John DeLorean and the Fantastic Ultramatic Drive

A Packard print ad for the 1949 Packard featuring Ultramatic Drive

In the 1940s General Motors stunned the automotive world with the debut of their “Hydra-Matic Drive” automatic transmission. Up until this time a certain learned skill was needed to operate a clutch pedal and a gearbox in concert for the sake of moving an automobile forward. Now with GM’s automatic transmission you could literally stomp on the gas pedal and go. Even though the GM Hydra-Matic Drive was an expensive option it quickly became the “must have” feature for anyone considering the purchase of a Cadillac luxury car.

An ad featuring a Cadillac with Hydra-Matic Drive
Cadillac ad featuring Hydra-Matic Drive

Being in the business of making luxury cars themselves, Packard took notice. Although Packard had been experimenting with automatic transmissions since the 1930s, it took until September 1945 for the Board of Directors to commit the funds necessary to develop an automatic transmission. 

Chief Engineer Forest McFarland was tasked by Col Jesse Vincent with assembling a team for this project. Soon various designs were being considered and prototype transmissions were being installed onto test stands in Packard’s Engineering Labs. But customers don’t drive test stands, they drive automobiles. So it would’t be long before the prototype transmissions were installed into test mules so the engineers could drive them around the Packard Proving Grounds. 

To prepare for its introduction the 1948 Packard was subject to thousands of test miles at the Packard Proving Grounds
1948 Packard Fighting the Dust at the Proving Grounds

Packard customers drive their automobiles in all kinds of road conditions – gravel, dirt, mud, sand, snow, deep puddles, and steep grades – so you can be sure that the engineers of the Proving Grounds used the back forty, the water trough, and the steep 38% grade of the test hill, to duplicate all of the harsh conditions that Packard owners would encounter. 

A 1949 Golden Anniversary Packard Custom equipped with Ultramatic drive driving up a steep 38-degree hill at the Packard Proving Grounds
1949 Packard driving up a 38-degree hill at the Proving Grounds

The long straightaways of the high speed test track would be used to test high speed capabilities and long term endurance. Acceleration tests from a standing start would demonstrate how effectively the transmission delivers power from the engine to the rear wheels. A Packard owner would expect to pass other vehicles with ease at highway speeds so the ability to do that would also be confirmed on the test track.

After multiple years of testing and refinement Packard announced the availability of their automatic transmission which they christened the “Ultramatic Drive”. It’s worth noting that the transmission was designed and manufactured using entirely in-house engineering resources – something that no other American independent automaker would accomplish.

Packard Ultramatic Drive - the last word in automatic no-shift control

As delivered, the transmission combined a fluid coupled torque converter for smoothness with a two speed axial drive. This provide the owner with two power ranges; a high range for normal driving plus a low range suitable for driving at low speeds through mud and snow. 

Additionally the engineering team created a lock up feature in the torque converter that improved fuel economy at highway speeds. The next time you drive your automobile remember to thank Packard engineering for this innovation – it continues to be used in automatic transmissions to this day.

On May 31, 1949 the first production Packard with Ultramatic made the drive from Detroit, Michigan to Indianapolis, Indiana and arrived in good shape. Success at last! 

Newest ideas in automatic going ... new for 1952 Packard Ultramatic Drive
1952 Packard print ad featuring Ultramatic Drive

Over the next several years the Packard Engineering team set about improving the transmission. To help accomplish that goal you would need to hire talented engineers. One such engineer was John DeLorean who was recruited in 1953 by Chief Engineer McFarland.

Packard had a well-deserved reputation for precision engineering and the ability to manufacture with exacting tolerances on the assembly line. By joining McFarland’s transmission team John DeLorean was going to learn about automobile engineering and manufacturing from the one of the strongest engineering teams in the Detroit automotive business.

But when John joined the team he was presented with a problem. Packard customers thought their cars accelerated slowly when the transmission was used with the normal high range. Slow enough that some Packard owners were using the low range to accelerate away from a traffic light and then manually “shifting” the transmission to the high range. Yes, manually shifting from the low range to the high range produced better acceleration but it could also damage the transmission. And broken transmissions would create an entirely new problem for Packard and their customers.

The 1956 Twin-Ultramatic transmission starts in a low range for quick acceleration and automatically switches to a high range for highway relaxed driving
Twin-Ultramatic Drive

However the team recognized an opportunity to improve the transmission by copying their customers. This resulted in a second version of the transmission called the  “Gear-Start Ultramatic Drive” which was made available with 1954 Packards. While it still had two ranges – low and high – it included a third option that would start in the transmission in the low range and then automatically shift to the high range as the car gained speed. This significantly improved vehicle acceleration from a standing start and made Packard customers much happier with their big straight eight Packards.

1956 Packard ad featured the latest in fingertip control with the new Twin-Ultramatic Drive
Fantastic push-button control

But even more change was coming for Packard customers in 1955 as Packard was introducing all new automobiles with flashy styling, bright colors, and powerful V8 engines. Once again, DeLorean and his team were asked to improve the transmission. This time to be able to handle the high torque of these new V8 engines, especially the sporty range topping dual-carburetor Caribbean models. The Detroit horsepower race was in full swing and Packard was not shy about competing.

DeLorean and his team delivered a new “Twin-Ultramatic” transmission for the 1955 Packards and one year later they created the “Touch Button Ultramatic“ version. This fantastic update included push button control of the transmission. It was quite the swan song for Packard and a big win for DeLorean’s team.

But all was not well with Packard. Shortly after DeLorean joined Packard they merged with the Studebaker Corporation to create the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. By merging their resources they hoped to create an automobile manufacturer with resources to compete with the other “Big 3” Detroit auto makers. But perhaps DeLorean knew that the health of the company was in jeopardy and now was the time to take his career to another company. Having just been promoted to replace McFarland as the Head of Research and Development at Packard his success would be quite apparent to other companies. Perhaps GM would be interested?

Well yes, GM was interested. After meeting with Oliver Kelley, Vice President of Engineering at General Motors, he was offered his choice of a job in any of five divisions of GM. DeLorean said yes to the offer. He joined the Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors in 1956 as assistant to the chief engineer and rose quickly so that by 1961 he was promoted to Chief Engineer of PMD. 

1951 Packard 300 parked at the Proving Grounds timing tower where more than 150,000 miles of grueling tests proved the strength and stamina of the new 1951 Packard with Ultramatic Drive
1951 Packard parked next to the Timing Tower

But consider his choice of the Pontiac Motor Division of GM. When DeLorean joined PMD in 1956 they were making cars that appealed to an older more mature demographic, much like Packard was doing. Yet there was a wave of post-war “baby boom” consumers who were eager to purchase cars with exciting styling and powerful acceleration. If DeLorean could drive the PMD to create automobiles that would grab the attention of these young consumers then he could effectively relaunch Pontiac as a youth brand. Which is exactly what he did. 

And with the launch of the Pontiac GTO in 1964 the transformation was complete. Consumers recognized Pontiac as the performance division of GM and John DeLorean became the youngest man to head a division of General Motors.

While John DeLorean will be long remembered for creating the Pontiac GTO – the muscle car that kicked off a horsepower race between the “Big 3” automobile manufacturers – at the Packard Proving Grounds we acknowledge his contributions to the Packard Motor Car Company and the fantastic Ultramatic Drive.

Photo Credits

Digital Collections of the Detroit Public Libarary

The Making of Modern Michigan

The Packard Motor Car Foundation

The author’s collection of automotive ephemera