Piston Slap: The electric glide into overdrive?

Columbia Axle Company

Jerry writes:

Regarding the old Ford Columbia two-speed rear ends, has anyone ever made an electric shift conversion? Thank you!

Sajeev answers:

I looked around a fair bit, asked one of the experts, and it seems like nobody’s made a conversion to either a cable or an electronic shifter. Which is disappointing, since someone makes a conversion for Chrysler’s Panelescent displays.

That said, maybe it isn’t too hard to do the swap yourself? Let’s explore some options after getting a lay of the land.

The Columbia rear axle is relatively simple; even the later electric/vacuum-operated setup (from 1942-up?) is child’s play by modern-car standards. While I don’t own the schematics, from what I glean online there are two switches on the later design: one to go up into overdrive as a toggle switch (on the dashboard?), and one to downshift out of overdrive via a switch connected to the clutch pedal(?). Along with the switches is a solenoid and a vacuum assembly under the hood to take those inputs and transmit them to the rear axle.

It seems like folks have used off-the-shelf parts to convert to an electric shifter or to a cable-operated linkage. Here’s a good post for converting to a cable, which is probably an easier process for most folks. The electric conversion (here and here) isn’t too bad, but getting the schematics in hand first seems like a very good idea.

You’d have to be pretty electrically savvy to 100 percent delete the vacuum system; you might also need to experiment with different actuators to replicate the vacuum system’s operation perfectly. It wouldn’t be impossible, considering how many folks have deleted vacuum-operated headlight assemblies—you would just need to find the right strength/length electronic actuator to work on the Columbia axle assembly.

Since the question was about a pre-engineered conversion kit (which doesn’t exist), I’d recommend just sticking with the vacuum system, repairing any leaks if necessary, and enjoying it as-is.

If and when a conversion kit is readily available? Yeah, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

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