What Happened To Column Shifters?

A 3-speed column shifter in a 1951 Ford

A 3-speed column shifter in a 1951 Ford

Sometimes we ask the tough questions here, like, what happened to column shifters? Why did they go away? Are they coming back?

Those among you that are (ahem) of a certain age, you will remember when cars and trucks had shift levers right on the steering wheel of the vehicles you owned, and no, we’re not talking about the shift lever for an automatic transmission. We’re talking about an honest-to-god three-speed manual transmission, called a “three on the tree”, where you had to find the different gears as you pushed in the foot clutch. Later, there were “four on the tree” transmissions, which is nowhere near as catchy, and those were also a bit tougher to use.

A column shifter first showed up on an American car in 1938, and then had a nice four-decade run as the industry standard. American cars were big, and the big front bench seat in a big American car would seat three people, so the column shifter seemed like a pretty good idea. Unless you had a truck with an insanely low-geared first gear (called a creep-along gear, because remember, engines did not have as much horsepower then, and so you needed a very low gear), and then three top gears, cars had a three-speed manual transmission. Period.

The Sixties saw some inroads being made by floor shifters (3-speed and 4-speed) in sports cars, then the Seventies saw much greater adoption of the four-speed manual floor shifter, now referred to as “four on the floor’ for sports cars and economy cars, and by the end of the Seventies, pushing over into the Eighties, with the introduction, and then, ubiquity of the five-speed manual, and, bucket seats, the manual column shifter was pretty much done for.

Oh, sure, the automatic column shifter stuck around, but the manual column shifter was yesterday’s news.

And they’re not ever coming back because now we have six-speed manuals, and that would make for one heck of an engineering problem, putting that into a column shifter.

It’s worth mentioning that the manual transmission itself is going away. In the U.S. now, less than 2% of all new cars are sold with a manual transmission. Which makes sense, since automatic transmissions now have eight speeds or ten speeds or eleven speeds, and so forth. Why would a consumer say, “Hmm, if I get a manual transmission, I can work harder for lower fuel mileage and slower shifts. Gosh, what should I do here? Which transmission should I choose?”

He wouldn’t. He would never have that internal monologue, because unless you are just completely fixated on shifting for yourself, it just doesn’t make any sense to get a manual.

So, what happened to column shifters? Now you know – the manual column shifter is gone, gone, gone.

6 thoughts on “What Happened To Column Shifters?

  1. Cameron says:

    I’m 18 and I just bought my second car and my first manual. I’ll pay the extra money for worst MPG if it means I can truly feel the car on the open road. Each shift to me makes driving more fun and relaxing. I hope to never own another automatic in my future.

  2. mtrower says:

    It might also be worth mentioning that the manual/automatic ratio looks much different outside of NA/Australia. The manual transmission is still the standard on most continents.

    Interesting article. I’d like to hunt down and drive one of these some time.

  3. Fred says:

    I have heard of 5-speed manual trans on the column in the Phillipines.

  4. Ian MacKenzie says:

    My first car in college was a rusting 4 on the tree 1968 Mercedes 220. And while my mother had made us all learn to drive a “standard” as she still calls it, the four on the tree was a new experience:). Pull ALLL THE WAY back and in for reverse.

    1. mike says:

      what is a “rusting 4 on the tree”??

      1. Jake p says:

        Im sure he means the vehicle is rusting like my rusting three on the tree pickup.

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