After multiple years of testing and refinement Packard announced the availability of their automatic transmission
which they christened the “Ultramatic Drive”.

The Last Word in Automatic Shifting

Ultramatic Drive – Packard’s In-house Automatic

Few Likely know this, but Packard Motor Corporation was the only botique or small production automobile manufacturer that developed their own automatic transmissions. AMC-Nash, Studebaker, Hudson, Kaiser-Fraser and Ford at the outset, purchased their automatics from Borg-Warner and even GM. What is more outstanding is that the Packard automatic transmission, called “Ultramatic Drive” was the first automatic to use direct drive “lock up”, a feature only seen on modern automatic transmissions starting in the 80’s!

1949-1954: Ultramatic Drive

The first version of the Ultramatic Drive was a hydraulic torque converter automatic transmission with a two-speed unit, with reverse gear train, with torque converter lockup, called “Direct Drive” by Packard. The unit was fully hydraulically controlled with a “valve body,” like most early automatic transmissions before the advent of electronic control.

The original Ultramatic did not switch automatically between high and low gearing ratios. The driver selected “high-range” or “low-range” ratios through the column shift lever. In normal driving, the high (1:1) ratio would be selected at all times, and the two stage, dual turbine torque converter (actually four turbines were used) reduced gearing for starting off. At a speed of 15–56 mph, depending on rear axle ratio, hydraulic pressure, and also determined by carburetor linkage position, caused the Direct Shift Valve to apply the direct drive clutch. This “locked” the torque converter, giving direct mechanical drive from the engine to the rear wheels. This became the Ultramatic’s definitive feature, eliminating the power-robbing slippage of the torque converter at cruising speeds. On the highway, the Ultramatic delivered the same economy and power as a manual transmission. The low ratio was used for climbing and descending hills. When using the low ratio, the torque converter lockup happened at a slightly lower speed and that helped to eliminate torque converter overheating issues that plagued early automatic transmissions.

Ratio selection was through a column shift, with a lighted selector quadrant on the steering column showing the range. The positions available were Parking, Neutral, High, Low and Reverse (PNHLR). After its first year, the Ultramatic Drive became available on all Packard models, and was immediately popular. It continued on, with modifications to improve reliability until 1954, although it was mostly trouble free from the start.

In 1954, Ultramatic underwent a major upgrade, reconfigured to give low gear starts automatically in the newly added “Drive” (D) range. Many Packard owners had complained of lackluster acceleration with the earlier Ultramatics, and had discovered that starting off in Low ratio, and switching to High while on the move gave a much brisker pickup. Ultramatic Drive, while durable, handled this manual shift from low to high poorly.

By 1954, both the Borg-Warner and Chevrolet Power-Glide in addition to Hydra-Matic and Chrysler’s new PowerFlite performed ratio switches automatically as well (low-to high), while Buick’s Dynaflow Drive continued using high gear starts until its demise after the 1963 model year.

1954 – Gear-Start Ultramatic Drive

Packard’s new Ultramatic model introduced in the middle of the 1954 model year was called “Gear-Start Ultramatic Drive”. It had a new selector sequence on the column shift: “D”, for Drive, placed in between High and Low, with High now represented by a simple dot (PN•DLR). In this new DRIVE range, it would use the low ratio and torque converter to start off, switching to the high ratio and ultimately to direct drive as the car accelerated, automating what many Packard drivers had been doing manually with the older Ultramatic Drive.

During 1954, and into 1955, Packard Motor Car Company, later Studebaker-Packard, went on a modernization spree of its aging facilities. Packard President James J. Nance, and his manufacturing Vice-President, Ray Powers decided that their East Grand Boulevard complex was no longer able to be modified to handle the expected increase in production for the company in 1955 and beyond. A new facility was therefore planned and built for use by Packard as a transmission and engine facility in Utica, Michigan. This facility was built on the N/E corner of Packard Proving Ground Complex on Van Dyke Rd. During the summer and early fall of 1954, Packard moved the machinery and production for the Ultramatic, as well as its yet to be introduced V-8 engine . This facility therefore produced all 1954 “Gear-Start”, 1955 “Twin-Ultramatic”, and 1956 Ultramatic derivatives through the fall of 1956 when this facility was deactivated and sold as part of a corporate buyout deal with the Curtiss-Wright Company.

1955 – Twin-Ultramatic Drive

The 1955 Packard Twin-Ultramatic Drive

In 1955, Packard replaced its long-running straight-8 engine range with an all-new V-8 design, and launched a new evolution of its automatic transmission the “Twin-Ultramatic Drive”. McFarland, his assistant John DeLorean, and their team had not been satisfied with the improved pick-up of the Gear-Start Ultramatic, and modified the angle of the converter “pump” to allow a higher stall speed thus increasing the torque multiplication better suited to the torque curve of the new V-8 engines. In addition, a slightly higher stall converter was produced for the sportier Caribbean model due to its use of two four-barrel carburetors.

