“Why this car is automatic, it’s systematic, it’s hydromatic, why its grease lightning”

Blog post posted on 31/01/17 |

John Travolta couldn’t have sung it any better way back in the late 70’s, there he was talking about driving an automatic car in a systematic way.  That’s what I think now I know about a little book called Roadcraft.  Are you singing the tune in your head now?  Yes, me too.

Driving a car fitted with an automatic gearbox should be straightforward; I mean how hard can it be? The gearbox practically does it all for you, ‘no need to touch it after putting it in drive sir’ said the Ford salesman way back in 1973 to my father as he parted with his hard earned for a Ford Consul L 2.5 litre V6 with an automatic gearbox. The venerable BorgWarner three speed auto was my first introduction to the world of driving with an automatic gearbox. 

Automatics, so often sneered at by advanced driving traditionalists years ago, have come a long way.  Technology has moved on dramatically in recent years but has the human factor?

I remember people being told you could not pass your advanced test in an automatic, then later ‘only if you drive it in manual mode’ as that is what the examiner wants!  What rubbish. Most modern automatic gearboxes are now so clever with their multiple modes you rarely need to touch them, just select the right mode for the job.  

The IAM RoadSmart Associate Logbook is very clear where it refers to the use of an automatic gearbox.

• Be aware how to correctly select gears using either paddles or gear selector

• Be aware of additional functions and modes

But how will you know what to do?  Try something that so many of us just don’t do – read the owner’s manual. I checked the Mercedes manual for the new C Class, there are nine very detailed pages dedicated to the use of the automatic transmission.  

If drivers just did that simple thing they would get so much more out of their car.  Roadcraft (page 100-103) echoes the same advice as in red text it says ‘Always consult the vehicle handbook to understand the features of a particular automatic system.’  

However, there are occasions where a manual intervention is desirable, for example when descending a hill.  Roadcraft tells us ‘A lower gear also restrains the vehicle’s speed when descending a slope.’

I remember once being told by someone: “I don’t like automatics as they run away on hills.”  I didn’t feel it appropriate at that point to suggest a more likely cause was a driver input error!  

Another automatic classic is what to do when stopped in traffic?  Constantly moving it to park every time the vehicle is paused in traffic is a common error, Roadcraft, in red again, offers ‘Check the advice in the vehicle manual as systems vary.’ In truth most automatic gearbox systems advise you not to change to ‘park’ unless actually stopping to park.

The system of car control does not change when driving an automatic. Bad habits can creep in like losing speed late, entering bends on the brakes etc.  It is still ‘brakes to slow and gears to go’ so get the speed on approach right, this gives the car time to select the gear for the circumstances, then drive.  Many modern automatic gearboxes are adaptive, they learn as you drive and get used to your driver inputs.  With that in mind don’t fall into another classic trap. As Roadcraft also says ‘don’t fiddle with the gearbox repeatedly. As automatic systems become more sophisticated they need less driver input.’ 

I'm told that the Volkswagen dual clutch transmission is one of the quickest automatics out there swapping cogs in around eight milliseconds.  Yet I know people who say they personally can still do it quicker in a manual, ahem, I think not.

In closing and returning to Mr Travolta once again, I wondered what hydromatic meant in the song.  It just so happens that the hydra-matic was the first mass-produced automatic gearbox manufactured by General Motors in 1939.  See the song really was about gearboxes all along.  So sing along now, 'we'll get some overhead lifters and some four barrel quads, oh yeah, keep talking whoa keep talking...'

Enjoy the drive.

Shaun Cronin, IAM RoadSmart’s Regional service delivery team manager (Southern)