I'll Shift for Myself

KEN PURDY is editor of True, and an authority on motor racing and the road performance of automobiles. He now is working on an article which will size up speedway racing as exemplified by the 500-mile fixture at Indianapolis. If will appear in one of our spring issues.


THE reactionary is not a happy man. His face rigidly set against Progress, he is hustled along, a mere bean on a cannery belt conveyer, the green fields and rich sunsets of Better Times forever behind him. All reactionaries must by definition be miserable, but the saddest of the lot, it seems to me, is the Automobile Reactionary, f am one such, and I should know.

The Art Reactionary may deplore Picasso, but he cannot be compelled against, his will to look at anything but the Dutch masters, if that be his pleasure. The Literary Reactionary may retch at the mere murmured mention of Truman Capote, but no one later than Dickens need weight his shelves. The Political Reactionary, sunk in a daylong agony of choler at That Man, can still work and scheme and burrow underground to unseat him in the end, fair or foul. But the Automobile Reactionary cannot escape. One cannot, in this country, flee the automobile. One must be transported, willy-nilly. Even immured in some mountain hideaway, the gate chained against the world, one still must get down to the village now and again to buy a sack of flour. One must drive something.

One must drive, and that is the mub of the matter. Your typical reactionary would very much like to drive an automobile. He would like to sit up high and see out. But in any automobile he can buy today — at least any domestic automobile — he can count on being sunk up to his chin in a mass of metal, forced to steer by extrasensory perception. Is there an old pickle barrel in front of his wheels, mayhap, after he has parked for a spell down by the gasworks? He cannot toll unless he goes around to look. Does he wish to achieve a U-turn? He must sit there, huffing and puffing, while he hauls the steering wheel around five times to the left, five times to the right, five times to the left, five times to the right again. His muscles ache, and he is rewarded with a twinge that may be either vexation or angina.

The poor man may be old enough to remember the motorcars of his father’s day, perhaps even the good two-seaters, the Mercers, Stutzes, Nationals. Cars that sat a man up where he belonged, like a knight upon his charger, and let him see where he was going. Cars that really turned when the wheel was moved, instead of merely suggesting, sluggishly, that after a bit they might change direction. And, most of all, cars that had a proper gearshift.

The gearshift is the heart of the matter. After all, almost any being, even a woman or one of the higher apes, can steer, disengage a clutch, or lay heavy foot upon the loud pedal. But it took a man to shift gears properly and with style on the good old cars. Many of us remember the vibrating shock that ran like a lightning bolt through hand, arm, and shoulder the first time we missed a change on a straight-tooth box, devoid of synchromesh cones and other such gimcrack aids for the inept. Months later, having learned the mysteries, what reward, what solidly satisfying sensual pleasure, as the big lever slipped smoothly from first to second to third to fourth to third to second to first, the car batting along uphill and down with never a jerk or a sound from the gears.

We have come to the end of all that. There is not a proper floormounted gearshift being made for an American car today. Even the abominable steering-post gearshift, which separates the driver from his business with the gears by endless insulating joints and creaky gooseneck turnings, is going. It was a poor thing, but the best we had, and the impersonal automatic shift lever, with its pointer reaching for cabalistic symbols that claim to indicate gear ratios, is a dreary substitute.

The lever itself is only the symptom. The seat of the malady lies buried beneath the floor boards, where a crew of ugly little purple men with pointed heads, sealed into the transmission by the manufacturers — no doubt in punishment for some ghastly sin — busily shove the gears back and forth in harmony with a pattern that is known only to themselves.

Do you wish to have Lo-Overdrive? You will take Hi, and like it. Are you motoring along in the sunshine, as nearly content with your lot as may be, when you are seized by the impulse to scratch your leg? Your foot comes off the gas, there is a muffled command from the overseer below, a clank from the engine room, and you are in another gear. You had nothing to do with it. The little men did it.

Oh, it’s all terribly convenient, no doubt, and the female driver, buttressed smugly now in her ignorance, is happy. She can get into her automobile, put her foot down, and go home like a lady, her progress through the gears almost as smooth and silent as anything ever achieved by a grayheaded chauffeur with twenty years of Rollls-Royces behind him.

Ibit all sin contains within itself the seed of its own punishment, and retribution will be exacted. Sooner or later the lady will smash up her automatic transmission. Desperately allergic to any form of instruction on things mechanical, she will of course not read the instruction manual carefully provided by the car’s maker. She knows all she needs to know, doesn’t she? You point the pointer to DR for Drive, and you drive. What’s so hard about that? Nothing, madam, but someday the automobile will, in a word, refuse to march. Perhaps the battery will be dead. Let us say, for example, that the battery is dead, or at least comatose. The driver waves pitifully to some passing motorist, and a push is arranged. The selector lever is placed in drive, the ignition turned on. How is this? The engine does not fire. Another wave. Faster. Thirty miles an hour. Forty. There is an ominous clank and a clatter. There has been slaughter among the little men. The car must, head for dry dock. For all automatic transmissions are vastly fussy about being pulled or pushed. Dyonflow, for example, must be pushed in neutral, switch on, to fitteen miles an hour, then shifted to drive position. It may not be towed in any position, save neutral, and then not faster than thirty miles per hour.

To start a stalled Studebaker Automatic, the Ignition is turned on, the automatic choke set by one and only one — depression of the accelerator, the selector placed in neutral. The car can then be pushed, but not towed, to fifteen miles per hour, and the selector lever moved to either low or drive. It should then start. Prestomatic, Tiptoe-Shift, and Gyro-matic, however, can be pushed in neutral to ten miles per hour and then put in low range. It a Hydramatic transmission breaks down, the propeller shaft must be disconnected at the rear universal joint, or the rear wheels be lifted off the ground before it is pushed or towed. And so it goes, with one complex variation piled upon another.

All this nonsense began about 1895, but the danger did not become acute until 1931, when the English Daimler people began to turn out automobiles with a fluid coupling. This meant merely that the drive from engine to rear wheels was transmitted through oil, the driving member (a sort of saucepan filled with vanes attached to the engine) spinning oil which imparted movement to the identical driven member attached to the rear wheels.

This innocent-sounding device was the root of the evil, and it was followed in due season by something more efficient called the Brockhouse Turbo-Transmitter. After the customary ten-year time lag, the innovation appeared on American cars and the sluice gates were opened. Today’s automatic transmissions are nothing so simple as mere fluid couplings, you may be sure of that. They are full of pilot valves, planetary gears, pinion carriers, and what not. Some of thorn have over 700 moving parts. A textbook which attempts to explain them in elementary terms runs to 270-odd pages.

Still, it is Progress. It may not be pleasant, but it’s Progress, so stand aside there, you, and make way. There are other beans on this conveyer, and there is no going backward, now or ever.