Weatherford Democrat

September 15, 2013

NOW HEAR THIS: Shifting into overdrive

Weatherford Democrat


Recently, my daughter, Lori, and grandson, Reid, offered to come down and help me build some fence.  I have been having a terrible time with feral hogs rooting up the field where I normally plant wheat for use as winter grazing for my cattle. This year, despite grossly inflated net wire prices, I decided to fence the hogs out of my field.

For shuttling tools and materials up and down the fence line we used my Kubota utility “mule,” as well as my smaller tractor. On the first day, as we were getting ready to go to the field, it dawned on me that probably neither of them knew how to drive a standard shift transmission. Fortunately, Lori had picked up the basics somewhere along the line and was able to drive the tractor.

Unlike Lori, the first thing I learned to drive was an F-14 Farmall tractor. Its manual transmission had three forward gears, and top speed in high gear was probably 2-3 mph. From here I transitioned to a 1937 Chevrolet pickup, also having the same H-shift pattern in the floor. By the time I was ready to drive a real car, the automatic transmission was just beginning to make an appearance. Chevrolet introduced the Power Glide in 1950, Ford followed suit with the Ford-O-Matic in 1951, and Chrysler introduced their first automatic transmission in 1954. It was years before I drove one of these, because we had a 1948 Chevrolet car with a three-speed column shift that was vacuum assisted to make driving a pleasure. In actuality, it was a nightmare that rarely worked properly.

The automatic transmission went through quite an evolutionary process. I recall that my high school buddy, John Thomas, drove his dad’s ’53 Chrysler, and it had an unusual transmission called the Hy-Drive. It had three forward gears on the column, but it also incorporated a Torque converter. As I recall, you only clutched it when you first put it in gear, and after that, it would shift automatically.

Another early and interesting innovation was the overdrive transmission. My brother, David, had a 1955 Ford that had a three-speed manual shift with an overdrive transmission. As you accelerated to cruising speed, you would let off on the accelerator and it would automatically shift into a higher gear for better fuel economy and longer engine life. By the 1970s higher gears were included in the standard transmission, and shortly afterward, even most automatic transmissions included an “overdrive” gear selection.

Although my small tractor has a manual shift transmission, tractors through the years have also undergone quite a few innovations. Beginning in the 1960s, manufacturers offered power, or clutch less, shifting options. Being able to downshift without clutching was a wonderful addition for the farmer, particularly when pulling tillage implements.

Even in my day, there were a few people who could not drive a vehicle with a manual transmission, although rarely would a male of the species admit to it. The ladies immediately fell in love with automatic transmissions.

Today there are few vehicles around with stick shifts. If not for a few sports cars, economy cars and work trucks, everything is automatic. Before long youngsters won’t even know what you’re talking about if you call them low down double-clutching, shiftless skunks.  

Larry M. Jones is a retired Navy commander and aviator who raises cattle and hay in the Brock/Lazy Bend part of Parker County. Comments may be directed to