Commentary: Let's Talk About Shifters

Recently, I have been presented with vehicles for publication that offer up some operational challenges. 

For example, how does one use a transmission? Do you turn a knob here or there? How do you press the right button in the right way? When do you use these paddles behind the steering wheel? Also, why does this transmission actuator look like a power window switch from the 1970s?

While the shifter is a reassuring thing to many motorists, they do not operate the way they use to. 

Most of the newfangled transmission actuators are a result of a push to reduce weight and create more practicality through smaller shifter controls and electronic actuation. The idea of shift-by-wire is a recent phenomenon that makes the art of changing direction and shifting gears less interactive. It has simply taken the sense of control from the driver. 

To make matters more challenging, every year we are seeing the reduction of models offering the good ol’ three-pedal, shift-it-your-damn-self manual gearbox. The #savethemanuals crowd has been up in arms for years because of their favorite way to drive a car has been taken away because of the proliferation of the continuously variable transmission and robotized manuals with either an automated single or dual clutch engagement. 

This all brings up the question on top of a lot of consumer’s minds: What happened to the shifter?

Remember the shifter?

When I first learned how to drive, there were two ways to move the car forward and back: The steering column-mounted shifter and its floor-mounted sibling. You had choices either way – from three-on-the-tree to four-on-the-floor. Some vehicles had a gated shifter – in both manual and automatic. No matter how you go from gear-to-gear, slide it into drive, or flip it back into reverse, that feeling of control was undeniably something to experience after you turn the key to fire up the engine.

We’ve had deviations from the norm in the past. The company that eventually became part of Stellantis offered push-button automatic transmissions starting from the 1956 model year well into the 1960s. Ford’s Edsel division positioned their push-button transmission to the center hub of the steering wheel for their 1958 models. Both were considered an affront to driver operation back then. 

Now, we no longer have a standard way to use a transmission. That is what’s confusing consumers and enthusiasts alike. 

Believe me, I hear your thoughts on the subject. Yes, you want to save the manuals. It is easy for me to say “just glad there are some left for you to clutch-and-row.” That would be dismissive of me, and you would never read this website again. 

I agree with you. Trust me. 

Although, my father kind of screwed things up for me, as he became too damn lazy to clutch-and-shift sometime after the mid-1970s. He became the personification of “malaise.”

Which brings me to automatic transmissions and other clutch-less derivatives. There is nothing like a notched console shifter to throw between park, drive, and reverse. There was that flair, that art, that sense of fun. Those clicks as it moved within the notching was nothing but smile inducing. 

Sadly, the number of those shifters are dwindling – equal to the number of manual gearboxes available in today’s automotive marketplace. If there is a shifter for an automatic, dual-clutch, or CVT transmission, they simply go straight up-and-down. Not as exciting as a notched shifter. 

I get that modern vehicles need to lose weight after gaining so much heft due to crash protection and safety regulations, as well as the proliferation of the SUV in the modern automotive lexicon. Yet, I question how much weight was lost by removing the actual linkage mechanism between the driver and the transmission. 

You saved space by removing a traditional transmission shifter and linkage for what…stowage? Like we need more stowage. Rather, a less convenient place to install a USB port. 

This may sound like I have moved from the home office to porch only to scream “get off my lawn you —-ing kids!” Perhaps I am one of a few who still believe in the power of the shifter. Not some knob, toggle, flip lever, set of buttons, or an old school power window switch. A real, honest-to-God, wrap your hands around the grip and throw it into gear shifter. 

That’s what I love about the automobile – the feeling of power when you work the shifter. Just don’t take that away from us. 

All photos by Randy Stern

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