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The Mysterious Pile Of 1950s Transmissions Buried At The Site Of An Old GM Plant

Jalopnik logo Jalopnik 6/25/2018 David Tracy

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© Photo: All Photos by Dennis Viers

How did a pile of 1950s-era General Motors “Turboglide” transmissions end up buried in a swamp near the site of GM’s current Parma Metal Center in Cleveland? That’s what this machine repairman who works there wonders, and even after sending us the photos and some sleuthing on my part, we may never know the truth.

The stamping press repairman, Dennis Viers, told me over the phone that he was walking outside near the stamping plant—which sits adjacent to the site of an old GM powertrain plant that closed in 2010—during lunch, when he spotted a bunch of transmissions jutting out of the ground. The woods through which he walked were a fenced-in part of GM’s property in Parma, and the transmissions sat in a part of the ground normally submerged in water, he told me.

“Well, for some reason, it was drained off.” he described. “I looked over and was like ‘Holy crap, there’s a transmission.”

And another transmission. And another.

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“I’m sure there’s a pile of them in there,” Viers said, estimating that he probably spotted ten transmissions during that lunch break.

Viers isn’t sure how the slushboxes got there, telling me there’s really not much in that now-wooded, overgrowing area that currently sits between buildings. This red marker shows the exact location near the train tracks:

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“More than likely, they were bad or something.” he spitballed. “Or they had a pallet of bad ones, and they were set aside. And then they went out of production and they got shuffled around inside the plant for a while until some supervisor comes by and says ‘get them out of here!’”

Viers also says he talked with old-timers at GM’s Parma stamping plant, and they told him that GM may have used that area to store parts, and these transmissions may have just gotten left behind.

We may never know.

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Viers found that the transmissions were Turboglides—fascinating transmissions that acted almost like modern Continuously Variable Transmissions, using three “geared” torque converter turbines in series to produce a “shiftless” effect. These things were pretty far ahead of their time.

Here’s a quick look at how the transmission—optional on 1957 to 1961 V8 non-Corvette Chevrolets—worked:

Viers’s identification based on the shape of the trans case and pan was correct, because looking at one of the transmissions closely, he found this label:

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Turboglides were among GM’s first automatic transmissions with aluminum cases, so it’s not illogical to think that there may have been some casting issues, but that still doesn’t explain how the transmissions ended up in Parma.

Logically, Viers assumed the buried Turboglides—which almost certainly never saw use after coming from the factory, as the transmissions are still outfitted with shipping brackets (see below)—must have been manufactured right there in Cleveland.

But I reached out to GM’s Heritage Center, and the representative told me that Turboglides were actually manufactured in Toledo, and that Parma was known for cranking out cast iron “Powerglide” transmissions, which were two-speed automatics that were far more common (and conventional) than the Turboglides.

a close up of some grass© Provided by Univision Interactive Media, Inc.

“The Turboglide was built at the Chevrolet Toledo Plant,” the email response reads. “Our sources indicate that the first production Turboglide was manufactured at Toledo in 1956 (for the 1957 Chevrolets).”

The message continues, saying that the Turboglide was the only transmission built in Toledo until the Corvair’s Powerglide came along in 1959 for the 1960 model year. “Production of the Turboglide ended in 1961. 646,000 Turboglides were built during the period 1956-1961,” the GM Heritage archivist’s email concludes.

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So if these transmissions weren’t built in Parma, what are they doing in a swampy forest on the side of a dirt road on GM property?

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The representative from the GM heritage center said that his records make it seem like this transmission wasn’t made in Parma, but he did throw out a few theories, making it clear that they were purely speculation.

“Is it possible that they built Turboglides there? Sure, it’s possible,” he told me, going on to reiterate: “Nothing that I see [in GM’s documents] shows Turboglide at Parma.”

“My speculation... is that they were either piloting a future production program at Parma with those transmissions, or they were doing some kind of manufacturing comparison or something like that,” he said. The archivist says a colleague agrees that the Turboglide might have been built as part of a pilot program.

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So it seems that we’re left with more questions than answers about these Turboglide transmissions allegedly found buried on the site of an old GM powertrain plant. Maybe they were—contrary to documentation—production units built at the plant, but just forgotten? It’s possible they had manufacturing defects. Perhaps they were shipped to the plant from Toledo for some reason and stored in Parma? Or, more likely, perhaps they were just part of a pilot program at Parma.

This mystery of how these 60 year-old transmissions wound up returning back to nature on the site of a former GM transmission plant may go forever unsolved.

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