A Road Trip Through the History of Manual Transmission

History of Manual Transmission

If you’re like most American drivers today, you’ve grown accustomed to the ease and – dare we say – the luxury of the automatic transmission. In fact, only 2% of today’s new vehicles are equipped with manual transmissions, making these cars a bit of a rarity. Even in the European Union, where manual transmissions are more common, automatics actually accounted for 54% of UK new car sales in the first nine months of 2020, becoming a majority for the first time in history in this region.

Despite the current popularity of automatic transmission vehicles, the old “stick-shift” is not yet obsolete. Many everyday drivers and car-enthusiasts worldwide still remain loyal to the manual transmission, and for good reason. Manual vehicles are known to offer superior vehicle control. And, in many cases, a stick-shift gearbox can improve fuel economy by three to five miles per gallon over automatic transmissions. Furthermore, a manual transmission has a less complex structure than an automatic, which leads to easier maintenance and lower repair costs.

Finally, the history of manual transmission is rich and rather interesting, being the precursor to automatic vehicles. Below, we’ll take a brief road trip through the history of manual transmission. Buckle up as we shift gears.

The Late 19th Century

History remembers French inventors Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor as the creators of the first modern manual transmission. Prior to their demonstration of the three-speed transmission in 1894, many of the earliest automobiles were rear-engined, using a simple belt-drive as a single-speed transmission. Panhard and Levassor’s transmission involved a non-synchronous design in which changing gears required the driver to slide the gears along shafts to cause the desired cogs to become meshed. This “sliding-mesh” design remains the foundation for most of today’s modern manual transmissions.

In 1898, Louis Renault innovated on Panhard and Levassor’s design, replacing the drive chain with a drive shaft and implementing a differential axle for the rear wheels, thus boosting the manual transmission’s performance.

The Early 20th Century

By the start of the 1900s, many vehicles transitioned to a synchronous transmission. The 1929 Cadillac was the first automobile to use a manual transmission with synchromesh; however most vehicles continued to use non-synchronous transmissions until mid-century. For example, heavy trucks and racing cars still used the non-synchronous transmission in order to keep up with the required forces or to shift gears faster. Still, the Cadillac’s synchronized manual transmission was a major milestone as it reduced gear grinding and made the shifting process smoother and less labor intensive, overall.

The Mid-20th Century

Porsche patented the split ring synchromesh system in 1947. This model then became the most common transmission design for passenger vehicles. But Porsche didn’t stop there. The 1952 Porsche 356 was the first car to implement synchromesh on all forward gears. Before then, most vehicles used synchromesh only for the transition from third to second gear.

The Late 20th Century

While five-speed transmissions did exist in sports cars like the 1948 Ferrari 166 Inter, they were few and far between. Most manual transmissions included just three or four forward gear ratios until sometime in the late 1970s. It wasn’t until the 1980s that five-speed transmissions and the use of synchromesh on all forward gears became mainstream and more widespread.

Six-speed manual transmissions were introduced back in 1967 with the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, though, like the five-speed transmission, the six-speed was a rarity. They only began to emerge in high-performance automobiles in the early 1990s, as seen in the 1990 BMW 850i and the 1992 Ferrari 456.

Although a transmission with three forward gears and one reverse gear is sufficient for most cars and average driving conditions, cars with smaller engines achieve better performance with four or five forward gears, and cars designed for racing reach optimal performance with as many as six.

The Automatic Transmission Disrupts the Auto World

The history of manual transmission doesn’t end with the development and widespread distribution of the automatic transmission, but it’s important to note the shift that took place. The automatic transmission was introduced in 1938 when General Motors released their clutchless automatic transmission, known as the “Hydra-Matic”. However, the first fully automatic transmission didn’t enter the scene until the Buick Dynaflow was introduced in 1948.

That being said, automatic transmissions were in the early stages of development as far back as 1904. But when the Buick Dynaflow premiered, it was undoubtedly an opportune time in history as the United States was freshly celebrating a victory after World War II and building up steam for the impending post-war boom.

When all of recorded history is taken into account, the evolution of the car was swift and world-changing. From the invention of the first automobile, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, in 1886 to the more recent development of the self-driving car, it’s simply mind-boggling to see how transportation has changed in just 135 years.

Although car and transmission design continues to evolve, it’s clear that our love for the manual transmission has stood the test of time. Whether drivers are yearning for a simpler time, enjoying the nostalgia they feel when pulling the stick shift and stepping on the clutch, or taking advantage of that superior fuel economy, manual transmission drivers are here to stay.

If the history of manual transmission has taught us anything, it’s that these vehicles are bound to only get better with age.