Would Lewis Hamilton prefer it if his Mercedes-AMG F1 was fully automatic?
Car enthusiasts’ collective scorn is already audible. Pray, who would want an automatic, less involving transmission in a road car, let alone a racing car? Surely not Britain’s lion-hearted Formula 1 world champion?
This may sound a modern gripe, yet the first mass-produced car with an automatic transmission was an Oldsmobile in 1940, a decade before Formula 1’s inaugural grand prix. The situation of a driving icon turned iconoclast did actually happen, 58 years ago, in an article in Autocar written by 1958 champion Mike Hawthorn.
Despite “sharing a genuine love of the vintage car” with the “tweedy motoring experts with moustaches as sweeping as his statements, and possessed of a firm belief that anything new is a bad thing”, Hawthorn nonetheless had his own ideas about technology.
“For everyday motoring on what, laughingly, passes for a road system in this country, I would not choose anything but the most up-to-date and completely equipped motor car I could lay my hands on,” he wrote. “For this reason alone, I would go for an automatic transmission on a car.”
His reasoning was simple: “With the automatic ’box, optimum performance may be constantly utilised to the full, because the maker of the car has predetermined maximum speeds in relation to maximum power output.
“My particular gauge of performance is journey time, and I find the automatic car records surprising, yet repeated, savings of time without much effort from me, and thus with a greater margin of safety.” He noted that taxi drivers at the time also favoured the automatic gearbox for the same reason.
Hawthorn’s cocktail of light mocking mixed with heavy persuasion continued: “Most drivers tend to associate performance with noise, ignoring the factual evidence before them on the speedometer, for the automatic transmission, with its smooth surge of acceleration, is undoubtedly quieter.”
Amusingly, at a time when Queen Elizabeth II had been on the throne for just six years, it seems that many Autocar readers were levelling exactly the same criticisms as they are now, when Her Majesty has been on it for 64.
Hawthorn explained: “Some of our so-called experts criticise the automatic transmission on the grounds that it takes all the fun out of driving. But there seems to me to be very little amusement to be derived from motoring today – there’s far too much car for far too little road. In any case, I am quite certain that the driver of a car with an automatic transmission is much more relaxed and, therefore, much more likely to enjoy his motoring.
“Don’t worry if you reach maximum speed at an indirect ratio and an up-change occurs just as you are passing another car or taking a corner, because there is no interruption of drive to the rear wheels.”
Hawthorn concluded in a style perhaps not in keeping with the political correctness of the modern day but redolent of the time: “This uninterrupted torque is unique to automatics (always excepting that uninterrupted talk you get at an Albert Hall Meeting of The League of Militant Housewives) and remains, as far as I am personally concerned, one of the major advantages of this form of drive. Manoeuvrability is another – and if you make remarks like the one above, the ability to manoeuvre quickly is not only essential but, I would say, vital.”
7 November 1958
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