The 5 best column-shift muscle cars

Four-on-the-floor seems like a natural for muscle cars, but generally the strong runners came standard with a three-speed manual. And most of those featured the shifter on the floor. But we found some sweet 1960s muscle that came with a three-on-the-tree shifter, just like Grandma’s Valiant.

1965–66 Oldsmobile 4-4-2

1966 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 front 3/4
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1966 Oldsmobile 4-4-2

There’s some irony with the 1965 4-4-2 because, just several months earlier, this special performance package included a standard four-speed, as referenced in its name (4-speed, 4-barrel, 2 exhausts). Oldsmobile changed the definition for 1965 since a three-speed manual was the standard transmission behind the new 400/345, with a four-speed and two-speed Jetaway automatic as options. However, it wasn’t just any three-speed—it was a heavy-duty M13 shifted on the column. In February 1965, Oldsmobile introduced an optional M14 three-speed with Hurst shifter to give enthusiasts a better way to row gears with the standard transmission. The same transmission choices continued into 1966, but for 1967 the standard three-speed manual moved to the floor with Hurst’s assistance.

1966 Pontiac GTO

1966 Pontiac GTO teal rear view
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1966 Pontiac GTO

The song goes, “Three deuces and a four-speed and a 389” but in 1966, when the GTO went from a performance package to its own model, Pontiac offered a column-shifted three-speed manual as standard. There was the option of a Hurst shifter on the floor, in addition to the four-speed and automatic. Even its big brother, the 2+2, had a floor shifter for the standard three-speed. What gives, Wide-Track product planners? Some 1967–68 brochures show the GTO equipped with a column-mounted three-speed standard, but 1966 was the only year the Goat was built with a three-on-the-tree. Thanks to Mike Noun’s research at the Pontiac Museum, we now know that 412 (including 12 Tri-Powers) were built like this.

1967–68 Camaro SS 350

1967–68 Camaro SS 350 front 3/4 red
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1967 Camaro SS 350

The 1967 Camaro was the first pony car outside of FoMoCo to answer the Mustang’s calling. Chevrolet did an admirable job but, curiously, it offered a standard three-speed on the column—something the Mustang never did during this era. Even the performance-oriented SS 350 (the only Chevrolet to receive the 350 small-block in 1967) came with the manual transmission on the column. You could opt for a floor-shifted HD three-speed (which was standard with the 396/325), but most people went with the four-speed or Powerglide automatic. For 1969, the Camaro SS 350’s standard transmission went to the floor shifter only.

1967–69 Impala SS 427

1967–69 Impala SS 427 front 3/4
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1967 Impala SS 427

After the success of the Chevelle SS 396 in 1966, Chevrolet decided to apply the same formula to the full-size Impala sport coupe and convertible. The 1967 Impala with the Z24 SS 427 package became that manifestation by making Chevrolet’s biggest engine standard and offering a dose of image thanks to “distinctive hood ornamentation” and the “dramatic new roofline.” Unlike the Chevelle SS 396, the standard transmission for the 385-horsepower L36 427 was a heavy-duty three-speed manual with the shifter mounted on the column. This was true for 1968 as well, although the SS 427’s visual cues now included a domed hood and front fender louvers, plus the new Impala Custom (with Caprice-like formal roof) joined the sport coupe and convertible. Chevrolet continued to offer big car performance with a non-performance transmission into 1969 with the redesigned full-size series (including 5-hp bump), after which the SS 427 was laid to rest.

1968–70 Torino GT

1968–70 Torino GT 390 passenger 3/4
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1969 Torino GT

Ford pulled some funny moves in the 1960s. In ’66, the Fairlane GT came with an S-code 390/335 standard, most famous being the GT/A with the Sportshift Cruise-O-Matic. However, in subsequent years, Ford demoted and decontented the GT and, accordingly, made the 390 four-barrel an option. The GT was rechristened a Torino starting in 1968, and the standard three-speed manual for the S-code (through ’69) or new 290-hp 351 Windsor (’69 only) went through the gears with directions from a column lever, with no floor option unless you upgraded to a four-speed or console automatic. For 1970, the 300-horse 351 Cleveland was the only performance engine that came with a three-on-the-tree standard.