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1938 Buick Survivors


redman60

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REALLY? that "self-shifting" transmission was only available in 1938? wow, isnt that a neat little piece of trivia. what are they like to drive how do they work? i remember when i first read through my owner's manual and it kept mentioning that, and i thought "what IS this thing? i thought somewhere i read that dynaflows first came out in the laste '40s.

is this thing like a real automatic with all the hydraulic stuff in it or whatever? or is it just the 3 speed standard with i dunno like an automatic clutch and shifting mechanism or something? thatd be pretty neat.

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It was a real "semi-automatic" - the very first one that allowed the driver to NOT use the clutch pedal, at least almost all of the time.

It was not related to Dynaflow in any way. It was more a sort of "pre-Hydramatic."

It was developed primarily by Cadillac, and later Oldsmobile Engineering Divisions. Remember, this is back in the good old days, when the GM Divisions were really pretty much separate from each other. Cadillac started the ball rolling seriously in 1932, but was short on engineering budget, due to the Depression and the expense of developing the V-12 and V-16 engines. The project went to Oldsmobile in the 1935-36 time frame.

Neither Cadillac nor Oldsmobile (supposedly) had the production room to build the unit. So, GM upper management gave the job to Buick for 1938 when it was felt that it was perfected enough for production. Buick didn't really want it. It was felt (by management) that if they were going to build it, they should sell it in Buicks. So, rather reluctantly, Buick offered it as an option, only on the Special.

Things didn't go real well. Lots of service issues and unhappy customers. It was dropped completely for 1939. In 1940, after quite a bit more developement work by Oldsmobile, it was re-introduced by Oldsmobile. This was a true fully automatic unit, no clutch pedal at all! This went much better, but still far from perfect. The following year (1941) it was offered by Cadillac.

< Interesting footnote: also introduced by Cadillac in 1941 was the first GM optional Air Conditioning unit - Packard had offered it in 1940, Cadillac had to "keep up" - but it was not much of a success, only 300 units left the factory with it. >

Of course, along came World War II shortly into the 1942 model year, and no more cars until '46. BUT, during the war, Cadillac built Hydramatic automatics which were used in Tanks - this intense "field testing" obtained during the War allowed them to come to market after the War with a pretty much bullet-proof (literally?) automatic, which within a couple of years became standard on Cadillac.

Buick was so turned-off to automatics as a reult of its 1938 experience that it did not offer another one until their very own (developed by Buick engineering) Dynaflow appeared in 1948, optional on Roadmaster only. It was, of course, a great success, and by 1950 virtually all (85 - 90%) Buicks were Dynaflow equipped. There were a few bad experiences in the 50's, and Dynaflow got 'picked on' quite a bit for its perceived lack of acceleration off the line, but continued to improve until ultimatley done away with in 1963 (?).

That's all I know...

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I thought the change also had something to do with the switch to column shift in 1939 by both Olds and Buick. Can't say, though, why this may have afected the mechanism. Incidentally, I recnently met someone at a meet in CT who had a 1938 Pontiac wagon with column shift; he told me that it was a $10 option for all GM cars in that year.

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I picked up a 38 Special parts car many years ago. It had a self shifting transmission in it.

I saved the transmission.

The car had a shorter drive shaft to accomodate the longer transmission, and it had a column shifter. I recall it also had a clutch pedal for standing start only. From that point it self shifted. I had the column shift pieces for a long time at my dad's place, but they seem to be gone now.

I have no use for the transmission and if some one really wants it I would part with it. I just haven't really known what to do with it and I can't just toss it away. Maybe its a piece of history that belongs on display somewhere. For now it site in my spare Buick stuff pile.

I think they stopped offering it because it just didn't shift well, I recall talk that it shifted like a woman driver. I suspect that was not complimentary to women drivers, and I can only guess what they meant by it. laugh.gif

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  • 3 weeks later...
  • 3 months later...

