We have written so many words about the Hobbs Mecha-Matic transmission that readers may suspect we are biased. In this particular instance we are, for this automatic gearbox has been proved to our satisfaction to be the best clutchless transmission we have used. You may reasonably ask “If it’s so good why doesn’t a manufacturer fit it?” A good question which neither we nor Messrs. Hobbs can fully answer for motor manufacturers seldom reveal reasons why they do not select items of proprietary equipment and of course there is no real reason why they should. You may remember that Borgward took up the Hobbs box for the Borgward Isabella under the name of Hansamatic, but their bankruptcy came before Hobbs had begun serious production.
Many other manufacturers have tested the Mecha-Matic in numerous cars but to a man they have rejected it. The most prominent have been Ford of Dagenham who have tested the transmission in numerous cars in recent years. Their engineers approved the transmission and it was due to be listed as optional equipment for the Classic, Capri and Cortina and later in the Corsair. In fact the floor pressings around the gearbox tunnel were modified to accept the Hobbs box at a reputed cost of £80,000. Ford told Hobbs that they would have to produce in really large quantities (500 a day), way above the capacity of their factory at Leamington Spa but as Hobbs had recently sold a 50% share in the business to the big Westinghouse Company, who were prepared to build a large new factory in Manchester, there was no problem there. The factory was duly completed and a batch of production gearboxes made for Ford. Unfortunately, owing to the lack of appreciation by some of the operatives of the fine tolerances required for the box to perform properly these were not very good. Hobbs quickly put things right and production gearboxes were soon up to the standard of the hand-built prototypes. However, Ford decided not to proceed with the Hobbs box and Westinghouse were left with a large factory producing nothing at all. It is difficult to say why Ford abandoned the Hobbs transmission but it is significant that they have recently announced that the Borg-Warner three-speed type 35 transmission will be optional equipment on the Corsair.
Since then numerous other manufacturers, mainly the quality Continental manufacturers like Volvo, Saab, Lancia and B.M.W., have tested the box and although approving of it and in most cases being delighted with it they are all holding back mainly on the assumption that if the giant Ford empire has dropped it there must be a snag with the transmission which they haven’t yet discovered.
Other projects under way by Hobbs include a front-wheel-drive automatic unit which is interesting Ford of Cologne for their Taunus 12M model while other f.w.d. adherents like Lancia, Saab and Renault are very interested. Unfortunately, this particular layout could not be adapted for the B.M.C. range of front-wheel-drive cars because their gearbox is in the sump. In any case B.M.C. have shown little interest.
A gearbox capable of withstanding the torque of powerful large-capacity engines is in a very advanced stage and this may well appeal to manufacturers of larger cars or to the builders of competition cars whose drivers find themselves busy enough controlling all that power without having to bother with pressing the clutch pedal as well. Colin Chapman has been testing a five-speed version of the Hobbs box with a view to using it in the Lotus 25, but so far no decision has been made.
At present two versions of this transmission are available to manufacturers, the 1015 for cars up to 1½-litres and the 1523 for 1½ – 2½-litre cars. These will shortly be joined by the larger model, giving a complete coverage of the capacity range.
Of course Hobbs and Westinghouse cannot live forever on building prototypes and although they both have other industrial contracts they felt it necessary to begin supplying the transmission to the general public. The obvious outlet was found in the models in the Ford range which have already been modified to accept the 1015 transmission, and this is now offered as a conversion for the startlingly low price of £85. At the moment this is only offered on new cars so that only the Capri, Cortina and Corsair can be modified but it may be that if demand is great enough Hobbs could be persuaded to carry out the work on used cars which would allow the Classic to be modified as well as existing Capris, Cortinas and Corsairs.
Westinghouse-Hobbs do not deal direct with customers but are appointing Ford Main dealers to sell the transmission. So far 35 dealers have been appointed, each one having a demonstration car and a mechanic who has been to the factory Service School. Factory Field Service engineers are also available to owners. When a customer orders a Ford to be fitted with the Hobbs box the dealer sends the order to Fords who then despatch a complete car to the right specification to the Westinghouse factory in Manchester by transporter. Already there are enough orders coming in to require at least one transporter to travel between Dagenham and Manchester every week. Once the car is at the factory the normal four-speed gearbox is removed and the automatic gearbox substituted, this operation taking about three days. The car is then tested and delivered to the dealer. An allowance is made on the manual gearbox or the customer can retain this if required as Hobbs have found that people like to retain the Mecha-Matic and transfer it from car to car. The dealers who have taken up dealerships have become very enthusiastic and one of the largest distributors in London will supply only the Hobbs box if a customer wants an automatic Capri, Cortina or Corsair.
Although we have driven various cars fitted with the Hobbs transmission it was a pleasure to renew acquaintance with it again, this time fitted in a two-door Cortina 1500. It was not quite such a pleasure to renew acquaintance with the Cortina but 250,000 people have bought them so we must be wrong!
The only noticeable difference from a normal Cortina is that the central gear shift is of the remote control type similar to that used on the GT Cortina and the hole where the lever used to sprout from is covered with a circular patch having the Westinghouse-Hobbs insignia. The shift pattern is identical to that on David Hobbs’ Lotus Elite (see December 1962 issue), the lever moving in a fore-and-aft plane over six positions, the positions being marked on the gear knob. Furthest forward is reverse, the lever then being pulled backwards successively for neutral, first, second, third and top which is also the fully automatic position. The test car also had a Park position which is engaged by pulling the lever to the right while in neutral but production gearboxes are not fitted with the parking pawl as it is not considered necessary on the lightweight Ford cars.
