The Manual Transmission Has Gone by the Wayside


A current generation Ford Mustang, courtesy of

Call it what you want.  Manual, stick shift, stick, shift, and the list goes on and on.  There was once a time where you only had one transmission choice: manual.  Then the 1940s came around, and GM introduced the Hydramatic automatic transmission in the Oldsmobile line.  Arguably, this marked a beginning of the end for the manual transmission.

To make sure everyone understands what we’re talking about here, let’s briefly discuss the different transmission types.  A basic manual transmission is where the driver shifts the gears and control the engagement and disengagement of the engine to the transmission.  This differs from every other transmission because other transmissions will control the engagement with the engine on its own.  Now within the automatic transmission family there’s three basic versions, gear based fluid driven (this is the most popular), continuously variable and semi-automatic.  The engine engagement happens in different ways, and there are different gearing mechanisms for each technology.


1949 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight with Hydramatic, courtesy of

So back to this 1940s Oldsmobile.  This Hydramatic automatic transmission introduced us to the idea that the driver didn’t have to do the shifting anymore.  I’m not sure how well received it was at first, but based on today’s car offerings, I’d say it was extremely well received, which is unfortunate for the manual transmission enthusiasts.


Acura RSX, courtesy of

 Manual transmissions were holding their own for a long time, continuing to be offered prevalently and cheaply in comparison.  This continued into the late 1990s and early 2000s.  No matter what the auto makers came up with to substitute in for the traditional automatic transmission, it wasn’t a match for the crispness and on demand power of a manual transmission.  “Manumatics”, “tiptronics” and “sport sticks” were all the rage in the late 90s, but they could never compare to the real thing.  Auto makers tried to add paddle shifters to give drivers an F1 racing feel.  At the end of the day it was all window dressing.  They still had the shift lag and soft acceleration in comparison to the tried and true manual transmission.

Then the luxury and extreme sports car makers started introducing SMG and PDK transmissions.  Who cares what acronym they use; the fact is that these semi-automatic transmissions just may be the best of both worlds, no matter if you are an enthusiast or just the everyday driver.  These transmissions are essentially a hybrid of a traditional manual and a traditional automatic transmission, merging the best of both technologies.


Porsche PDK, courtesy of

Semi-automatic transmissions incorporate a computer controlled, hydraulic actuated double clutch, which takes the place of the clutch that the driver would control with the clutch pedal.  That sounds really technical, but in reality it just means that it replicates, not substitutes, but replicates what the driver had to do with a manual clutch.  In fact, it does it faster than the average human can.  With all of this, it preserves the on demand power, preserves a lot of the fun and even returns more gas mileage than a traditional manual transmission does during enthusiast inspired driving.

Whereas I originally thought that the Hydramatic marked the end of the manual transmission, looking back it put a serious dent in the mainstay technology, but it didn’t cause it extinction.  Conversely, I think as these semi-automatic technologies become more affordable, they will cause the traditional manual transmission to go off into the history books.  And it’s too bad really because there’s practically no maintenance or problems with the traditional manual transmission.  Long live the stick shift.

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