The last of the big, brutal American four-speeds

Two-ton-plus, big-block, four-speed, full-size American cars were big and brutal in the 1960s. Then, without a whimper, most faded into oblivion after 1969. These dinosaurs from Detroit’s more recent past were, indeed, still available to buyers who needed that extra connection through a shift handle and clutch pedal—even in four-door versions—until 1970.

We’re talking big C-body Chrysler Newports and Dodge Polaras, B-body Chevy Impalas and Bel-Airs, and Galaxie/LTD Fords. These were the predominant performance variants until the 1964 GTO shined a light on what less weight could mean with the same drivetrain. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) still had classes for the big old sledgehammers, but in the pursuit of ultimate speed and elapsed times, the smaller, lighter cars made launching a two-ton sedan seem prehistoric.

1969 Mercury sedan big 429 big block
This clean 1969 Mercury sedan could be ordered with Ford’s big 429 big block, but the only manual was the three-speed behind an assortment of small blocks. Thom Taylor
1968 Ford Sportsroof four speed
Another four-speed find is this 1968 Ford Sportsroof sporting a 390-cu-in FE big block. Thom Taylor

1969 Ford Galaxie Sportsroof
Nicely-optioned 1969 Ford Galaxie Sportsroof packed with the rare 429-cu-in/four-speed combo. Missing are the LTD hidden headlights, but the original owner opted for the Sportsroof body, vinyl top, and AC. This was the final year Ford offered a Top Loader in its full-size cars. Thom Taylor

Chevy’s big-block “W” engines, both 348 and 409 cubic inches, and then 396 and 427 “rat” motors, could be ordered with a Muncie M21 “Rock Crusher” factory four-speed manual through 1969 in Chevrolet B-bodies. Availability included Caprice hardtops, two-door and four-door sedans, and even wagons. A manual three-speed could be ordered in 1970 behind six-cylinder strippers, so you could create a 1970 big-block four-speed sedan today from one of these without too much effort. An all-new B-body could be purchased with a straight-six/three-speed manual transmission in (1971–72) Impalas and Biscaynes, and Bel-Airs through 1973.

Speaking of GM manual-transmission cars, 755 of the last big four-speeds were built in 1967, but that wasn’t the last year for manual transmissions. Pontiac’s 1971 Catalinas, Bonnevilles, and even Grand Villes, could be optioned with a three-speed manual, but the numbers are exceedingly low—there were 156 three-speeds ordered, and only four Bonnevilles and two Grand Villes were so optioned. Four-speeds were available through 1966 in big Oldsmobiles, and 1971 Custom Cruisers and Delta 88s had the “easy shifting” three-on-the-tree option. That was also the last year you could order a big Buick with a three-speed manual, available in LeSabres and Centurions. You have to ask why GM even bothered?

Mopar’s big C-bodies could be ordered with New Process A-833 cast iron four-speeds beginning in 1964 with 413-cu-in big blocks, then both 383-cu-in four-barrel and 440-cu-in offerings from 1966–68. Some 51 1968 Dodge Polaras and Monacos received the four-speed, while 763 big Plymouths were equipped that way for 1968.

By 1970 you could no longer order a full-size Dodge Polara with a four-speed
By 1970 you could no longer order a full-size Dodge Polara with a four-speed—1968 was the last year—but you could still order a manual three-speed. This second-year example of the fuselage design represents one of 842 Polara convertibles produced. Thom Taylor
429-cu-in engines fit nicely in the 1969 full-size Ford engine compartment
The 429-cu-in fit nicely in the 1969 full-size Ford engine compartment. The 429 came out in 1968, and is in the 385-engine family. Both 427 and 428 are from the older FE engine platform. A 428 FE is a longer stroke, smaller bore 427FE—both derivatives of the 390FE. Ford eventually offered a 460-cu-in version of the 429. Thom Taylor

The best way to find out if the car you’re looking at is a manual or automatic is to look for the shifter and three pedals
The best way to find out if the car you’re looking at is a manual or automatic is to look for the shifter and three pedals—or you could ask the owner. Slipping and sliding on the bench seat adds to the “feel” of driving a full-size barge with a stick. Thom Taylor
Fords Fairlane Thunderbolts
By 1965, the year of this Ford full-size hardtop, you could get a number of intermediate-size Fords including Fairlane Thunderbolts in 1964, with Cobra Jet Mustangs just around the corner for 1968. This began the gradual slide to oblivion for manual-equipped full-size Fords. Thom Taylor

Three-speed manual transmissions were available in the all-new 1969 Plymouth Fury and Chrysler Newport “fuselage” bodies, behind six-cylinder and 318 V-8 engines—but no four-speeds. In 1970 the two-barrel 383 was added to the standard Plymouth Fury and Dodge Polara transmission list, with 1971 becoming the last year for C-body manuals in Dodge Polaras only.

Ford’s big Galaxie and high-option LTDs found few buyers for Top Loader four-speeds behind 390/427 FE engines, and then 429 big-blocks. Slightly more than 400 buyers in 1969 opted for this combo, which was not available in wagons.  A couple of 1970 four-speed Galaxies have popped up for sale in recent years, but these were made from three-speed strippers, or otherwise had 1969 pedal assemblies installed to pull off what the factory never made. In 1971, Ford introduced a new big four-speed while still listing three-speed manuals in full-size cars, but it was the last year for manuals in Ford’s full-size lineup.

They were the last of a dying breed, like ancient woolly mammoths that finally met their hairy end.

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