Dear Redman60:

Since my name (Dave Corbin)got mentioned, I'm going to put my 2 cents worth in on the "Self-Shifter". Yes, it's true I do own one and it was at Flint in 2003. I think there are about 9 in existence altogether. Th mix as far as I know is: 5 four doors (one of them built in Southgate California), a 2 door convertible, a 4 door convertible sedan, a drop dead gorgeous dual side mount coupe that was in the Harrah's collection, and my little old original 2 door sedan Model 48. I am the 6th owner, all from Texas. I've personally driven my car, the coupe and 2 of the sedans including the one built in Southgate. Also, the owner of the coupe when I drove it (a friend who lived about 2 miles away and is, sadly, recently deceased) had a 1938 Olds convertible restored to the eye teeth with dual sidemounts, the golf bag door, the clock steering wheel and a self shifter!! I've driven his Olds, the Buick coupe and my 2-door within a 90 minute period, so I can compare them for you. The Olds was a real sweetie, as the open driveline "gives" when the transmission shifts and it's just about like a Hydramatic from the 1940 time period except for putting the clutch in when you come to a stop. The Buick coupe had a thorough transmission overhaul and was harsh, but acceptable. My 1989 F-350 Ford diesel truck with a C6 is about like it. My unrestored Texas 2 door is HARSH! Kicks like a mule both ways! BUT, it has 92,000 miles on it and with the 3.615 rear end (47/13), will cruise at 80! The second owner(son-in-law of the Buick dealer who sold it new) told me when I bought it "You'll love it. Fast and reliable IF driven right!" He explained "right" to me and he has been correct! The only odd thing I've done is to change the transmission oil (it is supposed to use 30W engine oil, per specifications) slowly to a mix of 2 quarts of 10W-40 and 1 quart of 30W. That cleaned out the effects of 40 years of sitting, improved the shifting and converted it into a REAL Buick. (It leaks oil!!)

I have collected the complete set of manuals including the little owners manual for the glovebox (3 all together) and 3 of the 5 shop tools issued. Incidentally, I have a spare set of the manuals that I would sell to another self-shifter owner. I hope this adds something to the discussion.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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Dear Oxnard:

On a self-shifter, theres a cute little box mounted on the right side of the steering column about where a normal column mounted 3 speed lever would be. It reads (from top to bottom) R,N,F1,F2. Out of that there is a 10 inch long lever that has a push button on the end that has a position detent. There is a regular clutch pedal. The car cranks in N with the regular foot feed start. You then push down on the clutch, wait about 10 seconds for everything to stop spinning, move the lever to F1 and let out the clutch. At around 13-15 miles an hour, move the lever to F2 and it will shift up to 3rd gear. At around 25 if you're going along easy, it shifts to 4th gear. Sounds just like an early Hydramatic Olds. Yes, it will do passing gear downshifts if you step on it! If you start in F2, the car starts in 1st gear, shifts to 3rd at about 8 miles an hour and to 4th at 25. A day when I was sure God liked me on this one was in 2000 at BCA National. I bought a NOS BROWN SELF-SHIFTER floor mat with NO CENTER HOLE in the floor!I hope this covers your questions on it. I invited Terry Dunham to drive it at 2003 BCA National. He had heard about them, but in 35 years in the BCA had never even seen one. We were big kids with a new toy for about an hour!!

Regards, Dave Corbin

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To all on this thread:

