The Incredible Disappearing Manual Transmission

Ah, modern conveniences. In the last century, the greatest in terms of overall advancement, developments have emerged that have taken place as permanent fixtures in our lives. The automotive scene changed rapidly over the course of time- with too many to list. Here is where you’d expect me to worry about the future of the automobile, railing against hybrids and the potential for a bad effect on performance vehicles from environmental legislation.

Nope (although there is plenty of that to go around.) How about “F1 style” paddle shifters, of which most Ferraris are now sold with? The automatic transmission is not a recent invention. It was first introduced in fully-automatic, mass-produced form over 70 years ago as the General Motors Hydra-Matic transmission.

So why here and now, 71 years later, is the manual becoming nearly extinct? Desire in the marketplace for automatics in mainstream vehicles isn’t a new thing – in the United States automatic transmissions have consistently outsold manuals since the 1950′s.

The reasons behind this are well understood – for daily driving in a sedan or, worse, an SUV – who wants a manual? Not this writer. In Europe, the balance of the situation is completely different – at the most recent count, around 80% of cars sold in Europe were sold with an manual transmission.

The manual has been steadily removed from option lists on standard cars in our country.  In 2006, GFK Automotive said that just 15 percent of the buying public in the U.S was considering a manual. What is the problem though is the disappearance of it in performance vehicles, those at the high end of the industry.

It was announced recently that the Ferrari California Spyder will be the last Ferrari to be available with a traditional manual transmission. All Ferraris from here on out will only be available with a semi-auto F1-paddle shifter unit. Pretty shocking that Ferrari of all companies would be eliminating the standard manual. And what Ferrari does, other manufacturers are bound to follow. Lamborghini’s director of research and development, Maurizio Reggiani, said to Car and Driver that the company will be eliminating them as well, after only 5%  of Lamborghini buyers opt for a standard manual.

From an enthusiasts standpoint, this is a worrisome thing. Paddle shifters on regular automatic units (which is different than the units used by Ferrari) just don’t cut it as a replacement. They offer a nice option if an automatic is a must, but they don’t replace the actual connection. We all enjoy the benefits of modern automotive technology as much as anyone else, but there is something special about rowing your own gears. That treasured connection with the road – feeling the road as communicated through the seats, steering wheel and suspension – is slowly being eliminated, and with it, the joy of driving.

Not only is the option of a true manual transmission being taken away, most don’t even know how to use it (many driving schools now don’t offer any classes with manual vehicles, due to the lack of interest) – and therefore don’t know what they are missing out on.

My opinion is that it should at least be learned so emerging new drivers have the ability to experience it in a sportscar. What about classics of the past that are manuals? Soon, will any but a select few be able to even drive them? We should all do our bit to preserve a bit of car culture, and the fun of driving.

Technology can’t artificially replace that direct link between the driver and the car. There’s a freedom in it and every sports car (vehicle with a a pretense of sporting intentions) should offer one. Alright, I’m done. Back to checking mobile e-mail on the iPhone, microwaving that instant decaffeinated coffee and updating Twitter.

Tony Pimpo

Tony Pimpo

Automotive Editor
Tony Pimpo is a young automotive journalist who lives in Northern California. He believes the future of the automotive industry will depend in a large part on the recommendation of enthusiasts and Generation Y. More than ever, automakers lately have realized the power of Gen Y. Not only in regards to buying power, but in driving opinion and spreading a brand’s message through the internet and various forms of social media. His appreciation for cars formed at an early age, thanks to his dad, who has always been involved with cars in different ways over the years. Tony has contributed to various websites in his pursuits, and is on staff at GMInsideNews, where he has been writing since the age of 12.
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  • http://www.automoblog.net/ Chris Burdick

    This has been a really touchy topic for me lately (ask any of my friends.) It's a damn shame that manuals are going away and it seems it's because all the majority of people want is an easy-to-drive, comfortable, boring, beige, roomy, safe cocoon to get them and the kids from home to work/school/soccer game and back. They don't want to have to think about driving, and want to be able to talk on the cell phone, eat, drink, put on makeup, read a newspaper, and text message while on the highway. It's making the automotive world a boring place to be, and I despise the thought.

    Back in the 80's or 90's, if you would have said "A few models from now, Ferrari and Lamborghini won't offer a manual transmission in their cars," people would have thought you were off your rocker. And frankly, I don't think that's far from the truth.

    Last week I was shopping around Mazda 3s, and out of all of them on the lot, not ONE was a manual (except the Speed3.) "We just don't sell manuals anymore," said the salesman. It almost makes me sick.

  • http://lallmatie.com/blog bhoot

    That's the trend. I think there will still be manufacturers like BMW who will give you the fun of driving even with automatics. They've always been keen at putting driving pleasure above all. Even when the wave of hybrids is on us, they have taken their time to study how to make hybrids fun… giving rise to their Vision Efficient Dynamics 3-engine hybrid concept.

    But going back to the fun, some manuals are simply not fun driving (e.g. some Toyota models). 5-speed's should simply be banned in favour of 6-speed manuals. Remember Formula 1 cars, Mitsubishi Evolution (Evo X), these are cars that keep the driving experience despite being automatics.

    I'd say that manufacturers like BMW, Porsches, Lotus, Subaru, Mazda, Honda are all here to give us the fun. Exotics (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Koenigssegg) are undoubtedly going to be automatics since their markets are rich people, who I think want to pay for sporty driving while having the comfort of their lounge.

    • lol

      If you think BMW automatics are fun, you clearly haven't driven enough proper BMWs. Franky I think this entire current generation of BMWs aren't aimed at enthusiasts. The last BMW for enthusiasts was the e86 M Coupe, RIP 2008.

      • http://lallmatie.com/blog bhoot

        You're right, I only drove manual BMW's until now. I take your word for it!

  • http://lallmatie.com/blog bhoot

    And I have to add that the Japanese version of Honda Fit with Honda CVT gearbox (not the 5-AT) is simply fun! The Sports mode lets you keep that ideal rev wherever you are, especially in cornering. (and no, it's not as much fun on straight roads).

  • seattleforge

    It absolutely chaps my ass that I can’t get the cars I want with a proper manual box. It was a big part of the reason I bought German on my last purchase.