanical, with a beefy 12-volt motor to rotate the transmission’s hydraulic shift valve. And going Chrysler one better, Packard included a Park button. When the Detroit-built Packards were discontinued at the end of the ’56 model year and production moved to South Bend, Indiana, that was the end of the Electronic Selector as well.
Introduced on E-Day, September 4, 1957, the 1958 Edsel featured a push-button gearchange that was branded as Teletouch Drive. Like Packard’s, the Edsel system employed an electric motor to shift the automatic transmission’s gears, but with the added innovation (headache, some would say) of steering wheel-mounted buttons. Alas, Teletouch had a few bugs in it, an especially painful problem in the launch of a bold new product like the Edsel. The feature was dropped for 1959.
Even little American Motors got in on the act with a push-button dash control for the top-of-the-line Rambler Ambassador. Called Telovac and developed by Borg-Warner, which also supplied AMC with its Flash-O-Matic automatic transmissions, the feature was offered from 1958 to 1962. Like Chrysler, the Rambler used a separate control for Park.
Ford’s Mercury division joined the push-button crowd with a straightforward system called Keyboard Control, then upped the ante for 1958 with the elaborate setup above. Multi-Drive Keyboard Control, as it was called, included two drive ranges, “performance” and “cruising,” along with a hill-control feature for the Merc-O-Matic transmission. Multi-Drive was continued in 1959, but the push-button dash console was replaced with a traditional column-mounted lever.
It’s interesting to note that while the Mercury and Edsel divisions of the Ford Motor Company gave pushbuttons a try, the Ford and Lincoln divisions never did. Until recently, that is: The 2018 Lincoln Navigator shown below sports a dash-mounted push-button array. Now that automatic transmissions are fly-by-wire with no mechanical linkage, pushbuttons make more sense than they ever did. (The user interface can be anything: buttons, a dial, an icon on a touchscreen.) In this form, we’ll probably be seeing pushbuttons for many years to come.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.