The recorded idea of a continuously variable transmission goes all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci, who is credited with developing the concept in 1490. The inventors of the automobile, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, first patented the technology for automotive use in 1886. The first U.S. patent was issued for a CVT in 1935. The first production car marketed in the U.S. to offer a continuously variable transmission was the 1989 Subaru Justy.
To understand a continuously variable transmission (CVT), it is helpful to be somewhat familiar with the functioning of automotive transmissions in general. Reduced to the simplest explanation possible, an automotive transmission conducts the output of the engine to the drive wheels of an automobile in a controlled fashion to optimize the application of both torque and power.
To do their job, engines need to spin considerably faster than drive wheels. The transmission reduces the speed of the engine’s rotation to ensure it reaches the drive wheels manageably. Further, the transmission serves to vary the power output of an engine to the drive wheels. This enables the powerplant to be used to produce maximum torque at low speeds to set the vehicle into motion, as well as maximum power at high speeds to keep the vehicle in motion.