Overdrive can refer to two different things. An overdrive is a device which was commonly used in automobiles to allow the choice of an extra-high overall gear ratio for high speed cruising, thus saving fuel, at the cost of less torque. Usually the final or 'top' gear is called overdrive. Non direct drive gears increase torque multiplication at the expense of higher engine rpm and thus, decreased fuel economy.
It also refers to a combination of gearing inside a transmission or transaxle which results in the output speed being greater than the input speed. In the latter case, "overdrive" does not refer to a physically separate identifiable part/assembly.
Early manual automotive transmissions were limited to three or sometimes four speeds, with only the most sophisticated being five speeds. This left an unfulfilled need for a higher gear ratio for highway cruising, which was filled by the addition of separate overdrive units. However, automotive manual transmissions manufactured since the 1980s tend to include a larger selection of gear ratios than before, the highest of which is usually greater than 1:1. This trend has rendered the overdrive a complex and obsolete solution to economy gearing in automobiles, and very few cars are fitted with them today, although they still appear on large trucks, where more gear ratios are always in demand.
Generally speaking, overdrive (OD) is the highest gear in the transmission. Most automatic transmissions have three speeds and overdrive (fourth speed). Overdrive allows the engine to operate at a lower rpm for a given road speed. This allows the vehicle to achieve better fuel efficiency, and often quieter operation on the highway. When it is switched on, the transmission can shift into overdrive mode after a certain speed is reached (usually 70+ km/h [43+ mph] depending on the load). When it is off, the transmission shifting is limited to the lower gears. For normal driving conditions, operation of the overdrive should be enabled only if the average speed is above 70 km/h (approx. 43 MPH).
It may be necessary to switch it off if the vehicle is being operated in a mountainous area.
The automatic transmission automatically shifts from OD to third gear when more load is present. When less load is present, it shifts back to OD. Under certain conditions, for example driving uphill, or towing a trailer, the transmission may "hunt" between OD and the third gear, shifting back and forth. In this case, switching it off can help the transmission to 'decide'. It may also be advantageous to switch it off if engine braking is desired, for example when driving downhill. The vehicle's owner's manual will often contain information and suitable procedures regarding such situations, for each given vehicle.
Overdrive was widely used in automobiles with manual transmission particularly in Europe (see below) and was commonly available on either top gear alone, or on top gear and the gear immediately below (eg third gear and fourth gear. In this case gear changing is still possible in all gears, even with overdrive disconnected. Overdrive simply adds effective ranges to the gears, thus overdrive third and fourth become in effect "third-and-a-half" and a fifth gear. In practice this can lead to an overlap of gears in the third/fourth and overdrive-third/overdrive-fourth ranges, providing greater flexibility particularly in performance cars.
How an overdrive unit works
The overdrive consists of an electrically or hydraulically operated epicyclic gear train bolted behind the transmission unit. It can either couple the input driveshaft directly to the output shaft (or propeller shaft) (1:1), or increase the output speed so that it turns faster than the input shaft (1:1 + n). Thus the output shaft may be "overdriven" relative to the input shaft. In newer transmissions, the overdrive speed(s) are typically as a result of combinations of planetary/epicyclic gearsets which are integrated in the transmission. In these cases, there is no separately identifiable "overdrive" unit. A number of such transmissions and transaxles are manufactured by Aisin, for use in vehicles produced by many different manufacturers. In older vehicles, it is sometimes actuated by a knob or button, often incorporated into the gearshift knob, and does not require operation of the clutch. Newer vehicles have electronic overdrive in which the computer automatically adjusts to the conditions of power need and load.
Overdrive in Europe
The vast majority of overdrives in European cars were manufactured by an English company called Laycock de Normanville (later GKN Laycock), at its Little London Road site in Sheffield, which is now demolished and remanufactured in the UK by an ex-Laycock de Normanville employee trading as Overdrive Repair Services. The system was devised by an Englishman, named Captain Edgar de Normanville, through a chance meeting with a Laycock Products Engineer. De Normanville overdrives were found in vehicles manufactured by Ford, British Leyland, Jaguar, Rootes and Volvo to name but a few. Another British company, the former aircraft builder Fairey, built a successful all-mechanical unit for the Land Rover, which is still in production in America today.
The first production vehicle to feature the Laycock system was the 1948 Standard Vanguard Saloon. The first unit to be created was the A-type overdrive, this was fitted to many sports cars during the 1950s. Several famous marques used A-type overdrives, including Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Austin Healey, Jensen, Bristol, AC and Armstrong Siddeley. Later the A-type overdrive was to be fitted to the entire range of TR cars.
