What It’s Like To Drive A Car With A Transmission Half Made Out Of Paper

What It’s Like To Drive A Car With A Transmission Half Made Out Of Paper

I know that headline sounds like some insane click-bait horseshit, but in this case, it’s actually pretty true. In this end-of-season Jason Drives episode, I have the incredible pleasure of struggling to drive a 1913 Metz, and, yes, of the two major components in its incredibly simple transmission, one is mostly made out of paper. I’ll explain more.

This particular Metz is owned by Paul Greenstein and Dydia DeLyser whom you might remember as the owners of that Tatra T87 that so many of us here fell in love with. We knew we wanted to come out to LA and drive one of Paul’s many wonderful machines, and this was the one Paul was the most eager for us to drive, because, really, it’s the weirdest to drive.

Metz was one of those early American automobile companies, operating from 1908 to 1922, that was effectively killed by the runaway success of the Ford Model T.

Metz was interesting because they offered a way to buy cars on an instalment plan, pretty much a literal instalment plan, because you were sent parts of the car and you assembled it yourself. This was known as the “Metz Plan,” and it was a lot cheaper than buying a fully-assembled car: $US350 ($499) instead of $US600 ($855), which is about $US8,800 ($12,534) instead of $US15,150 ($21,578) in today’s money.

That’s fascinating, sure, but what makes a Metz car itself really remarkable is just how astoundingly simple it is, especially regarding the transmission and final drive setup, which is where all that paper comes in.

The engine of a Metz was very similar to a Ford Model T engine; it was even designed by the same people, and most common parts would fit between the two cars. But where a Model T had a (comparatively) complex planetary transmission, the Metz had, well, two discs, one of which was made of paper.

A visual will probably help here:

OK, that’s an overhead shot of a Metz chassis. See the blue disc and shaft? That shaft is coming from the engine, and it’s spinning that blue disc, which is made of aluminium.

See the orange disc and shaft? That disc is mounted on the rear drive axle (which in turn drives the rear wheels via a pair of chains) and that’s the disc that’s made of many, many sheets of paper sandwiched between two metal plates. It looks sort of like a phone book side viewed side-on, only, you know, round.

The way it works is that the paper disc is pressed against the spinning engine disc via a pedal-operated belt system, and a lever is used to slide the paper disc back and forth along the surface of the engine disc.

If the paper disc is by the outer edge, you’re in a high gear, and get less torque and more speed; move the paper disc closer to the center and the gear ratios get lower and lower, until you pass the center line, which puts you in reverse, since the paper disc is now being rotated the opposite way.

It’s a manual CVT setup, effectively, something I’ve dreamed about for years. It’s also incredibly strange to drive.

The Metz has a large lever to move the friction disc, so that’s effectively your gear change—you have to keep an eye on it because it likes to slowly move itself to the outside of the drive wheel if you’re not paying attention.

There’s also a hand throttle on the steering column, two brake pedals (one weak, one stronger), and a strange inverse-clutch sort of pedal with little detants and a sort of ratchet-and-pawl system to hold it in place.

This pedal adjusts how tightly the paper axle disc is pressed against the aluminium drive disc. You want it to have a bit of slip when you’re just starting out so things can actually get moving, but then once you’re under way you want to try and minimise the amount of slip, which is wasteful and generates heat instead of lovely motion.

There’s little pre-set ratchet-like positions you can lock the pedal into, so you don’t have to keep your foot on it all the time, but in practice, at least for someone used to driving conventional cars, it doesn’t help that much, just because everything is so damn weird.

It’s a bit of a ballet to drive this thing, as you have to manage hand throttle, gear lever positioning, and that engagement pedal thing all at once, in harmony with everyone else. And then sometimes you have to brake, which throws everything off, like when you carefully sweeten your iced tea and a thoughtless waiter pours more in, ruining your carefully-crafted ratio.

It’s weird, but so many other cars of this era were weird, too, not the least of which is the Model T. And, compared to the constant leg-motion demanded by the T, I think I actually prefer the Metz system, once you get used to it.

I love how brutally and almost comically simple the transmission system is, and the strange materials used. I sort of want to try to build a crude go-cart using this same sort of setup now.

This was a huge treat to drive—when else am I going to get to drive something as weird as this?