20 June 2016

It came with a manual?

According to data released by the consulting firm IHS Automotive, just ten percent of cars offered in North America are available with a manual transmission. Contrast that with 1980, when almost a third of all cars on sale in North America could be had with a clutch. And when Ferrari – whose alloy gated shifters were about the sexiest thing ever to happen to a transmission – no longer offers a manual, the end is clearly in sight.

As we start the long farewell to the manual transmission, it’s interesting to look into the obscure corners of the clutch pedal’s illustrious history to find cars that most people assume were never available with a manual transmission. Here are some rare, but interesting, three-pedal finds:

  1. R107 Mercedes SL– The R107 SL, better known in the U.S. as the 350/450/380/560SL, was never offered in the U.S. with a manual transmission. It was however, sold throughout the rest of the world with a manual box. Given the Deutsche Mark’s sorry state in the early to mid-1980s, a huge number of gray market European SLs were privately imported to the U.S. Most often, the R 107 280SL (not to be confused with the earlier 1968-71 Pagoda-roof cars of the same name), of the late 1970s through the 1980s, came with a 2.8-L DOHC straight six. It was a decent performer and those cars that were not fully federalized (blessedly left with small bumpers and Euro-spec square headlights) look fantastic.

  2. Jaguar XJS– Jaguar pretty much gave up on the manual transmission after the E-type (although the new six-cylinder F-type manual is an amusing anachronism). But briefly, during the early 1990s, you could get a Getrag five-speed with the 3.6-L six-cylinder XJS. Very few of these cars were sold in the U.S. (almost all were coupes) and they make an interesting alternative to an E24 BMW six-series.

  3. Land Rover Discovery– A Disco with an R380 five-speed manual box is truly a unicorn in the U.S. Nevertheless, they do turn up from time-to-time. Most seem to date from 1996-97, early in the Discovery’s run. Thereafter, Land Rover undoubtedly discovered that almost nobody was taking their Discover off-road, and suburban Dallas and LA traffic was no place for a manual transmission.

  4. Dodge Caravan Turbo Minivan– We’re not making this up. From 1989-90, you could actually get a turbocharged minivan with a manual transmission that wasn’t a gray market Renault Espace, thanks to the Mopar folks who inexplicably offered Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers with a turbo-four and a five-speed. They actually show up on Craigslist from time-to-time. It would be a massive stretch saying that this powertrain lent a cool factor to Chrysler’s family hauler, but a five-speed turbo van would be a fine addition to any Bizarre Mopar collection.

  5. Cadillac Cimmaron– Cadillac’s barely disguised Cavalier initially carried over the Chevy’s powertrain options, one of which was a four-speed manual transmission, paired with an 88 hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder, making the Cimarron the first three-pedal Cadillac in several decades. The take-rate was minuscule as few Cadillac buyers had any interest in shifting for themselves and the number of Saab, Audi or BMW conquests was likely countable on one hand.

