Why Are Automatic Cars So Popular In The United States?

Recently, I wrote an article about why manual cars are so popular in Europe and the United Kingdom – you can check that out here, if you’d like to read more.

As promised in the conclusion to that article, today I’m “flipping the script” and looking at the land of the automatic car; the United States.

When it comes automatic gearboxes, nobody likes them more than the Americans.

Approximately 95% of all cars sold in the United States are automatic (this includes any variations on dual clutch-style transmissions like you find in a Volkswagen Golf GTI, as well as conventional automatic gearboxes).

Manual transmissions are limited primarily to enthusiast cars, e.g. the Subaru WRX or Mazda Miata. Even then, more buyers prefer to spec their cars with the automatic transmission options.

This is as opposed to the European market, where the manual transmission has historically been all about saving money on the purchase, maintenance and fuel costs of a car,

But why are automatic cars so popular in the United States?

In this edition of Car Facts, I’m going to explore the reasons behind America’s love of the automatic gearbox.

As far as my research could turn up, there aren’t any scientific studies on the exact reasons why Americans love automatic cars.

However, there are some consensus points, which most auto industry experts agree on that explain the enduring popularity of the automatic gearbox in the land of the free:

Convenience & Comfort

When it comes to making life easier and more convenient, just about no country on Earth does it better than the United States … and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense.

From air conditioning, to drive through food, to TV dinners, to the microwave oven and beyond, American inventors and companies have brought the world an almost endless list of gadgets, gizmos, products and services that have made life less of a hassle.

The average American spends the best part of $4000 USD per year on “convenience” purchases that aren’t strictly necessary, but make life easier (source).

As I’ll explain below, America also invented the automatic gearbox as we know it today – another boon to convenience. No more tiring our your clutch leg, no more rowing the gears, and more freedom to use one hand to do whatever else you’d like to do; the automatic transmission is the automotive manifestation of convenience and ease.

The American consumer values convenience, and it’s hard to argue against the automatic gearbox being anything but the convenient choice. It’s also the more comfortable choice, as anybody who has had to drive a manual in rush hour traffic will attest to.

From a ‘socioeconomic’ standpoint it makes perfect sense that the country which has done more than any other to make life easier and more convenient (not always to the benefit of one’s health, but that is a different topic) would choose to opt for the convenient choice when it comes to vehicle transmission.

America Was An Early Adopter Of The Automatic

America was the first country to really embrace the automatic transmission.

Although there had been some predecessors to the conventional, hydraulic-fluid based auto transmission in the early 20th Century, it was General Motors that launched the first “true” automatic gearbox with the Hydra-Matic in the late 1930s.

The transmission was fitted to the 1940 Oldsmobile Series 60, as well as the Cadillac Sixty Special. Here’s an interesting promo clip from the launch of the Oldsmobile with Hydra-Matic transmission:

 

By the start of the 1950s, General Motors had substantially refined and improved the early automatic gearbox – e.g. with Buick’s Dynaflow, the first torque converter auto, launching in the late 1940s, and other manufacturers (particularly Ford and Chrysler) saw the popularity and potential of the automatic transmission and developed their own versions, such as Chrysler’s PowerFlite and TorqueFlite gearboxes. BorgWarner developed various auto transmissions for supply to the likes of Ford and Studebaker.

Manufacturers in Europe and Japan picked up on the automatic concept later, by which time the United States had already enjoyed the “first mover” advantage and the automatic transmission was more ubiquitous in the local market. The American auto industry was more inward-looking in the mid-20th Century, and so there was no great impetus to export the technology overseas. Instead, it was about the various automakers and suppliers – particularly the Big Three – competing against each other to make better automatic transmissions.

By the 1950s, where America’s middle class started burgeoning following World War II, and owing a motor car became a real prospect for many families, numerous cars were available with automatic transmissions as an option or as standard. Various improvements and developments to the automatic gearbox (which helped to make it even more of a no-brainer choice for American drivers) came in the 1960s and 1970s, as the Big Three and smaller automakers all competed against each other to make better and more sophisticated automatic gearboxes.

Because America got the auto earlier than the rest of the world, and rapidly grew accustomed to it, it makes sense that it rapidly became the de facto transmission choice for most motorists. According to this interesting timeline of the motor industry, by the mid-1970s the automatic gearbox was standard equipment on almost all American sedans, which were the most popular cars with buyers.

Compare this with Mercedes-Benz, a European car company renowned for engineering prowess. Their first automatic transmission did not come along until 1961 (source). Citroen, another European car maker well-regarded for innovation in its heyday, didn’t do much with automatic technology until later in the 1960s.

America’s head start with respect to automatic transmissions allowed for more widespread uptake of the technology.

Lower Fuel Prices Meant Cars Didn’t Need To Be So Economical

America has historically enjoyed lower fuel prices than Europe and many countries. This trend remains current:

Although prices have ebbed and flowed over the years (and it’s also worth considering that individual drivers are potentially more sensitive to the price of fuel on average, due to the need to drive greater distances) the relatively cheaper fuel prices the United States has enjoyed allowed for larger cars and less efficient ones.

