Simanaitis Says

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RECENTLY IT was May 22, 1949, and I was listening to an ad for Ford Overdrive. (Such are the wonders of Sirius XM and its Radio Classics channel 82.) Despite six decades of age, this and other automotive ads from the period prove surprisingly timely in their technicalities and appeal.

To put things in perspective, the 1949 Ford was the biggest change to come out of Dearborn since 1927 when the Model A replaced the Model T. The ’49 model had “Hydra-Coil” independent front suspension (a first for Ford) and “Para-Flex” longitudinal leaf springs at the rear.

Why do you suppose car ads always had miniaturized people?

Engine choices were a 95-hp inline-6 or 100-hp flathead V-8. The only gearbox was a three-speed manual with column shift (“three on the tree,” as opposed to “four on the floor”). Ford’s first automatic transmission didn’t come until 1951.

Ford’s Overdrive played an important role in its 1949 advertising.

Prices of ’49 Fords ranged from $1333 to $2199; in today’s dollars, $12,995 to $20,595. And, strictly speaking, the base three-speed wasn’t the only choice. For $97 (today’s $943), there was the optional Overdrive.

This Overdrive was an electrically actuated Borg-Warner planetary gearbox residing directly behind the three-speed transmission. At a car speed of 60 mph, Overdrive gearing gave engine speed of only 42 mph. Noted one ad, “It accents the new Ford ‘Feel’ while it saves you gas, saves your oil and saves your engine!”

A straightforward graphic, but effective: 60 mph of road speed for only 42 mph of engine speed.

The ad went on to describe Overdrive operation, albeit in rather exclamatory style: “Let up on the gas pedal above 27 miles per hour and a miracle happens! You’re in fourth gear for cruising! Engine speed drops 30% while the car speed remains unchanged! The Ford Overdrive seems to give your car wings, it’s so smooth, so quiet and so free of vibration!

The gizmo beneath the pedal is the Overdrive kickdown switch. The lady’s heel seems a bit extreme for 1949, don’t you think?

“And should you require a burst of extra power, simply press through on the accelerator and you return to conventional third gear. Just as simple as that!”

There were technical aspects as well: “You’ll call it a ‘tip-toe miracle.’ Engineers call it a ‘simple automatic planetary transmission, combined with the regular three-speed transmission as a single unit.’ ”

The overdrive unit is on the left, three-speed transmission on the right.

Another feature of the Overdrive at speeds less than 28 mph was its lack of engine braking; that is, its freewheeling. Folklore had Overdrive coasting at higher speeds as well, but specialists say this didn’t occur in a properly functioning unit.  The Borg-Warner Overdrive operated automatically, but also had a manual lockout by means of a cable-operated underdash control.

Ford and others continued offering overdrive options into the 1970s. By then, however, four- and five-speed manuals as well as automatic transmissions obviated the need for such auxiliary gearing.

A similar overdrive, the Laycock de Normanville unit, was offered on lots of the era’s British cars as well as on Volvos. Another planetary (also known as epicyclic) design, this one was devised by Edgar J. de Normanville, whose name conjures up a wonderful image of 1066 and the Conquest. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2012

7 comments on “FORD OVERDRIVE

  1. Bill Urban
    December 4, 2012

    Timely in their technicalities . . . One wonders how many took the overdrive option back then for what might have been two weeks pay. Until the 80s’, 14L diesels in big trucks cruised a few hundred shy of the 2100 rpm governor. Today it’s 1350/1450, even though the typical engine is now 12L. And drivers no longer feel the need to “bump” the governor before every up-shift. What amounts to a change of habit has probably saved more diesel, noise, and wear than any one technology breakthrough.

  2. headstamp
    March 3, 2013

    My dad had one of these. Still have the picture of him and my mom on their honeymoon in April 1950 on the Skyline Drive in Virginia. He still talks of the OD in this car he loved so much. The car of his youth.

  3. 1939
    March 31, 2017

    My father bought me one of this beauties in 1958 for my graduation. Lot of stuff went on in that car, had it until I enlisted in the Navy; dad sold it. One episode stands out in my mind. I had attended a dance at night and it was freezing cold. Got in the car and knew right away I had forgotten to override the overdrive with the manual pull switch. The engine wasn’t breaking and the roads were slick with snow. The thing is that I could not disengage the the pull cable, it was frozen in place. Needless to say I landed plowing into a fence coming down a not so steep hilll, went into an embankment of snow 3 feet high. Had to leave it overnight until next morning when my not so pleased father pulled it out with his truck. Good ole’ times ……

  4. Peter
    August 30, 2019

    I just saw a overdrive in town . (Ludlow .vt.) station wagon . What good looking car .

  5. Ray Rockwell
    August 9, 2021

    Are the OD transmission and the standard transmission the same length, and what about the drive shafts?

    • simanaitissays
      August 9, 2021

      Perhaps some knowledgeable reader might reply. You might garner an answer from a vintage Ford club.

  6. Ian L Daly
    August 9, 2021

    I recently sold a 1950 Ford V8 with Overdrive

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This entry was posted on December 1, 2012 by in Classic Bits, Sci-Tech and tagged , , , .
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