The 5 Coolest Classic Shifter Designs

Interior and steering wheel of a classic car

Source | Rich Helmer, Unsplash

Modern interior designs often deliver shifters that aren’t very memorable. That’s not the case with classic shifters. Those look incredibly different from today’s models but are still affordable and practical upgrades. Here are five of the most innovative, interesting, and sometimes wild shifter designs of yesteryear.

1. Ford Model T direct connection

Cars that are a century old found clever—and sometimes complicated—solutions to engineering problems. Old-timers like the Ford Model T were equipped with oddities like a two-speed planetary gear transmission. Modern manual transmission drivers will recognize the three pedals on the floor, but that’s where the similarities end. The large stick left of the driver is called a clutch lever, with the handle actuating the hand brake. The rear position is neutral with the parking brake on, while the vertical position is neutral with no brake, and forward is drive.

Confused yet? It gets worse, as the stick doesn’t select gears. The pedal on the left controls gear selection, with all the way down being first gear and all the way up being second. Need reverse? That’s the middle pedal. Yikes! Let’s move on before we cause any more headaches.

2. Cord pre-select

The last Cords were gorgeous machines and proved years ahead of their time. Late ’30s models were equipped with front-wheel drive and an automatic transmission, which sounds more like a description of a car from the ’80s. With the extreme complexity for the time, a mechanical connection from the shifter to the transmission was simply impossible.

Cord solved this problem with its pre-selector lever available on the 810. Instead of a direct link to the transmission, moving the shift lever into each gear triggers different electrical switches. These control a pneumatic system that changes gears when the clutch pedal is pressed. It looked great, and it worked even better.

3. Chrysler PowerFlite pushbutton controls

Ever really look at your modern auto shifter? Safety standards are the reason automatic transmission gear selection is ordered PRNDL in a $93,000 BMW 7 Series and a $13,000 Mitsubishi Mirage. Back in the 1950s, fewer standards to meet meant designers had free rein on design. One of those interior innovations was the pushbutton auto. With further refinement of automobile electronics in the ’50s, buttons could be mounted anywhere to remotely control the transmission.

Chrysler introduced pushbutton controls in 1956 to initial acclaim—and skepticism. While the buttons worked effectively, Chrysler left out the park button. Drivers hit the N button for neutral, then hit the parking brake to park.

4. Edsel Teletouch steering-wheel controls

Edsel was a different breed. Aside from the unusual exterior styling, the Ford-based cars used some inventive new ideas. The Teletouch was a pushbutton-operated automatic transmission with the controls in the center of the steering wheel. The idea was to get the controls closer to the driver’s hands, and while a noble thought, it probably caused confusion. Horn buttons had been mounted in the center of the steering wheel since the 1920s, so more than a few drivers probably had unfortunate reactions when they went for the horn and instead changed gears.

Ads of the era stated, “It puts shifting where it belongs.” That’s not far from the truth, but it would be another 40 years before paddle-shift controls showed up behind steering wheels and gained mainstream acceptance.

5. Oldsmobile Hurst Lightning Rods

We thought shifters were all figured out and standardized by the 1980s. We were wrong. The 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme offered a heritage package celebrating 15 years of collaboration with Hurst. Famous for its shifters, Hurst continued its legacy with the Lightning Rods. Sprouting three sticks from the center console, this shifter offered the driver the choice to operate the 200R4 automatic like a regular overdrive auto or deliver full manual control of gear selection. The left stick operates with the familiar PRNDL order, so just use this one for cruising. For manual control, push all three sticks all the way back, and you are in first gear. Push the button and shift up on the right stick, and it’ll go into second. Push button, move middle stick up, and you get third. Overdrive is engaged by the left stick. Want one? Check eBay, but be prepared to pay what could have been a nice vacation.

Need a sweet shifter for your own ride? There are a lot of aftermarket performance shifters available for classic and modern vehicles, with manual or automatic transmissions. These might be chromed show pieces, or they can offer real driving enhancements like shorter handle throws. Installation takes 30 minutes to a couple of hours but can be handled by a novice with some time on their hands.

Are you ready to upgrade your shifter, or would you rather have one of the classics above? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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