The Gear-Start’s ability to start in low range and switch to high automatically was retained, but the selector quadrant indicator was altered and PN•DLR became PN’D’LR to better reflect the dual drive range capability of this transmission, and to compete with GM’s Dual-Range Hydra-Matic. Functionality was the same; the first Drive position, to left of the “D” equated to High on the Gear-Start Ultramatic, while the second, situated to the right of D’, was equivalent to the Drive position on the Gear-Start, giving the driver the option of starting in either High or Low with automatic up-shifts, ending with Direct Drive engagement of the torque converter, and that was the reason for the Twin-designation referred to this dual Drive capability. The Twin-Ultramatic suffered many “teething problems” when introduced, which damaged Packard’s reputation for quality and reliability.

Packard offered Twin-Ultramatic in the Packard Clipper, Packard Four Hundred, Packard Patrician, and Packard Caribbean ranges, and sold Twin-Ultramatics to American Motors for use along with their 320 CID V-8 in top-of-the-line Nash Ambassador and Hudson Hornet models for 1955.

1956 – Ultramatic and Touch Button Ultramatic

The year 1956 saw a major redesign of many of the individual transmission components, including re-calibration of the shift pattern that produced an improvement of shift control. In addition, there was a nomenclature change which reverted to the original Ultramatic Drive brand name. The selector quadrant underwent another change to a PNHDLR pattern in order to further clarify the two drive ranges and also to accommodate the push button control pod. In addition, General Motors threatened lawsuits regarding Packard’s marketing of “dual drive ranges”. Despite its completely different design, GM had been marketing a “Dual-Range Hydra-Matic Drive” since 1953, which also used dual drive range selector pattern.

In addition, small but important changes to shift linkages, better build quality, and stricter tolerances restored Packard levels of reliability to the 1956 transmission. New for 1956 was an aluminum transmission casing, making the Ultramatic 90 lbs. lighter than its competition, including the newly-launched push-button Chrysler PowerFlite. Future transmissions from all manufacturers would follow Packard’s lead.

Ultramatic Drive was offered on the Packard Patrician, Packard Four Hundred, and the Packard Executive. It was also available in all Clipper models, which were sold as a separate marque for 1956. They were also supplied to American Motors along with 352 CID V-8 engines for use in the Nash Ambassador and Hudson Hornet until replaced with their own V-8 and Borg-Warner automatic at midyear. Packard also supplied Ultramatic Drive transmissions to its corporate partner Studebaker for use in the 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk, which also used the Packard 352 CID V-8 engine.

The “Touch Button” push button gear selector

Packard offered a push-button gear selector for 1956 called “Touch Button Ultramatic”. Mounted in a rectangular control pod at the end of a thick arm stemming from the right side of the steering column, the Touch Button Ultramatic gear selector used six buttons in two rows of three: The bottom row of buttons offered Park, Reverse, and Drive, while the top row contained the Neutral, Low, and High buttons. Touch Button Ultramatic was standard only on the 1956 Packard Caribbean, and a $52 option for the Packard Patrician, Packard Four Hundred, and Packard Executive. It was also available in all Clipper models. It was not offered in AMC or Studebaker models using Packard engines.

The system was electrically actuated, rather than Chrysler’s mechanical push buttons, and was troublesome from the beginning. The electric shift motor, essentially a modified starter motor, proved insufficient to move the car out of Park on a steep hill, and would pop the circuit breaker; electrical contact problems, wiring problems and other issues were prevalent even when new, and worsened with age. Later models saw system improvements. When Packard production ceased, Auto-Lite, who designed and manufactured the system, destroyed the tooling, making spare parts for the system unobtainable.

Although Detroit-based Packard production ceased after the 1956 model year, Studebaker-Packard Corporation continued to fulfill service obligations to Packard owners, and servicing the 1955 Twin-Ultramatic and 1956 Touchbutton Ultramatic. This was a continuing liability for the company after the Packard range was discontinued.

In Retrospect

Packard’s use of a locking torque converter was not only up to date, but more advanced than its competition at the time. Strangely, the company did not take advantage of the opportunity to supply Ultramatics to Lincoln, Nash, Hudson, and Kaiser-Willys who were searching for other suppliers in the wake of the 1953 fire at the Livonia, Michigan GM Hydra-matic plant. Packard did learn from this mistake the following year, when Nash and Hudson merged to form American Motors. Packard agreed to supply AMC with its new 320 CID V-8 and Twin Ultramatic transmission for 1955 in the latter company’s top-line Nash Ambassador and Hudson Hornet ranges.

This agreement continued into the 1956 model year, as Packard supplied AMC its 352 CID V-8s equipped with the newly renamed and refined Ultramatic Drive units for the Ambassador and Hornet. Packard would supply Ultramatic Drive units to Studebaker for use in the 1956 Golden Hawk as a $100 option. Unfortunately, no higher-volume Studebaker models would use either the Packard V-8 or Ultramatic Drive before parent Curtiss-Wright ended production of both in 1956.

Despite the problems of later versions, the transmission worked beautifully under the use conditions it was designed for. Packard’s Gear-Start Ultramatic, Twin Ultramatic, and Ultramatic Drive, struggled to reliably automate the low to high gear shift transition. While the transmission was designed to physically accept a high torque V-8, its control system needed further development. Packard’s plans for upgrading the Ultramatic Drive further were in development for 1957 and beyond. These plans were shelved, however, when Studebaker-Packard was taken over by Curtis-Wright in Spring 1956. Curtis-Wright’s discontinued Ultramatic production and sold the plant and tooling to raise cash, ending Ultramatic forever.