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When Did Cars Start Using the CVT Automatic?

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author photo by Aaron Gold April 2017

Ah, the continuously variable transmission, bane of car fans everywhere. I'd call it a love-it-or-hate-it transmission, but the truth is that most gearheads hate it -- and very few love it.

I happen to fall into the latter category, by the way; while I grant that the CVT is a terrible performance transmission -- drive a Subaru WRX if you need proof -- I quite like the smooth, shift-free driving experience, and the way it gradually builds power on hills. I'll spare you my whole CVT rant -- maybe some other time; it's quite good -- but my motto is: Either let me do all the shifting, or give me a CVT so there's no shifting at all. (Granted, that's a bit long for a motto, but I'm working on editing it.)

But I digress from the question at hand: Who first foisted this mechanical horror upon us?

Technically, it was Leonardo DaVinci -- he came up with the idea for a CVT-like device. Of course, there were no cars in which to install it, so he went back to flying machines and enigmatic women as his subjects of choice.

Nissan was (arguably) the first mainstream automaker to go big with CVTs; they switched away from conventional geared automatics in the mid-2000s. They could be considered early adopters, but they certainly weren't the first to use a CVT.

My first exposure to the CVT came when Audi introduced it in the 2002 A4. Previous CVTs had been limited to 100 horsepower or so, and this was one of the first units that could (supposedly) handle the higher power of the A4's V6. (VW/Audi later had to settle a very expensive class-action lawsuit for CVT failures, so I guess that didn't work out very well for them.) I vividly remember the first time I floored the pedal and stared transfixed at the dash as the tachometer held steady at the redline while the car accelerated. Cool! I thought.

Nowadays, Honda has embraced CVTs in several of their models, but their first experiment with CVTs was the 1995 Honda Civic HX. This was a high-fuel-efficiency version of the Civic, and it was certainly one of the earlier applications of a CVT ... but just as certainly not the first.

In 1987, Subaru introduced a microcar called the Justy, which we've discussed before. It was novel for many reasons: its small size, its 3-cylinder engine, and its automatic transmission, which was -- you guessed it -- a CVT. There are two common misconceptions about the Justy: One is that it was the last car sold in America with a carburetor, and the other is that it was the first car sold in America with a CVT. Both are wrong.

So far as I can tell, the CVT made its first stateside appearance as a car transmission in the 1959 DAF 600, a car that was, according to the manufacturer, "the first family car to combine classic European beauty and craftsmanship with fully automatic driving at no extra cost." (One could debate the merits of using a 1,390-lb car for family transportation on roads crammed with full-size Detroit rolling iron.)

The tiny 600 was built by Dutch automaker DAF (short for Van Doorne Aanhangwagen Farbriek, or Van Doorne's Trailer Factory; I expect this to be the name of a hipster bar before too long). DAF is best known as a European truck manufacturer, but they sold their tiny cars -- including the 600, 750, DAFfodil and American -- with their Variomatic transmission in the U.S. until 1967. The DAF Club of America (of course there is such a thing) says that about 1,500 DAF cars were shipped to the U.S. between '59 and '65, with no figures for '66 or '67. Very few survive today, though I'm sure several wound up embedded in the tire tread of Sedan DeVilles.

So now you know when CVTs got their start. If you really can't stand them, blame the Dutch. And if you want to debate their merits, we can meet up for drinks at Van Doorne's Trailer Factory.

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When Did Cars Start Using the CVT Automatic? - Autotrader