No Country for Manual Transmissions?

The easiest example of gear shifting in an automotive transmission is that of the manual transmission. In simplified terms, one shaft enters the transmission from the engine (input shaft), and is constantly spinning at the same RPM as the engine. Another shaft is connected to the wheels (output shaft), and always spins at the speed of the vehicle’s wheels.

“Save the manuals!” the rallying cry goes, and anyone with a drop of gear oil in their blood knows what it means. Stick shifts have become an endangered species, even in many sports cars. But just how did we get here? And more importantly, where is this going?

Early cars had manual transmissions because the technology hadn’t yet arrived. But automakers were working on it, knowing it would be a sales advantage. In 1939, Chrysler introduced a semi-automatic system, called Fluid Drive, which it advertised to “women who never wanted to drive before, because it looked too complicated,” while “experienced drivers have nothing to learn or unlearn, though they find a lot more pleasure in driving” by not having to use the clutch as much.

A year later, General Motors introduced the first mass-produced, fully automatic automobile transmission, dubbed the Hydra-Matic, on Oldsmobile. When it was offered on Cadillacs in 1941, at an extra $110 on a car that averaged about $1,500, it was chosen by 30 percent of buyers.

What would many of us do without automatic transmission? One hand on the steering wheel, the other grasping a Super Big Gulp. This would have been an impossible feat in the first half of the 1900s. Of course, there were early crude attempts at automatic transmission almost since the development of separate gears, but the first truly automatic transmission, as we still understand it today, was in 1940 Oldsmobiles, which offered four forward speeds, plus reverse. It was seen as such a bragging right that for the next couple of decades many cars with such a transmission would have the word "automatic" stencilled on their trunk. It don't hurt to advertise.

The two-pedal transmission rapidly gained popularity, and by the 1980s, only about 35 percent were buying cars with three pedals. Today, in Canada, it’s less than four percent.

So why the switch? Basically, while enthusiasts shake their heads in wonder, the majority of people aren’t that much into driving. They just want something that will start, stop, steer, and with any luck, be in the shop as little as possible.

And even for enthusiasts, automatics can have a place. Many are so technologically advanced that they shift faster than the best drivers can, such as Porsche’s Doppelkupplung (PDK, for those whose German needs work). “On the racetrack, I’d say the PDK is better because it’s quicker,” says Andreas Preuninger, head of Porsche GT.

“All race cars have shifters on the wheel. It shifts quicker, and you keep your hand on the wheel.”

But Preuninger also believes the company erred when it offered its 911 GT3 only with an automatic. “We lost some of the hardcore enthusiasts,” he said. “We gained a lot of new customers, but we lost our old and very loyal customers, because they wanted to shift. We took an interface away from them. We thought there was no demand, but there are people who want to get involved with a clutch they can operate.”

2015 Porsche 911 GT3

To that end, the new GT3 will offer both, but Preuninger expects only about one-third of customers to opt for the stick. That guesswork makes it tough for carmakers, which have to place orders with suppliers well in advance of assembly and need to know exactly how many transmissions they’re going to need.

On average, manual transmissions cost less to make than automatics. That can be a boon for automakers in lower-priced segments, since a bare-bones model will give them that all-important rock-bottom price in their ads. But companies have to make money if they still want to be companies, and so there are often some restrictions on the options.

On inexpensive models like Nissan’s Micra or Chevrolet’s Spark, the base trim with stick shift starts at less than $10,000. But if you want air conditioning, as the vast majority of buyers do, you need to move up to an automatic. This nets the automaker a little extra cash, but just as importantly, it helps product planners and dealers figure out how many cars to order, to prevent the deadly sin of unsold vehicles at the back of the lot.

And it can be a self-perpetuating cycle: since fewer people want standard transmissions, some new-car buyers who might opt for a manual choose an automatic instead, simply because it’ll have more appeal and a higher resale value at trade-in.

That’s not to say that the third pedal is finished just yet. Some sports-minded models, like Ford’s Focus ST and RS, and Honda’s upcoming Civic Si, only come with a manual, while others like the Corvette charge you extra for an automatic.

Keep the faith, fans: the manual transmission may be down, but it’s certainly not out.

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Jil McIntosh

Jil McIntosh is an auto reviewer, feature writer and driving advice expert.
  • najirban

    Many enthusiasts don’t have the money to buy a new 3 pedal with some yank under the hood. We buy used or we keep dreaming as we drive our beaters.

  • canuck477

    I wouldn’t even consider a car with an automatic transmission. I tried for a while with one, but it was the most boring thing to drive ever! Still would downshift with it though and grumbled the whole time about how slow it was. I don’t have enough experience with the flappy paddle semi-automatics, but I know that they are just as bad unless you are buying something very expensive with the dual clutch system. Looks like I will switch to full electric cars when they stop making manuals.

  • jimfromcanada

    I like to drive a manual transmission car because it gives me more and better control over the vehicle.

  • Raymond

    Tough to steal a manual trans vehicle since most criminals are stupid..

  • Lance Romance

    With traffic on the increase and the vast majority of people do not know how to drive, the manual trani is on it’s way out.

    Just look at trucking companies buy automatics for their trucks because the drivers can barely drive forward let alone in reverse.

    Manual transmissions will become a premium as the car companies gouge the consumer a little more.

  • fastball

    Even though the overwhelming majority of the cars in the UK are manual, more and more of the new cars purchased there are now automatics. Maybe because the automatics are so much better than they used to be…or because sitting on the North Circular in bumper-to-bumper stop-and-go traffic is a pain with a stick.
    Also…and this is a pet peeve – if the vast, overwhelming majority of vehicles in NAmerica are automatics, why does every carmaker charge you about 1500 dollars extra for one when you buy a new car? Shouldn’t they charge MORE for the item that they sell fewer of?

  • Mykeljon

    A stick-shift is great fun in a sports car on a winding and hilly rural road. Unfortunately, my city lifestyle rarely allows for that kind of driving. I am far more likely to experience stop and go traffic. An automatic transmission is the only useful choice for city driving.

  • Kahrek

    Well from a production cost point of view you are one hundred percent correct but from the business side of things if you can charge a premium for your most commonly sold items (automatic transmission) then you are doing things right.

  • Kahrek

    Actually as long as people keep paying the premium for automatic transmissions they will most likely remain the more expensive option. Business wise if you can charge more for your most common option that is a good thing.

  • Travis Bickle

    Horse caca what you meant to say, you are too lazy to drive a standard.

  • Travis Bickle

    Standard transmissions are cheaper to build than automatics.

  • Travis Bickle

    The article fails to mention that standard transmissions offer better fuel economy when used properly than any automatic. The article also fails to mention that a clutch replacement is a lot cheaper than a failed automatic transmission.

  • Travis Bickle

    Bottom line, do your research BEFORE you buy a car. VW, Mini and other brands are well known to have automatics that are guaranteed to fail and hugely expensive to repair.

  • Mykeljon

    I believe in using the right tool for the right job. An automatic transmission is the right tool for stop and go driving. Having been a driver for 55 years, 30 of those primarily with a standard, I’ll stick to my original comment.