Author Topic: A '69 Camaro with a Torque Drive Transmission  (Read 977 times)

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Offline Built in 57

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A '69 Camaro with a Torque Drive Transmission
« on: January 15, 2020, 11:03:23 PM »
It's been a while since I've been on here...too long...'nuff said.  I wanted to post my latest interesting F-body find, as I'm sure it will generate (maybe) some interest.  It's a '69 Camaro that has the rarest of all transmissions offered that year...the semi-automatic Torque Drive.  The TD was GM's failed attempt to build a lower cost clutchless manual transmission...basically the answer to a question that no one was asking.  GM's bean-counters decided that Chevrolet should offer a transmission halfway between a 3-speed manual and a 2-speed Powerglide, and that it would be mainly purchased by women who didn't mind shifting their transmissions, but didn't like pressing a clutch pedal (keep in mind that most women of driving age in the late '60s had grown up with cars with manual transmissions and were therefore used to manually shifted cars).

The engineers put their minds to work and decided the best way to build such a transmission was to take a 2-speed Powerglide and delete the vacuum modulator, the kickdown linkage, and develop a manual valve body (one that incidentally required far less costly machining to produce).  It was also decided that it would only be offered in 4 and 6-cyl. Chevy IIs, and 6-cylinder Camaros (with either the 230 or 250 cubic-inch engine). Another unusual thing about this trans is that it would be based on the air-cooled Powerglide that was built from 1963-65 and was only available in 6-cylinder equipped Chevrolets.  The air-cooled PG was easily identified by 4 baseball sized round holes in its bellhousing (two on each side), as well as its unusual-looking torque converter cover which featured a large scoop on the right side to direct air into the bottom of the torque converter.  Air-cooled PG cars could also be identified by no cooling lines from the trans to the radiator, and to a lesser extent by their odd-looking torque converters which had large cooling fins on their back sides to further direct cool air into the converter.  Unfortunately, none of the engineers realized that there is not much cool air to be found behind a hot engine, and that there was little air flow to be had in the tight area between the trans tunnel and the cooling holes.  Hence, air-cooled PGs failed at a higher rate than regular PGs. GM decided that heavy full-size Chevys could not have the air-cooled trannys...only Chevy IIs would be available with them for '64-65.

Why GM decided to build a semi-automatic trans based on the problematic air-cooled PG is anyone's guess...it just doesn't compute on any level, does it?  The Torque Drive was introduced in April '68 and was installed in 3,099 Camaros and approximately 5,000 Chevy IIs, and it cost $68.65...half the price of a regular PG.  To the untrained eye, the TD-equipped car is nearly identical to a PG car...their shift indicators are virtually the same (TD is P-R-N-Hi-1st, PG is P-R-N-D-L).  The correct way to drive a TD car is to start out in 1st (low) and shift to Hi at around 20-30 mph.  Unfortunately, many drivers would just drive around all the time in Hi, which equated to nearly non-existent acceleration and much higher trans fluid temps due to the strain of starting in 2nd gear (keep in mind that most TD drivers were clueless women who generally have no idea what's going on at any given moment in time, let alone what's going on with their cars).  As a result, GM was getting a lot of failed TD transmissions coming back to Chevrolet under warranty.  Someone decided that the fix to the TD cooling problem was to hook the air-cooled transmission to the radiator...the same as a standard PG.  It appears that TDs were available for all of the '69 model year in Camaros, then for the early part of '70 in either Novas or Vegas.  Cooling problems persisted, however, and a recall was issued to replace TDs with regular PGs for all cars with them, regardless of the year.  Hence, there are virtually no remaining TD-equipped cars.

As my fellow readers on here know (or not), I love really odd 6-cyl cars (my '70 Camaro with a 6-banger and 3-spd manual comes to mind, eh?), and I am always looking for such cars on CL and Ebay.  Right after Thanksgiving I was looking on Ebay and spotted a really nice restored red '69 Camaro with a 6-cyl engine and what the selling dealer said was a PG.  The asking price was $29k.  The dealer was in Grand Rapids, MI and sold all kinds of classics, exotics, muscle cars, and all types of motorcycles.  There were about 40 photos posted on all aspects of the car and I noticed that the shift indicator said "Torque Drive", the likes of which I had never seen before.  I did a Google search and learned how rare TD-equipped cars are.  I also couldn't find another '69 Camaro anywhere on the Internet with that trans.  I drove up to Mich to test drive the car...a round trip of 620 miles.  When I got to the dealer I was informed that all test drives had to be done by the salesman while the prospective buyer rode shotgun...fair enough.  That worked out in my favor when the young salesman shifted into Hi gear and conducted the whole test drive in that gear.  I didn't tell him that the correct way to drive it was to start in 1st gear.  He apologized for how slowly the car accelerated, and said its poor acceleration was the main reason why no one wanted the car.  I didn't tell him that the car would accelerate fine if it were driven properly.  The salesman also said the dealership was toying with the idea of swapping in a V8 and a 3-speed automatic to get rid of the acceleration problem. 