27 Reader Comments

  • 1
    John Leese Grand Rapids June 22, 2016 at 15:54
    The fun Cimarron was the 1983 2.0L fuel injection with the Getrag 5 speed.
  • 2
    John NY June 22, 2016 at 16:03
    How about a Lincoln LS? Best car I ever had.
  • 3
    David P Houston, TX June 22, 2016 at 16:23
    Chrysler also offered the Dodge Caravan with a normally aspirated 4 cylinder and a 5 speed until '94.
  • 4
    Frank Feiler Florida June 22, 2016 at 16:53
    Could you please tell me who invented the Automatic Transmission and when it was installed in what car that it was introduced to.? I knew a gentleman that worked for GM for many years who claimed that he was the first. His name was Phil Zeigler from Detroit.
  • 5
    Sarahs W Vancouver, BC June 22, 2016 at 16:58
    We purchased a brand new 1989 Plymouth Grand Voyager with a 2.5 litre 4 cylinder engine and 5 speed transmission. Our family of 5 even took it through the Rocky Mountains, and it performed well considering. I now have a 1998 AWD Dodge Grand Caravan, the best looking van IMHO, that works well when it happens to get icy or snowy. But that has an auto. I sometimes miss the 5 speed though.
  • 6
    Robert canada June 22, 2016 at 17:55
    As long as I am able to drive, I will find a car with a manual transmission. What it will be I'm not sure in the future, but it will have a clutch.
  • 7
    Kevin Pittsburgh PA June 22, 2016 at 18:12
    I had a1985 Caravan 2.2 non-turbo 5-speed that was quick and fuel efficient. Great little van!
  • 8
    Donald Risen California June 22, 2016 at 18:22
    In 1966 I purchased a new 1966 Oldsmobile F-85 Coupe that had a six cylinder in-line engine and a standard 3 speed manual transmission. That turned out to be a real rarity among Oldsmobiles.
  • 9
    Don Hudson Nevada USA June 22, 2016 at 18:23
    The V12 XJ-S was available with a manual trans in Europe
  • 10
    Brian Mahoney Ontario June 22, 2016 at 20:44
    I sold a 5 speed Voyager when they first came out. It wasn't a turbo though. 5 speeds were common back then. On a side note, here in Ontario, Canada, we used to have to learn on a manual in Driver Education in school. Can you imagine a Chevy Impala with three on the tree on a driver's test?
  • 11
    Kevin D. Oregon June 22, 2016 at 21:11
    We had one of those turbo 5-speed Dodge mini-vans. The thing was actually kinda fun to drive if you kept the turbo spooled up. Ours had low profile sticky tires on it so that helped the handling. As far as the stick in the Cimmaron goes, I always thought that was the handle you used to flush it!
  • 12
    Len Boschma Beloit, WI June 22, 2016 at 21:30
    I was a used car dealer from the mid 80's through 2002 and during the late 80s and early 90's I bought and sold more Dodge and Plymouth mini vans with Turbo 2.2 liters and 5 Speeds than I can count. I remember having a couple non turbo vans with sticks too. The one rare "Stick equipped" vehicle that I am still kicking myself for ever letting go of was a '73 Cutlass Supreme Colonnade Coupe (Formal Roof) that I purchased at an auction in 1988. It was a factory 455/4 speed with swivel buckets and console. I never even realized that a '73 Cutlass could be ordered with a 4 Speed before I bought that car! Wish I still had it!
  • 13
    Joe Central VA June 22, 2016 at 21:35
    I'm heading backward. Looking forward to my first manual, a Miata, starting as soon as my Mini's warranty expires. I'll get an older Gen 2 or 3 unit. I grew up in an automatic-only family and never had anyone to teach me. Dad drove big trucks and when he got off the road, he wanted a posh sled a mile long. No more shifting for him. The death of the stick is exaggerated, I hope. I can see it vanishing in the US, but it's still the rule in the UK. When I'm there and want an automatic, it can take some wrangling, but lately it means a hybrid, which is great given the fuel prices.
  • 14
    James Boice NM June 22, 2016 at 23:03
    The 1989-91 Ford T-bird Super coupe was avail; with the 5 spd and I had one . Wish I had that car today.
  • 15
    Clarence Colorado June 23, 2016 at 13:17
    It was also possible to get a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a factory manual transmission in model year 1993 and 1994. Only several hundred were made.
  • 16
    Matt Pennsylvania June 23, 2016 at 14:31
    My Dad, God bless him, had a 1981 Chrysler Aries K-car Wagon. He couldn't really afford much in the way of options so he got it with a 4 speed on the floor! lol. It was funny and it being a wagon! Since you were seated upright the shifter was quite tall and bent in the middle. The kids in High school thought it was cool, though when I told them, they couldn't believe it. The only other option was an AM radio. Of course it had heat.
  • 17
    Rob G SF Bay Area June 23, 2016 at 19:36
