Ford’s Cruise-O-Matic and the C Family of Automatic Transmissions (Part VI)
We return to the final entry in our Cruise-O-Matic and C transmission series, at a time when the former’s Fifties-tastic name had faded from the memory of most. The C family was the wave of the future when it arrived as a rework of the Cruise-O-Matic in 1964. The first of the line was the C4, a medium-duty box that was followed two years later by the heavy-duty C6.
Because C4 and C6 were both for heavier applications, the FMX arrived in the late Sixties as an amalgam of the FX and MX. It took the best attributes of both extinct transmissions, but still had its basis in the Fifties. Its replacement was C3, a light-duty transmission for four- and six-cylinder cars. But by the mid-Eighties, the three-speed automatic was overdue for a rethink. Ford added another gear, and the C3 became the A4LD in 1985. But even with four gears, something was still missing: Technology.
The final year the A4LD saw widespread application was 1994 when it finished up duty in the Ford Ranger, Explorer, and Aerostar. That was also its final European usage, as the old Scorpio and Granada III were merged together into the absolutely hideous Scorpio Mark II. By that time the A4LD received an electronically-controlled torque converter clutch, as well as electronic shift control for the transition from gears three to four. Both of those were firsts for a Ford automatic, as the Blue Oval moved with the times and embraced the move away from transmissions that were controlled via hydraulics.
Ford was ready in 1995 with two variants of the A4LD, the 4R44E and 4R55E. Both transmissions had the same A4LD architecture underneath but were fully electronically controlled. They were different enough from the A4LD to be considered an all-new transmission family by Ford. The new naming scheme meant four forward gears, rear-drive application, 440 lb-ft torque rating, and electronic shift operation. In the case of the 55, it was rated for up to 550 lb-ft of torque. Both transmissions were also used in four-wheel drive applications with a revised tail housing.
Ford of Europe rejected the naming change for their usage of the 4R44E and called it the A4LDE instead. It saw minimal usage in the new Scorpio Mark II through 1998, until that model was axed as Ford of Europe exited the executive end of the market. From then on, the Mondeo was the largest and most luxurious European market sedan.
In North America, the 4R44 and 4R55 spread across Ford’s rear-drive offerings that were not full-size. The Explorer, Ranger, and Aerostar used the boxes through the Nineties, and so did the Ranger’s rarer sibling the Mazda B-Series truck. The 44 version was most often used with four-cylinder examples or with the smaller 3.0-liter Vulcan V6. The 55 was used in heavier vehicles like Explorers and Rangers that had the 4.0 Cologne V6.
Explorer was the first vehicle in North America to move away from the 4R44, in 1996. The Aerostar followed suit in 1997. The stalwart and slow-moving Ranger held onto its version of the automatic until 2001. The 4R55 saw shorter service life, as it was used only from 1995 to 1997 before it was replaced mid-year by the next generation of the 55-duty transmission.
Like the Eighties saw the transition from three- to four-speed automatics, the Nineties and 2000s saw the move from four- to five-speed boxes (unless you were GM). Shortly after the 4R series was released Ford started work on the next generation of R automatics, to be called 5R. Together they were 5R44E and 5R55E. Based on the 4R and tracing their roots to the C3, the 5Rs were mechanically very similar to their predecessors.
The main advancement this time was the addition of the important fifth gear. Ford was on the ball with the changeover, as it became the first American automaker to implement a five-speed automatic in 1997 (5R55E). The 55’s heavier duty use made advancement in its operation a priority over the old 4R44. When it arrived, it had more modern computer controls that were necessary to motivate the high quantity five forward gears (2022 says LOL) and had a new type of shifting technology: Friction-to-friction.
Once the 5R55 was in production, Ford’s engineers used it as a basis to create the lighter-duty 5R44. That was a change in the prior methodology, where both versions were developed at the same time. The new five-speeds were applied mostly to the same engines as they were previously, like the long-lived 3.0 and 4.0 V6 mills. Variants of the 5R transmission were built at the Bordeaux transmission plant in France, and at the Sharonville, Ohio facility north of Cincinnati. Though Bordeaux closed in 2019, Sharonville is still alive and well, and your author drives by it all the time.
The 5R was used to upgrade the final year of the Aerostar in 1997, as the model transitioned to the front-drive Windstar in 1998. It also debuted in the Ranger and B-Series in 1997, as well as the Explorer. The Mercury Mountaineer joined in on the 5R fun for its first year in 1997.
But those weren’t the only 5R versions, as further development was warranted. Far from its basic roots a decade prior, Ford had entered the Premier Automotive Group era. Suddenly there were new things under the Ford umbrella: Luxury cars that required further refinement, a fancy version of the Explorer for Lincoln, and the resurrection of the Thunderbird as a retro Boomermobile. Time to rework the 5R!
First up was the 5R55N, which appeared in 2000 for the DEW platform Lincoln LS, and its less reliable British cousin the Jaguar S-Type. Two years later the aforementioned Thunderbird would also use the N, as your author ponders about a long-lost LS coupe or perhaps Mark IX. The N was tuned for semi-sporty luxury usage but was mechanically very similar to the 55E. The Thunderbird ditched the N after one year, however, as the new 5R55S was available.
The S was a modification on the 55E that added an optional SelectShift function, as Ford resurrected a very old marketing term from the C4. The S stood for synchronic shift and had a different overdrive gear ratio. A sportier drive, the 55S was also implemented in the Mustang for 2005. The Mustang was never offered with the SelectShift feature while it used the 55S, despite the transmission being tweaked for the purpose specifically. The short-lived 2003 to 2005 Lincoln Aviator based on the Explorer also used the 5R55S (without SelectShift), and was the only SUV to use the S.
One final version of the 5R55E arrived in late 2000, and was used in the last few model year 2000 Explorers: The W. Like the S, the W had a different overdrive ratio but was used only in truck-based applications. It appeared in 2001 for the Ranger.
Usage of the five-speed 5R lasted through the mid-2000s for DEW platform vehicles from Lincoln and Jaguar, and 2010 or 2011 for most other applications. The 5R was never used in any European vehicles but did make its way to Australia for a short while. In 2008 it was introduced on the FG generation of the rear-drive Falcon, a model that used five different transmissions dependent upon the engine. Specifically, the 5R55S was paired to the 4.0-liter Barra inline-six. Like the Thunderbird, in Falcon usage, the S had a SelectShift feature.
With the old Ranger’s 2011 discontinuation, the C transmission family truly met its end. Considering it debuted in 1973 and had source material in the Fifties, its family variants motivated a wide array of Ford vehicles for a very long time. The old Cruise-O-Matic stepped aside for the C, which branched into the 4R and 5R. Eventually, all were replaced by more modern transmissions like the FX/MX-based AOD (rear-drive) and AXOD (front-drive). Maybe Abandoned History will cover those too. Until next time.
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