5 Speed Manual Gear Pattern
Al Castro's picture

Now You Want One as They’re Getting Rid of Them: the Manny Tranny: The Lazy Driver vs. EVs

We have no one to blame for the destruction of the manual transmission except for the few of us that were gifted to know how to use it. If we only knew how few of us existed, maybe we could have coordinated consumer demand to prevent the inevitable from happening. Electrics would have sealed their fate anyway.
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Audi AG recently announced they are dropping manual transmissions from their A4 and A5 model ranges, which were the only cars they offered a stick shift in North America:

  • -They essentially became the first car company that sells in the US to officially cancel their stick shift option totally.
  • -Many more companies following as auto tranny’s become more efficient and mannys are less in demand.
  • -The only ones left to possibly offer a stick shift option way into the future may be the luxury performance bespoke brands like Aston Martin, Porsche, Lamborghini, and Ferrari, but none of these have confirmed.
  • -The Europeans offered an auto that sent the stick to death knell.
  • -The Europeans gave us exactly what we wanted to blame only ourselves, not them.
  • -Now that we want one when its too late, the best to hope for is to find an older stick car in decent shape before it gets crushed, which they’re bound to be sooner than auto trannys.

We manual stick shift drivers knew the end of the manny tranny in vehicles was coming probably when we saw less of them on motor coaches, then less of them on delivery trucks and school buses, then less of them (and this one was the most noticeable and stunned the most) on truck tractors. It doesn’t bode well for cars when truck tractors are losing their manual gear selectors. On the car side of the parallel universe, we didn’t realize it at the time, but it starting making more sense in the back of our minds while the front was still in deep denial, that car makers over the decades were giving us less options to go stick, as the electronic chip in the automatic transmission would eventually replace the fuel efficiencies of the manual gearbox. I remember when I went shopping for a new EV back in 2011, I noticed that options were few and the writing was on the wall for both new EVs and gas cars converted to BEV that the manny tranny would go dead extinct from the auto industry. Audi’s recent announcement of shutting its doors to gear shifting to the North American market is the process of sealing its fate.

The Beginning of the End to Manny

I believe we saw Ford experiment with this as one of the first to make them, with their four speed electronic automatic overdrive transmissions, AOD, they put in things like their Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln Panthers and Fox Mustangs, Thunderbirds, Continentals, Cougars, and Capris starting in 1980, while phasing out the old tried and true X transmission used as far back as the 1950’s. At the turn of this century depending on the manufacturer by a few years either side, it hit us like a deer in a pair of headlights when they offered what was considered at the time an outrageous number of automatic gears in the auto gearbox.

If we gearbox heads are to blame anyone or anything for the pending extinction of manny, it’s of all people BMW, my car company as that’s what I drive, and the ZF 8HP 8 speed automatic transmission and its variants made in Germany and South Carolina. This tranny is the manny killer. First used in the top of the line BMW 760Li (F01) V12 Series Saloons (and frankly the only reliable thing that worked without maintenance on that car), it was so successful BMW took it right down the entire range to the 1 Series to put it in there, that my car, a 3 series, has it too. Even though this tranny is outsourced from Friedrichshafen, other car companies took notice.

I bring my car into this because this is the plight many gearbox shifter heads have. For years I lived in Manhattan. Zipcar was my brand until I moved in 2011. After I gave up on Tesla and Coda back in early 2012, and I’ll get to the electrics below, having just moved to LA, and I’m a working man as I needed a set a wheels to get around for work ASAP. After almost getting ripped off from a Lexus dealer in LA who tried to sell me a car they claimed was new when I went to pick it up, but had 5,000 miles on the odometer (CA law stipulates a car becomes used when title is transferred, so the salesman can take your car home before they sell it to you as new with a smile on their face), I went to BMW. I scoured the country for a 3 series in my configs with a manual. Nowhere. I settled for an auto.

Manny Trannys are starting to affect car sales:

The Triumvirate: Friedrichshafen, BMW, Chrysler

As BMW was proliferating their range with the Friedrichshafen ZF8HP, Chrysler was abandoning their tried and true 3 Speed Torque-Flite they used over the years to use different trannys to finally rely on Friedrichshafen as well. The world now has 300s, Hellcats, Demons, Chargers, etc from the LX platform doing 8 speed Friedrichshafen or some kind of variant. Now everyone around the world is using it, its 5 and 6 speed variants too, from Alfa Romeo down to Volkswagen. It’s the tried and true tranny. It’s efficient, shifts smoothly, and saves gas. This is why you see things like a Bentley Flying Spur W12/16/32 whatever, or a Mulsanne or a Dodge Hellcat or Charger or a Rolls Royce Phantom with their powerful W or V12 and V8 setups with ridiculous torque and horsepower get not so bad to pretty good gas mileage on the highway when you ease off the torque and let adaptive cruise control do the driving. Put a manny in one of those things to see what kind of mileage you get. (I’m waiting to see something like Phantom or Bentley manny gearbox swap on YouTube for the auto only cars, I’ve seen it with a 70’s Cadillac).

We Americans have no one else to blame for this. Contrary to what we’d like to believe about ourselves, we aren’t as good drivers as the Europeans are, as they take driving from defensive driving tactics, to stick shift driving that most of them do, to drunk driving laws and culture around it, to take these matters much more seriously than we do. Getting a drivers license for them is like getting a pilot’s license for us. Since we were introduced to the auto tranny in 1940 by Oldsmobile, that the scale of our economy made them cheaper than they are in most other markets, what else should we expect than to grow lazy in our driving habits?