European fuel pricing simply would not have allowed for an average vehicle fleet make-up like you see in the United States.

Automatic transmissions have generally always been less efficient than their manual counterparts (this has changed with the current crop of modern autos, CVTs and dual-clutch transmissions) but in a country where fuel/gas prices were more affordable, this didn’t matter so much.

Of course there have been various times throughout modern American history where the trend towards larger and less efficient vehicles has been problematic, such as during the oil and energy crisis of the late 1970s; European motorists were better prepared with smaller, lighter, and more frugal cars. This isn’t to say that Europe and other countries weren’t affected, but perhaps not the same extent.

Anyone who either lived through that crisis – or who has studied it at school/college/university – will know that the United States auto industry did respond to the oil crisis by making significant improvements to fleet average fuel economy and trying to introduce smaller, more economical models (some of this was at the behest of the government, which mandated improvements to average MPG).

However, what is most interesting here with respect to the popularity of the automatic gearbox is that despite soaring fuel prices, American buyers continued to prefer mid and full-sized cars with larger engines, lower MPG (although average MPG was improving) and automatic gearboxes.

Lee Iaccoca, of Ford and later Chrysler fame, remarked during his tenure at the top of the Chrysler Corporation that despite moves to offer smaller, more economical vehicles during the oil and inflation crisis of the late 1970s, American buyers voted with their wallets and continued to purchase large cars (the type that were almost all automatic) [source]. Smaller vehicle sales – including those using even more efficient manual transmissions – did pick up as a result of the crisis, but Americans continued to prefer larger cars that were typically auto-equipped.

Different Driving Conditions Make Automatics The Sensible Choice

In my article on the popularity of the manual gearbox in Europe, I discussed how European driving conditions actually make the conventional manual the sensible choice there (at least up until recently when automatic gearbox technology has basically eliminated the objective benefits of the manual; now all is left is the subjective fun and driving involvement).

Drivers have smaller, less powerful cars and are often driving in conditions where they need to get the most possible out of the engine. On twisty roads, going up and down hills and when darting in and out of inner-city traffic, the manual gearbox has traditionally been the superior option. Owing to shorter travel distances and better public transport, relying on a manual isn’t such a chore in Europe.

On the other hand, American society is much more car-centric. Commuters drive further distances on average, and owing to the size of the country there is more potential for long drives where an automatic transmission makes so much more sense (e.g. sitting on the freeway). As anyone who has been to both Europe and the United States can attest, American roads tend to be long and straight with fewer corners. There also tend to be more frequent traffic lights and stop signals in urban areas, compared to roundabouts in European and other countries, which can typically be driven through without fully coming to a stop.

If more of your driving involves stopping and starting, and cruising on straight roads, why would you really want to suffer a manual transmission anyway?

Larger, More Powerful Vehicles

On the whole, America has a lot more space than many other countries. While urban areas can be crowded, it’s typically nothing compared to what you might see in Europe and Asia.

More space means that you can have a more spacious vehicle.

Someone living in Tokyo might be all-but-forced to own a tiny kei car, in order to avoid stinging tax penalties and parking issues. A Parisian would find owning a full-size sedan a challenge, but a little Renault Twingo does the job. However, Americans living in suburbia, more rural areas and less crowded environments can get away with bigger vehicles (another example of this is Australia, where buyers have traditionally liked full size sedans such as the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore – and there’s been space for them).

A spacious vehicle is going to be larger, and a larger vehicle will usually have a more powerful engine and the ability to have more luxury features (including things like an automatic gearbox, which was a true luxury for much of the 20th Century).

In other words, the nature of the United States as a country allowed for an easier adoption and embracing of the automatic transmission, because people could afford to purchase and run larger, more powerful, more luxurious cars.

Through this, the automatic gearbox just became the go-to option for most buyers. American customers, particularly through the 20th Century, simply preferred buying larger vehicles with relatively powerful engines (versus what you might find in Europe)

This trend continues through today.

A quick glance at the top-selling passenger vehicles in the United States in 2021, when compared to the United Kingdom, gives an interesting insight.

The top three sellers in the United States were:

  1. Ford F-Series
  2. Dodge Ram Series
  3. Chevrolet Silverado

In other words, all large, auto-gearbox equipped pickup trucks.

Compare this with the United Kingdom, where 2021s top-sellers were as follows:

  1. Vauxhall Corsa (a small, economical car that was one of the top-selling manual cars)
  2. Tesla Model 3 (not manual, but very much economy-focused)
  3. Mini (once again quite popular with a manual transmission)

The Tesla is a bit of an oddity, and if you exclude that the next three best sellers were all smaller hatchbacks as well (Mercedes-Benz A Class, and then the Volkswagen Polo & Golf). What you can see as a general trend is that America favours larger vehicles that are often better suited to an automatic gearbox.

As you can see, there is no single reason why automatic cars are so popular in the United States. Instead, various factors (in my view the combination of being the pioneers of the automatic gearbox, plus socioeconomic conditions that meant people could afford such a luxury) started the trend towards picking auto cars. This simply became embedded in American culture, and as a result it is the cultural norm to buy an auto car.

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