The car can only be started in neutral, after which the lever can be pulled backwards into any of the forward gear positions or lifted forward for reverse. Some creep was noticed when warming up with the choke but as soon as the car reached normal running temperature the car would remain perfectly stationary in any gear. For running fully automatically the lever can be left in the top gear position and the gear changing will look after itself. Some of our staff felt that the Hobbs box was no better than the hydraulic torque converter types when being used fully automatically, but, of course, the driver still has four gears against the three of existing hydraulic types, while the box is consuming far less power so that acceleration is hardly affected and fuel consumption is only marginally worse, In fact under some conditions the Hobbs Cortina can be more economical than its manual-change counterpart.
At full throttle in automatic the upward gear changes occur at 19, 33 and 59 m.p.h. and with smaller throttle openings the changes occur at suitable speeds. A kick-down switch is fitted and the kick-down operates on all gears, a feature not common to automatic transmissions. This has its disadvantages especially in heavy traffic for if the driver trickles away slowly and the box changes into second when the driver gives full throttle the box will change down to first with a violent jerk. One soon learns not to do this and in any case first gear can be selected for use in heavy traffic so that no changes occur. The only other criticisms which could be made about the box in its fully automatic form are the jerks which occur with upward changes at certain throttle openings and the sluggish engagement of top gear. The first is easy to live with and can be minimised with experience, while the second fault was found to be peculiar to our test car and can be adjusted out. We later confirmed this by driving a Corsair which had a very smooth and rapid top gear engagement. There is some engine braking available in automatic which is a useful feature but not even the Hobbs box can obviate that bugbear of automatics of changing up at the wrong moment so that when you are accelerating hard in third and want to ease off because of traffic or for a bend it will change into top. Fortunately the Hobbs box is provided with the means for the driver to select his own gears which is probably its main attraction where keen drivers are concerned. All that is necessary is to push the lever to the required position and the box will select it for you. If you are travelling in top gear and want to go down to first the lever is flicked forward to the first gear position and the car will progressively slow and change down until first is reached without over-revving or any other dramatics. Reverse can be engaged while travelling forwards at under 5 m.p.h. but if it is engaged while travelling at high speed the box merely selects neutral. Any of the indirect gears can be selected in this way and if left there the box will select lower gears if the speed drops below the useful range of’ that gear but it will not select any higher gear.
By using the gear lever for upward changes the driver can hold the engine to maximum revs if required but as we discovered while taking performance figures this results in only slightly improved acceleration and is obviously not worth the trouble unless absolute maximum performance is required. The changes are smoothest when a good deal of throttle is applied and it is best not to lift the foot at all when going up through the gears for absolute smoothness.
The main joy of driving the Mecha-Matic is in the way that gears can be selected at will so that driving hard on twisting roads becomes a pleasure rather than purgatory as it is with the average torque converter automatic gearbox. Changes can be made far quicker than with a manual box and the driver can concentrate entirely on steering and braking. Unfortunately in its standard form the Cortina is not the sort of car that one wants to fling around but the Lotus-Cortina or a normal model with suitably modified suspension will be made much more enjoyable by the fitting of the Hobbs transmission, It also has the advantage of slightly better gear ratios than the rather widely spaced ratios of the manual Ford gearbox.
It is a pity in a way that the Mecha-Matic is available only for Ford as their gearbox is at least pleasant to use and we could think of plenty of other cars on which it would be more suitable. However, this may come in time. In the meantime we can thoroughly recommend the Westinghouse-Hobbs gearbox to Ford owners. Full details can be obtained from Ford main-dealers or Westinghouse Hobbs Ltd., Walkden, Nr. Manchester.—M. L. T
Speed – fully automatic – manual changing – Cortina GT
0-30 m.p.h. – 5.2 sec. – 5.1 sec. – 3.8 sec.
0-40 – 8.5 – 8.1 – 6.4
0-50 – 13.1 – 12.7 – 10.4
0-60 – 20.0 – 19.1 – 14.0
0-70 – 32.0 – 31.8 – 19.0
Standing start 1/4 mile – 21.2 sec. – 21.2 sec. – (not taken)
Speeds in gears
First – 19 m.p.h. – 28 m.p.h. – 30 m.p.h.
Second – 33 – 43 – 44
Third – 59 – 66 – 76
(N.B.—We have not tested a normal Cortina 1500 so in the last column we list the figures obtained on the GT Cortina tested in our July 1963 issue, which indicates that this model only begins to draw away from the Mecha-Matic 1500 at speeds over 50 m.p.h.)
All forward ratios and reverse on the Westinghouse Hobbs automatic transmission are obtained from a compound planetary gear train, and consequently all gearing is in constant mesh. The main clutch provides for completely automatic take-up of drive from a standstill, and the indirect ratios are engaged simply by the application of hydraulically-actuated “disc” brakes acting on parts of the gearing, while for top gear a secondary clutch is engaged which locks the gear train to provide direct drive. An oil pump, housed in the hydraulic unit and driven off the engine through the clutch unit, provides the pressure for operating both clutches and brakes, and simple valves control the distribution. A second oil pump, driven off the output shaft of the gearbox, is sensitive to road speed. This works in conjunction with a valve connecter, to the throttle pedal, and hence sensitive to driving conditions, to provide for fully automatic gear changing.