Extinction of the Manny Tranny will Affect Other Industries:

The Driving Model: European v. American

One of the reasons we Americans get so turned on to European cars is that the Euros look at their cars as instruments of the roads. Would you prefer a clarinet as opposed to saxophone or a trumpet? We Americans look at our cars as appliances, no different than the Frigidaire in our kitchen to the Frigidaire inside our GM cars. And electric cars makes this even easier for us to frame inside our minds. This is why it was easier for Elon to set up a tent and keep making electric cars. Those could have been Amana Radar Ranges for all we care. Ask any open minded legacy car executive, the most wise would be Mary Barra, if any of her production teams across 4 brands and a half dozen platforms they use, could suddenly make a gas car in a tent the way Tesla does for an electric. It wouldn’t surprise me if she laughed first. Mary if you’d like to weigh in please do.

Although they too caught on to the advantages of driving big Benzes, BMWs, Bentleys, and Rolls, that all these cars ironically were geared for the lucrative American market, and no not the Middle East, because they’re are more people driving these luxo cars here than the oil sheiks do in the desert; the Europeans are all about compact streamlined efficiencies that we are not. That’s why the E Class and the 3 Series are so popular there, and why they call these Executive Cars, not the S or 7 Series that we do here, as the latter of those were made for Americans. We still live in a culture where our dads and granddads and great granddads (many are still around to tell us) drove Buick Electras, Fleetwood 75s, Chevy Bel Aires and Caprices as what was driven for decades, it’s just that the Hellcats, 300s, and 6.2L Yukons, Denalis, Tahoes, and Escalades have replaced them. For now. So in the end the Europeans gave us exactly what it is we wanted without complaint. On behalf of my fellow gearbox heads, shame on us.

Speaking of Elon and tents, this road was coming to a dead end anyway. For this we can thank either earnestly or to our dismay a bunch of Americans who run Tesla. Now we really are going to have appliances that compete for juice with our dishwashers and washing machines: make sure you don’t overload the circuit breaker! Electric motor car engineering works on entirely different sets of principles, so there is simply no need for shifting. On conversions, a tuner shop may leave the shifter if already in there, for low gear driving up a hill for more electric torque, but ironically, it’s the equivalent of what an auto tranny offers you.

What the Future Holds

JFK used to remind us ironically about the Chinese: “The Chinese have two symbols for our word ‘Crisis:’ one means danger, the other, opportunity.” There is no doubt in my mind that because the stick shift driver deficit is so expanse, these cars for a while will continue to have less value than their auto mates in the US market, and regardless of their condition, in this race to electrify the country, will be the first ones to be crushed. As we go along on this journey toward electrification, my hunch is telling me that bargains are to be found eventually, of getting that manny tranny equipped car you could see yourself driving, muscle and ponies included, at bargain prices. You just have to look carefully and swiftly find them.

I can see 20 years from now brands like Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Ferrari, or Porsche offering some kind of electric shifting so close to clutch shifting to make ourselves believe it’s the real thing again, but again, it’s for the fool’s mind to play with, as that’s the equivalent of paddle shifting. There’s still no clutch, at least a real one that makes gear shifting so crucial. Regardless, the bespoke luxury performance brands may likely be the only ones left on earth as the rest of the stick shifts will rapidly be crushed because no one knows how to drive them. But even the bespokes are starting to love equipping their cars in auto only. The regulations have been relaxed but they still need to find a sweet spot because they know another new administration coming as early as two years would change them back.

This video is a great classroom/pre-road instruction tool, but it is a bit outdated as some of the cars he mentions are no longer in production, which is why we’re here talking about this. I picked this video because you need someone with patience to teach you to drive a stick especially if you barely passed the road test with an auto tranny and this YouTube video is still popular. This guy seems nice tempered enough to show you how before getting into the car:

So for better, for worse, I am glad to be one of the last generations to have experienced the manual transmission, as my father taught me how to drive one, right after he taught me how to drive. I guess this was his way of giving me the rite of passage to manhood because I didn’t allow him to shave my face the first time at 15. I look back now past the age he was then, that I’m now older than he was then, to wonder how he did it. He tried to teach my mother, and in her typical self, she failed. Mastering manny tranny is like walking and chewing gum at the same time. It does make for a better driver. As for me, I had just gotten my license at 16 and knew everything I could know about driving to have no compelling interest to learn a stick shift. I wasn’t expecting him to teach me, as my Plymouth Fury suited me fine. One day on a weekend he called me up to the front door: “Al, come with me,” my old man said. Not knowing what to expect, we went down the walkway to the driveway as he handed me the keys to his ‘76 Civic with a four speed. “Now you’re really going to learn how to drive.”

Pop I never stopped loving you. Thank you.

To see the list of CarMax’s top 10 cars with manual transmissions, click here.


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Comments

Yeah, I used to have only manual transmission cars, first because I could only afford cheap, small cars and they didn't have enough power to waste on an automatic transmission. I rationalized then that I was more of a car-guy because of the driver's involvement fun of a manual, and I still like it when driving for fun. I still own two manual transmission cars, but they are weekend toys. We had a manual transmission Honda CR-V too, but it was rear-ended, and the replacement was an automatic. In fact the newer CRVs because auto-only 10 years ago. Luxury cars like Jaguar started the trend towards auto-only and others have offered only automatics for many years now, mostly because nobody ordered manual transmissions when they were offered on those brands, so they streamlined production. I have had several PHEVs, and because most EVs have one speed transmissions, and electric motors have a much broader rev range, they are essentially automatics. I have to say that since I commute as much as 100 miles a day I really love not having to shift, especially in stop and go traffic. In fact I am ready for auto driving cars already, because there is little joy in slogging through commuter traffic for hours each day, and I will be happy to give the job to a computer who is watching everything, all the time. I do see it as a bonus that I learned how to drive on manual transmissions, and I feel that my manual transmission cars have a built-in theft deterrent because your average thief couldn't drive/steal those cars.