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.

How to Extend Your Transmission’s Life

Coaxing the maximum life out of your vehicle’s transmission isn’t difficult if you follow some simple yet proven advice. True, the transmission is one of the most expensive parts on a vehicle to fix or replace, but knowing how to take care of your transmission and what potential warning signs to watch for can help you realize years of trouble-free performance and big savings.

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Maintenance intervals, driving style, vehicle make and manufacturer, and even geography where the vehicle is driven most frequently all can impact a transmission’s life expectancy. Do you routinely stomp on the gas or tow heavy loads up and down mountains? If so, you’re asking a lot from your transmission. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how many miles a transmission will last—some have gone more than 300,000—there are steps you can take to help prolong its life.

Signs Your Transmission May be Failing

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Being a smart DIYer means knowing the warning signs associated with different problems (or knowing how to look it up online!) that often indicate a transmission isn’t functioning properly. Taking corrective action now may help prevent a full-blown transmission failure later. Become the “transmission whisperer” and listen for these following signals that something may be wrong:

  • Hesitation: A noticeable delay when the transmission shifts from one gear to the next, rough shifts between gears, or continually switches between gears.
  • Discolored or burned-smelling fluid: Transmission fluid that’s very dark and/or smells burned when you remove the dipstick to check it.
  • An illuminated check engine light: Could be accompanied by a delay in shifting—use an on-board diagnostic (OBD) reader to determine what the trouble is.
  • Strong odors: A burning odor when towing, carrying heavy cargo, or driving in hilly terrain could be the result of the transmission being overworked and overheating.

But that’s not all! The transmission may be your problem when you notice:

  • Slow acceleration
  • Reduced fuel mileage
  • Fluid leaks
  • Grinding noises or shaking
  • Whirring sounds when in neutral or in gear
  • Slipping gears
  • A dragging clutch (in manual transmissions)

Getting the Most Out of Your Transmission

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Granted, no transmission lasts forever (though some try), but regular maintenance can keep your car on the road for many years and miles without ever experiencing any transmission problems. Ignore the maintenance, however, and an automatic transmission can fail in as few as 75,000 miles, leaving you with costly repairs, and in some cases, a voided warranty.

A typical transmission service includes:

  • Replacing the automatic transmission fluid (ATF) roughly every 40,000 miles, depending on the OEM’s recommended schedule. Learn how to perform this relatively simple, inexpensive procedure yourself.
  • Upgrading to a synthetic transmission fluid (if appropriate for the vehicle)
  • Adjusting transmission bands every 60,000 miles (such as on an older car or heavy-duty pickup)
  • Checking the fluid level often and refilling it to the proper level when it’s low.
  • Using the ATF specified by the vehicle manufacturer and never mixing different types of transmission fluids.
  • Replacing the transmission filter or screen based on the vehicle manufacturer’s mileage and/or time intervals.
  • Cleaning the transmission pan’s magnet(s) to remove metal fragments it has trapped.
  • Using a transmission conditioning product to help restore performance and fix small leaks.

Keeping Your Transmission in Top Running Condition

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With proper maintenance, most drivers can expect their transmissions to last well over the 150,000-mile mark and beyond. The key to longevity is spending a little money now on preventive maintenance, instead of a lot of money later on rebuilding or replacing the transmission.

What’s the most mileage you’ve ever coaxed out of a transmission? What are your tips and tricks for extending transmission life?

Stick Shift Cars: Can We Save the Manuals?

Close up of a stick shift

Source/Matthew Kirkland/Flickr

In August 2013, only 3.9 percent of new cars sold to date that year came with manual transmission. Stick shift cars are just not as popular as they once were. So are these the last gasping breaths of an archaic technology? Maybe. Or, maybe not.

The reality is, the death of stick shift cars has been predicted for a long time, at least as far back as September 1965 when Playboy published an article with a two-page picture of a Corvette covered in cobwebs and this text: “Bye-Bye Stick Shift.” The prediction made by the well-respected automotive journalist Ken Purdy was that the stick shift was going to become nothing more than a “purist’s plaything.”

Going, going…still here

Nearly 50 years later, of course, the automatic vs. manual cars debate is still here, although many experts agree that stick shift is on its death rattle. According to the Business Insider in December 2014, manual transmission is finally on its way out (but they nevertheless offer driving tips for those who want to get in on the tail end).

Meanwhile, an article in U.S. News called stick shift fans a “dying breed,” citing that, 20 years ago, a full quarter of cars sold had manual transmission. They predict the complete demise of manual transmission in 15 to 20 years, with perhaps a few models hanging on for nostalgia purposes.

Other signs pointing to stick shift transmission going away include revolutionary new options such as TC-SST, CVT and more, described in more detail later on. Plus, as hybrid and electric cars increase in popularity, that automatically creates less of a market share for the stick since, according to an Edmunds.com expert, only one hybrid – the Honda CR-Z – comes with a shift stick option.

Cut and dried case for the end of manual transmission? Not necessarily. In an article published in January 2013, the New York Daily News says that 6.5% of the cars in the United States sold (presumably in 2012) were manual, adding that “stick shifts are making a comeback thanks to their inherent fuel efficiency and performance advantages.”

USA Today echoes the sentiment, saying that “Americans have a growing crush on manual transmission,” with 2012 seeing the most stick shift sales since 2006.