In 1959, the Laycock Engineering Company introduced the D-type overdrive, which was fitted to a variety of motor cars including Volvo 120 and 1800s, Sunbeam Alpines and Rapiers, Triumph Spitfires, and also early 3-synchro MGBs.
The J-type overdrive was introduced in the early 1970s, and was adapted to fit Volvo, Triumph, Vauxhall/Opel, American Motors and Chrysler motorcars, and Ford Transit vans.
The P-type overdrive marked the last updates and included both a Gear Vendors U.S. version and a Volvo version. The Volvo version kept the same package size as the J-type but with the updated 18 element freewheel and stronger splines through the planet carrier. The Gear Vendors U.S. version uses a larger 1.375 od output shaft for higher capacity and a longer rear case.
Over a period of 40 years, Laycock Engineering manufactured over three and a half million overdrive Units, and over one million of these were fitted to Volvo motorcars.
In 2008 the U.S. company Gear Vendors, Inc. El Cajon, California purchased all the overdrive assets of GKN to continue production of the U.S. version and all spares for J and P types worldwide.
The system features an oil pressure operated device attached to the back of the standard gearbox operating on the gearbox output shaft. Through a system of oil pressure, solenoids and pistons, the overdrive would drop the revs on whatever gears it was used on by 22%. For instance, the overdrive system applied to a Triumph TR5 operates on 2nd, 3rd and top gear. When engaged, the overdrive would drop the revs by approximately 450rpm. The advantages this had on fuel consumption was quite marked over long distances.
Overdrive in North America
In the days before automatic transmissions were common, especially in the 1950s, many rear-wheel drive American cars were available with an overdrive option. Borg Warner provided the box that was factory-installed between the engine and a foreshortened driveshaft. Since the overdrive function, if enabled, could be shifted by simply easing up on the accelerator without depressing the clutch pedal, the action was much like a semi-automatic. Also, an electrically operated solenoid would deactivate the unit via a switch under the accelerator pedal providing the equivalent of the kickdown of the automatic. A knob connected to a Bowden cable, similar to some emergency brake applications, was also provided to lock out the unit mechanically. Using overdrive with the main 3-speed transmission in 2nd gear was similar in ratio to 3rd gear, and with the main transmission in 3rd, the overall ratio was fractional (i.e., "true overdrive").
Such add-on overdrive boxes were available from the 1930s to the 1970s for cars and light trucks, and today are used mainly to provide the extra gearing required in heavy trucks.
Fuel economy and drivetrain wear
Using overdrive gearing, the car's engine RPM drops, reducing engine wear and normally saving fuel. One should refer to the car's owner's manual for the proper speed to run at overdrive. All engines have a range of peak efficiency and it is possible for the use of overdrive to keep the engine out of this range for all or part of the time of its use, thus cutting into any fuel savings from the lower engine speed.
There is some debate on the overall efficiency of overdrive gearing, as it requires more moving parts than direct 1:1 drive, but most will agree that within the transmission, this effect is minimal. The other difficulty can be in the drive shaft rotation speed.
Overall drivetrain reduction comes down to three basic factors: transmission gearing (including overdrive), differential gearing (in the axle), and tire size. The rotation speed problem comes into effect when the differential gearing is a high ratio and an overdrive is used to compensate. This may create unpleasant vibrations at high speeds and possible destruction of the driveshaft due to the centripetal forces or uneven balance.
The driveshaft is usually a hollow metal tube that requires balancing to reduce vibration and contains no internal bracing.
The higher speeds on the driveshaft and related parts can cause heat and wear problems if an overdrive and high differential gearing (or even very small tires) are combined, and create unnecessary friction. This is especially important because the differential gears are bathed in heavy oil and seldom provided with any cooling besides air blowing over the housing.
The impetus is to minimize overdrive use and provide a higher ratio first gear, which means more gears between the first and the last to keep the engine at its most efficient speed. This is part of the reason that automobiles tend to have larger numbers of gears in their transmissions nowadays. It is also why more than one overdrive gear is seldom seen in a vehicle except in special circumstances ie. where high (numerical) diff gear is required to get the vehicle moving as in trucks or performance cars.
Mention in popular media
- The action of easing one's foot off the accelerator pedal to activate overdrive is described in Hot Rod Lincoln, a rock song originally written in 1955.
- "How Automatic Transmissions Work - Overdrive" (with a Flash interactive animation)