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Chrysler’s brief foray into pushbutton automatics

by Lanny Knutson

The 1956 Chrysler Corporation cars came with “pushbutton automatics” — rather than moving a lever or turning a knob, car owners could push the button for the gear they wanted. Chrysler was not the only automaker to use them, but they may have stuck with them the longest.

push-buttons for automatics

The buttons used cables to change the transmissions’ fluid paths. They were used to control both the two-speed PowerFlite and three-speed TorqueFlite.

The buttons always lacked a Park position, and the engineers likely never figured out how to activate a parking pawl with them; cars with a parking pawl used a slider to activate it while in neutral.

pushbutton transmission controls

The buttons were laid out both horizontally and vertically, depending on the car. The “R” for reverse was often colored red. For symmetry, some cars had nearly-identical buttons on the passenger side of the dashboard, activating the heater.

1959 Imperial buttons

Burton Bouwkamp wrote: In 1960, the Imperial pushbutton pattern was changed; from D-N-R-2-1 (top to bottom) to R-N-D-2-1; Reverse and Drive swapped positions. On the announcement day, a new 1960 Imperial was parked in Chrysler VP Claire Briggs’ spot in the Jefferson Plant Executive Garage, facing the open garage door. Claire got into the car, pushed the top button, stepped on the gas, and ran into the wall behind the car. There were no witnesses, but we all knew what had happened — and saw the damage to the wall — but Claire never mentioned it.

1961 Imperial

Plymouth and the Dodge Dart/Polara, which used conventional parking brakes on the rear drums, had a parking sprag, or a metal pin that could lock the transmission in place so the car would not roll. Drivers activated the sprag by sliding a lever. The other cars had a driveshaft brake, and didn’t use the sprag. The 1962 midsized cars with A-727 automatics gained the Park lever and drum parking brakes, and the 1963 full-size cars followed. A second cable was used for the park sprag, when it was used. The original cast-iron Torqueflite had no provisions for a Park position.

plymouth controls

The park lever was below the horizontal buttons, or next to the vertical buttons, except on the 1960-62 Valiant and Lancer, which put the park lever on the lower dash.

The end of pushbutton automatics

Every 1965 car, from Valiant to Imperial, switched to a column shift, disappointing countless Mopar loyalists. Why were the pushbuttons discontinued? There are many popular theories.

One heard at the time was that the selector cost $1 less to make than the pushbuttons. Based on the rationale of “build a million cars, save a million dollars,” it made economic sense.

pushbuttons

Another theory was that Chrysler was out to increase its sales to owners of competing makes and, although liked by Chrysler devotees, the pushbuttons were annoying to people switching over from Ford or GM cars — possibly enough to keep them from buying a Chrysler product.

torqueflite pushbutton automaticA third theory is that the switch was required by the Society of Automotive Engineers, which standardized the selector quadrant order of “PRND21” that year to make it easier for drivers to switch between cars. A fourth theory is that the federal government demanded the “PRNDL” system for its own, quite large, fleet purchases, in advance of the forthcoming Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; some cities followed the federal government, as well (Los Angeles was a major exception, because only Chrysler met their pollution standards).

Finally, Bill Watson wrote that pushbutton automatics had been briefly used, then dropped, by Packard, Edsel, Mercury, Rambler, and Monarch. “Not very reassuring to a prospective car buyer if everyone who had the buttons dropped them, except Chrysler.”

pushbuttonsDaniel Stern wrote added that driver education programs were not buying Chrysler products because of the “nonstandard” pushbuttons, a critical gap since students might buy what they’d learned to drive on.

It could be that a number of influences hit at once, and made the pushbuttons untenable.

Owners of older cars can still update their transmissions while keeping the original linkage; Fireball Performance Automatics in Williamsburg, Ontario can convert the A-500 and A-518 truck transmisions to fit the cable linkages.

With the advent of electronically controlled transmissions, the company could have gone back to pushbuttons; at least one competitor did. However, they tried three other alternatives — knobs, “monostable” shifters that return to a neutral point after shifting — and traditional-feel console shifters. A few years into the experiment, they standardized on the traditional console shifters — working electronically rather than mechanically, but with the same old mechanical feel.

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