Although I was impressed with the car, I left the dealership without making a bid on it.  I had to figure out a way to come up with the money without pulling money out of my retirement funds.  As some of you on here may know, I had a beautiful and highly original '77 Firebird Esprit with 53k original miles, as well as being an untouched California car with documentation and rare options...it won a 1st place trophy in its class at the 2017 TA Nats.  I also had a '79 Chevy Suburban with 83k original miles, rust-free from SC, heavy documentation, a 454, and the rare factory towing package (my wife called it "The Turd"...I don't think she cared much for it).  Would the dealer be interested in trading those vehicles for the '69?...why yes, they would.  I already had a recent appraisal done on the '77, and the dealer requested I get one done on the 'Burb, which I had done immediately.  The dealer said they would give me 80% of the appraised value of the 2 vehicles ($21k) and that I would have to come up with an additional $6k.  I countered with an offer of $4k and they countered with $4,750 and they said that was their final offer, which I accepted.  I rented a Uhaul pickup and double-axle vehicle trailer and a buddy drove the 'Burb while I towed "Flo" up to Grand Rapids.  It sucked getting rid of Flo, but the Camaro more than made up for it.  Driving towards Detroit on I-94, there was a steady stream of appreciative semi drivers honking their horns or flashing their lights as my buddy Dan and I drove past.

Along with the car was a small photo album with photos of the car being restored, as well as some State Farm insurance cards for Carlos Gomez in Santa Fe, NM and Miguel Gomez in Albuquerque, as well as a business card for an auto collision and restoration shop in Albuquerque.  I found Carlos Gomez on a search on the Internet and learned he was deceased, but Miguel was alive and still resided in Albuquerque...I got his number and gave him a call.  He explained that his dad Carlos had bought the Camaro in 1973 while stationed at Scott AFB near St Louis, and had brought the car to his hometown of Santa Fe when he got out of the military in '74.  He had been an aircraft maintenance tech in the AF, but couldn't find a job doing that in NM and went to a community college to become an HVAC tech.  He got hired by the Santa Fe school district to do maintenance on their schools and worked there for 35 years.  At some point in the late '70s the Camaro suffered a transmission failure and he parked it behind his mother's house...here it sat for the next 30 or so years.  Carlos had purchased the car from a fellow airman named Kenneth Dombrowski, and Miguel had the car's original owner's manual and warranty book (they were found after the Grand Rapids dealer bought the car in early 2019), and he kindly sent them to me. Carlos was a very hard working dad and had 4 children, and he put all of them through college...no easy feat on his salary.  His kids spent approximately $35k having their dad's prize Camaro restored starting in 2016 and completed in 2018.  The engine and trans were rebuilt, the trashed interior was completely replaced, new tires, new shocks, fuel tank drained, and the body was rotisserie restored.  Carlos had retired due to health problems from years of heavy smoking and died from complications in 2018...just months after getting the restored Camaro.  His kids voted to sell the Camaro rather than have fighting over who would get it (they all wanted it).  It was sold to the dealer for about half of what they had invested in it.

When I received the paperwork I was able to track down the Camaro's original owner.  I used the Internet to find her still living near Ft Wayne, IN.  The Protect-o-plate said the car had been sold at Heffner Chevrolet in Oct. 1968 to Heidi Schmidt from Ashley, IN.  She is now 71 and retired from the US Postal Service.  She was glad to hear her Camaro was still around and I sent her several photos of it.  She said she was 20 years-old at the time and several months pregnant, not married, and not working.  Her dad Bill worked at a GM plant near Ft Wayne and decided to buy Heidi a new car.  They were at Hefner Chevrolet on the evening of Sep 26, 1968...the day of the official introduction of the 1969 Chevrolets, and her Camaro was in the showroom...she fell in love and had to have it.  Her dad immediately put a down payment on it and the dealer told them they would have to wait a few days until the next '69 Camaro showed up to take the red car's place in the showroom (there were no other '69 Camaros at the dealership at that time as it was the start of the new year).  Heidi and Bill drove a '68 Camaro on the lot that had power steering and brakes and Heidi liked the way it drove.  Ten days later the salesman called and said Heidi's new Camaro could be picked up...the next Camaro had shown up (a yellow convertible with a black top).  Heidi was very excited until she realized her new car had manual steering and brakes...and a funky automatic transmission that wasn't automatic (she and her dad had been so excited about the sharp new Camaro that they hadn't noticed that it was poorly equipped).  Heidi kept the car for only 2 years before trading it in at Hefner's on a red '71 Nova that had the power options she wanted.  She never married the father of her first child, and later married a fine gentleman that she is still married to.

« Last Edit: January 16, 2020, 08:00:08 AM by Built in 57 »
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Offline b_hill_86

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Re: A '69 Camaro with a Torque Drive Transmission
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2020, 10:28:11 AM »
Great story and good looking car. Id never heard of that trans before. Interesting engineering. You should make a video showing its operation. The closest thing I could find is this 53 Chrysler

1977 Trans Am 400 4 Speed Hardtop