What Was the Final US-Market Car with a Two-Speed Transmission?

The first genuinely successful automatic transmission was the original GM Hydra-Matic, which made its debut in the 1940 Oldsmobile and boasted four forward gears. For much of the second half of the 20th century, though, the three-speed automatic dominated the American two-pedal automotive world, only disappearing from new cars after—no, this isn’t a typo—2002; the four-speed slushbox survived all the way until last year. However, it was the affordable two-speed automatic that really began the process of putting the clutch on the endangered-species list, and its heyday here was the early 1950s through the middle 1960s. Today we will discuss the very last two-speed available in the United States.

We’re talking about two-speed automatics in mass-production, internal-combustion cars, and light trucks only here, so the Porsche Taycan and other EVs don’t count, nor do oddball kit cars built as fronts for money-laundering operations in 1986 Miami, nor do purpose-built drag-racing machines.

Of course, those ground rules are pretty easy to set, but then we run right into the dilemma presented by Honda and its strange Hondamatic transmission. The Hondamatic was a bewildering mashup of 1960s motorcycle and automobile technology (which made sense when you recall that Soichiro Honda got his start building the motorcycles that put Asia on wheels), stirred in a witches’ cauldron while incantations were chanted from Borg-Warner sacred texts and first installed in the motorcycle-engined 1968 Honda N360 kei car.

Americans could buy the Hondamatic in Civics, Preludes, and Accords all the way through 1983 (1982 in the case of the Prelude), and it had gearsets to provide two forward ratios, but I feel compelled to give it just an honorable mention in the battle for the Last Two-Speed Prize.

First of all, the two-speed Hondamatic that we got over here (later three- and four-speed true Honda automatics got the Hondamatic name but were fundamentally different transmissions) didn’t shift automatically. The driver could start out with the gear selector in the 1 position and then upshift to the 2 position… or just leave it in 2 at all times and let the torque converter do the rest.

Later on, the Hondamatic shifter showed 2 and D positions, but it worked the same way.

Honda sometimes claimed the original Hondamatic had three forward speeds: low gear, second gear with the torque converter slipping (drag-race torque-multiplier style), and second gear with the torque converter locked up.

We’re talking about true two-speed automatics here, so who sold the last one Americans could buy in a new car? General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler each offered two-speeds in various flavors during the 1950s and 1960s; the Chrysler Powerflite appeared in the 1954 model year and could be purchased in new Plymouths and Dodges as late as 1961.

Ford developed a two-speed version of the Borg-Warner-designed Fordomatic and installed it in cars from the 1959 through 1963 model years.

The Detroit king of the two-speed automatic was always General Motors, though. The legendary Powerglide appeared for the first time in the 1950 Chevrolet, and it changed everything. Finally, an automatic transmission for the masses (though the Powerglide didn’t get fully automatic shifting until 1953)!

I’ve driven many Powerglide-equipped cars during my 39 years as a licensed driver, and that’s the transmission that came in my notorious 1965 Impala sedan art car/drag-racer when I first bought it. With the thoroughly worn-out 283-cubic-inch V8 feeding a two-speed, the car was miserably slow off the line… and then there was that distinctively Powerglidian upshift at about 35 mph, the only one you got with that setup. I replaced the 283 with a 350, and then upgraded the Powerglide to a three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 350.

Still, while the nice low-ratio first-gear of the TH350 gave my Impala far better acceleration, the Powerglide was quite a bit sturdier. In fact, the Powerglide has proven to be one of the most indestructible transmissions in human history. Even after I ditched the Powerglide and had to replace a TH350 with a fresh junkyard-obtained one every few years, I honored the GM two-speed by naming a homebrewed beer after it: Powerglide Road Soda.

Toyota installed license-built Powerglides (badged as Toyoglides) in U.S.-market Coronas and Crowns into at least the late 1960s, and American Motors built some DJ-5 “mail Jeeps” with a catastrophically sluggish Chevy 153/Powerglide combo from the 1968 through 1970 model years. Believe it or not, Corvette buyers could get Powerglides installed by the factory in their cars all the way through 1967. The very last Powerglides sold here went into 1973 Chevrolet Novas and Vegas, though.

The last year for a full-sized Chevy with Powerglide was 1971, while the two-speed held on in the midsize Chevelle line until the following year. By 1973, you had to be a terribly uninformed car shopper to be willing to tolerate the ruinously steep first gear of the Powerglide with the 72 horsepower generated by the Vega’s engine, so nearly all of the final Powerglides went into Novas that year.

By that time, you could get the Powerglide only with the “Turbo-Thrift” 250-cubic-inch (4.1-liter) straight-six, rated at 100 horsepower. This was an extra-cost option, shockingly, and the smart-but-broke 1973 Nova shoppers stuck with the three-on-the-tree column-shift manual. Thankfully, GM killed the manually shifted Torque-Drive version of the Powerglide after 1971; after its driving experience proved to be every bit as unpleasant (though still very reliable) as you’d think.

Like the four-on-the-floor manual in 1996 or the three-on-the-tree in 1987, the two-speed automatic transmission stayed in service well beyond the point of obvious obsolescence, because it was cheap and it just worked. What will be next to go? I predict that the five-speed manual— currently available here in just the Impreza, Mirage, Versa, and Spark— doesn’t have many years remaining.

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