    Second the info from Chris on the LS. Other than rear window motor issue car was flawless. At 80k miles the car was totalled unfortunately. I came around a corner on a dark morning on a canyon road to finD a semi crossing the road at about 3 MPH. I turned the wheel right before I slammed into the trailer tire and the trailer stanchion tore the left front off of the car, fender, wheel and all. I came I out of it with a bruise on my face and a jammed thumb. The airbags and overall safety of that car saved me. A great car.
  • 18
    steve United States June 23, 2016 at 21:12
    Back in the early 80's my boss had a new full size Dodge van with a 4 speed manual on the floor. I think it was a granny gear first. It always had terrible spark knock.
  • 19
    Dean Fort Worth, Tx June 23, 2016 at 21:44
    The R129 (1991-1994?) Mercedes 300SL was sold in the US with a manual transmission. I was not a good implementation, sort of shifted like a truck transmission. We did have a unknown year Jag E-type show up in the shop one day with a v12 and 4 speed. Surprisingly fun car to drive. I do not know if it was a US spec car or grey market?
  • 20
    Dave Hitchens North East, Maryland June 23, 2016 at 22:04
    I knew someone back in the late 60's that had a 1967 Bonneville station wagon with a factory 4 speed. That car had to be one of the largest dark blue, four door sleds ever made with a bench seat and shifter on the floor.
  • 21
    Chris Stewart Thousand Oaks, California June 23, 2016 at 10:17
    There will be many more mentioned here, so for one, I ask, “Don’t forget the Lincoln LS”, the model that came out in 2000, and had an available manual transmission for about four years. I had one, with the five-speed manual (Getrag supplied the cog-swapper). It was interesting in that fifth gear was not overdrive, but 1:1. The stick only came with the 3.0L V6, sadly, not with the V8. But it was a heck of a car, with a velvet-smooth clutch, dead solid all around and as reliable as a Swiss watch. When picking the car up at the dealer after routine maintenance, I watched the service adviser go get my car to bring it to me at the kiosk. When he opened the driver door, he recoiled like a snake was sitting inside. “Ah, sir, you can come get it from here”, he hollered across the lot. Darn it if he didn’t get spooked by that knob sticking out of the console, plus the third pedal. Probably better he let me handle that.
  • 22
    Peter Cohen Pleasanton, California June 24, 2016 at 13:01
    The Jaguar XJS through 1991 was never sold in the US with a 6 cylinder. All were V12's, mostly with the GM Turbo 400 transmission. The 6 cylinder cars, including the manual transmission ones, were grey market cars.
  • 23
    D. Barnes Brentwood, CA June 25, 2016 at 14:36
    A manual transmission is an Anti-Theft Device for Millennials. I currently drive an Infiniti G35 with 6-speed manual, and although I do the general maintenance on the car myself, when I take it for tires, etc., the first guy who gets inside usually has to go find someone who can drive a stick (that person usually seems to be 45+). My wife and I are in our late 50's and have always loved stick shifts and owned a series of them our entire 38 years together, starting with the 1977 MGB 4-speed my wife bought new (and we still have), and besides the Infiniti we now drive a Honda Accord EX and Mazda pickup, both with 5-speeds. Also have a '65 Bug with 4-speed.. My kids were taught how to drive on manual transmissions (had to, if they were going to drive any of our cars!), and they still currently prefer to own and drive manual transmissions to this day too (which makes them oddities amongst their peers). Recognizing that today's exotic transmissions shift faster than a man and have more speeds available, I still like prefer the "illusion" of being in full control of the vehicle. I think it just comes down to preferences now - do I want be a "driver" and be fully involved in the driving experience (which to us translates to more fun), or more of a "partner" that steers & brakes. My $0.02
  • 24
    CKKurtz State College PA June 27, 2016 at 16:43
    I believe that the first car with an automatic trans was the Kurtz Automatic
  • 25
    L Miller NJ June 28, 2016 at 21:17
    @DBarnes completely agree about manual being antitheft. And when I bring one of our classic VWs into a shop it gets a lot of attention, and then I have to back it out of the bay because no one can figure out where reverse is!
  • 26
    Thomas G Johnson Bonsall, CA June 29, 2016 at 12:16
    As a young used car dealer in 1972, I had a 1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville with factory, three on the tree! It also had A/C with the main unit in the trunk, under the package tray. Two clear plastic snorkels that routed through the package tray blew the cold air into the car. I finally sold it to someone who appreciated the manual trans. No one else that looked at the car wanted it because of that!
  • 27
    Mike E V San Diego June 30, 2016 at 19:56
    One of the better vehicles I have driven was a 4 cylinder Taurus with a 5 speed. It actually felt like a substantial car vs the 3.0 auto version.

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