How I wound up driving a push-button transmission car

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

A long time ago when I worked in a summer camp while in high school, the camp secretary gave the dining room crew a ride to a nearby convenience store.

We often hitchhiked there, but she was going that way anyway and asked us if we wanted to go. It was also getting late in the day, and we had to be back in time for dinner.

I was the lead waiter that year, my second year at the camp, which involved being in charge of the dining room crew of eight waiters, who were all my age or a year younger. They were some pretty interesting characters, most of whom could not afford to stay at one of these places, like me, so we went to work in one. Sort of like the poor serving the rich brats.

One waiter, though, Ben, was the son of a doctor who would have sent him to camp or anywhere else he wanted. Ben refused all of it, found my boss’ classified ad in the local paper, and applied for the job.

Ben was a rebel who knew how to have a good time and not get in trouble. Money meant nothing to him, just like it meant nothing to me (I never had any, so it was a good combination.)

So, Ben and I and a couple of other guys got in the 1950-ish Chrysler for a ride to the convenience store before the dinner shift got started.

I sat up front and watched the winding road, enjoying the countryside, taking it all in as usual before it was time again to return to the big city and to school.

“Where is the transmission,” I asked the secretary? She pointed to a set of buttons near the steering wheel. Her car was equipped with the Chrysler push button Powerflite transmission. That’s the first time I had seen one of those.

Imagine that, I thought. What will they think of next?

“They have been making these for years. My dad had a bunch of them,” Ben said. “I don’t know why they did away with them?”

He knew about high-dollar cars, and I knew about stretching every dollar.

The camp secretary said there was some talk about the transmission slipping in them, but she never had any problems. “It works fine. I wouldn’t have bought it if I couldn’t rely on it.”

The push buttons disappeared in the mid-‘60s, not long after Chrysler named it “the driving control of the future.” It was one of those things that faded before I ever got my hands on a car.

But for now, we were riding in one of those cars to the convenience store to pick up a bunch of junk food for the staff lounge, which Ben and I ran that year.

The lounge was a dingy little shack that gave the camp staff something to do at nights when they had to stay on the grounds. We opened it every night, and one of us ran it, or both of us when we stuck around.

We had a good time, especially since Ben made a deal with the owner to supply us with ground beef, hot dogs and buns in return for taking on the task of operating the lounge.

But he didn’t give us snacks. We had to buy those and the soft drinks, and we ran out the night before. This was the quickest way to get some for the next couple of nights.

The next day, Ben pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted to go for a ride again in the Chrysler, and pulled the keys out of his pocket. “She let me borrow it. Come on, you can drive it back.”

And that, dear reader, was the first and last time I drove a Chrysler with a push-button Powerflite transmission.

In the early 1970s, it was a teen-ager’s dream come true. Well, at least one of them.