I noticed several comments that reflect what I think is the "Company Line" and are myths that need some light shed on them. First, the comment about Cadillac is correct but incomplete. Cadillac was working early on an automatic which was called the "Roller Transmission". That developement work failed and the project was shelved. I computerized the 1941 Buick parts book for all the self shifter parts so I could sort them into different sequences and see if that might shed some light on things. Boy, did it! A sort into straught part number sequence showed that there are 384 part numbers in the group of 500 part numbers between 1299500 and 1299999. This group fits right into Buick's part numbers issued in late 1934 or early in 1935, so it's a reasonable conclusion that Buick is the inventor of Hydramatic,as I'm going to show you. Yes, Buick had the space and the talent. Who was the new head of Buick at that time? Right, Harlow "Red" Curtis, who was and is one of GM's alltime best "gearheads". So his guys are doing it and Red is watching closely. By probably early 1936, it's ready for a car trial test. All of a sudden, disaster strikes! The thing's great but you can't get it soft enough to work with an TORQUE TUBE car. Too late to stop now, we've spent GM's money! What's to do? Well, it works fine with an open drive line car, since the driveline "gives" and takes up the shifting shock, so let's sell 30,000 of them to Olds in 1938 and 30,000 more in 1939. Not giving up, the computerized sort shows that there are, incredibly, no less than 5 different versions of the self-shifter made for 1938 Buicks! Each version differs from the one that precedes it, not by any change inside the transmission, but in the SHIFTING controls, adding check valves, springs, etc to "soften" the shift. The stark choice Buick now faces is to badmouth it as not worthy of Buick or switch to an OPEN driveshaft. After years of bragging about coil springs and ride, the transmission loses, but the development (at Buick!) continues and in 1940 becomes Hydramatic, built at Buick until the start of WW2. During the war, Buick developes a seamless full torque converter for the M5 tank destroyer. Buick's people look and say: HMM! By probably early 1945, they're ready and go to GM for the money to bring Dynaflow in late 1947 for the 1948 model year, so that by this version, Buick is both the father of Hydramatic AND Dynaflow. Since all automatics in the world for the next 50 years are descendents of one of these two, I'm taking Buick as the father of the automatic transmission. I hear you saying "Boy, old Dave has popped his gasket on this one!!" Here's my evidence. 1) who's the president of GM in early 1945? Red Curtice. Who would know the real story behind the "Company line?" Red Curtice. When Buick says "We've solved the problem.", who approves the money? Red Curtice. I would bet you that that approval took about 5 seconds!! You can prove this whole thing to yourself with this further little test. Jump forward to 1952 and look at the GM divisions, their automatics and their drive train type: 1) Chevy, torque tube, Powerglide (or Powerslide. as we called them). 2) Pontiac, open shaft, Hydramatic. 3) Olds, open shaft, Hydramatic. 4) Buick, torque tube, Dynaflow. 5) Caddilac, open shaft, Hydramatic. See the pattern? GM, taught by Buick, learned that a Hydramatic and a torque tube are a poisonous combination no matter how hard you try. It takes into the 80's to get it right. Ford and Packard watched and learned! I think this is the "real" truth about "self-shifter" It is the DIRECT father of Hydramatic, and the "philosophical' father of Dynaflow, (because it lead to some engineer learning) and, rightly, should be regarded as one of the great engineering sucesses of the 20th century. Sadly, the "Company Line" will prevail and "self-shifter" will be thought of as a failure, thus denying Buick of credit it earned and deserves!

OK, so much for my revisionist history lesson, but think about my points and see if you reach a different conclusion. It fits the ACTUAL facts too well to be wrong!

Regards, Dave Corbin

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wow this thread has been an interesting read.i would very much love to ride in or even see one of these self shifting '38s. maybe someday i will. its really neat. even knowing how jerky the shifting was, and how it wasnt as automcatic as a true automatic trans, i wouldve bought one back then just because of how (rather) unheard of it was. id certainly put up with the problems it had just to be likely the only one on the street with an automatic in 1938! but i think a lot of us would, thats what sets us apart from normal people

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I just got through reading about the "Roller" transmission in the book "The Buick: A Complete History" by Dunham and Gustin. It seems that this was a continuously variable transmission- no gear shifting (just like what was eventually delivered with Dynaflow)! When accelerating, the engine would rev up to it's power peak, and just stay at the same RPM while the tranny would automatically adjust the "gear" reduction until it reached direct drive. Development was started by a GM R&D area in the mid-twenties, and then handed off to Buick and Cadillac for further development to ready it for production. The book says that although there were early reliability problems in the test units, eventually, they got it working well, and were ready to introduce it in the 1932 Series 90 cars. It was the cost that killed the project! They would have had to charge over $500 for this option, and they thought it too much. It was never introduced to the public. Funny, what's old is new again, as automakers (Ford, Nissan, Honda) have just recently begun introducing CV trannies in some of their models.

Pete

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