So, what’s the story? Is the stick shift going the way of the dinosaur? Or will nostalgia and the demands of diehard fans keep them alive? We at Advance Auto Parts decided to take a deeper look.

Invention of the modern manual transmission

Credit is typically given to French inventors Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor who demonstrated their three-speed transmission product in 1894. These men owned a woodworking machinery business and they became intrigued with automobiles. They built their first car in 1890, those with a “pedal-operated clutch, a chain transmission leading to a change-speed gear box, and a front radiator.”

They were the first to move the engine to the front of the car and, in 1895, their transmission was used in their automobiles. In 1898, Louis Renault “substituted a drive shaft for the drive chain and added a differential axle for the rear wheels to improve performance of the manual transmission.”

The next change of significance was in 1928 when Cadillac introduced the synchronized system that made shifting smoother and easier. Although car manufacturers had been experimenting with automatic transmission since 1904, a clutch-less system wasn’t available until 1938 (the Hydra-Matic) and the first modern automatic transmission wasn’t available until 1948: Buick’s Dynaflow.

Advantages and disadvantages of the manual

We have gathered wisdom from numerous sources and experts:

stick shift graph
Alex Glenn suspects that fewer manual transmission drivers text and drive, because the stick shift demands your full attention. Although we’ve never seen data on that, it sure makes sense.

Meanwhile, Jalopnik believes that stick shift drivers:

  • Have a better understanding of their cars (We agree.)
  • Don’t have to loan their car out (Sorry! It’s stick!)
  • Can become a better car thief (It’s a joke, people!)
  • Can more easily escape if “chased by terrifying aliens that want to abduct and probe you” and when the only escape route is a stick shift car (Boy. That’s scary. We sure hope it’s a joke.)

Stick shift myths

Edmunds.com lists five myths associated with driving stick shifts and we’d like to focus on the first one: that cars with manual transmissions ALWAYS get better fuel economy than automatics.

In the past, that was largely true. But, it’s definitely not 100% true anymore. An example provided was the 2014 Ford Focus, where the six-speed automatic gets 31 mpg (27 city/37 highway), which can be raised to 33 mpg (28 city/40 highway) if you purchase the Super Fuel Economy option package. Meanwhile, the manual version gets 30 mpg (26 city/36 highway). Read the article for more examples where automatics are making significant inroads on fuel economy, sometimes surpassing the manual standbys.

In the article, you can also discover how manual=cheaper isn’t always true any longer. And, we’d like to highlight one advantage of stick shifts that may be true or may be a myth. The jury is still out. And that’s whether or not stick shift cars are stolen less often. Of course, in sheer numbers, fewer are, because fewer of them exist and fewer car thieves know how to drive them.

And, here’s what Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, says. “Some thieves might be thwarted in their attempt to steal a car with a manual transmission, since many thieves possess varying levels of intellect. That very personal element is also a factor in the degree of expertise necessary to overcome some of the more sophisticated security systems. Most car thieves are just not that swift and therefore resort to stealing older, easier targets. But there are those in the car thief ranks who are quite capable of making off with anything that they intend to steal.”

Now let’s see what Consumer Reports has to say about saving money by going manual. In their testing, published in October 2014, they’ve discovered that, in some cars, manual transmission can improve gas mileage by 2 to 5 mpg and the cars themselves can be $800 to $1,200 cheaper. Plus, manual transmission can improve acceleration, a real boon for small engines.

They also acknowledge, though, that some six-speed automatics are now surpassing the manual models, such as the Chevrolet Sonic. Most importantly, here is their “Bottom line: Most manual transmissions can deliver better fuel economy and acceleration. But shift quality and fuel economy vary, so check our ratings and try before you buy.”

Finally, here are some more modern developments.

Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission (TC-SST)

This is the brand name of a six-speed dual clutch transmission system that first appeared in the 2007 Lancer Evolution X. TC-SST allows a driver to go through the clutch/gear shifts more quickly than what’s possible in traditional manual transmission, an automatic transmission with a torque converter or a single clutch automated manual transmission.

There is no drop off in engine power, which equals increased performance AND better fuel economy. This offers a smoother ride than automatics and the system can select two gears simultaneously, putting the odd and even gears on separate shafts both using the same clutch.

Here is what one TC-SST convert has to say about the options available with the new system, one that “feels like a manual” but can shift gears for you when you’re feeling “too lazy” to do it yourself.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

At its core, the CVT is a flexible system that has an “infinite number of effect gear ratios between maximum and minimum values.” This is in direct contract with traditional transmissions that have a fixed/limited number of gear ratios. Find more in-depth information about CVTs here.

We want to know what you think!

Are you a fan of the stick? Do you think it will ever really go away? Share your thoughts below!

Don’t Get No Respect: Wheel Hub Assemblies and Wheel Bearings

Hub Bearing Assembly
To paraphrase comedian Rodney Dangerfield, it’s tough being a hub assembly or wheel bearing. Their more famous cousins—the brakes, the batteries, the struts and shocks—get lots of fuss and attention. Meanwhile, the non-glamorous bearings work hard, day after day, repeating the same dreary job over and over again, with little recognition.

But when those drudgery cousins finally get worn out, you’ll probably know it. They’ll squeak; they’ll grind; they’ll growl; they’ll whine and moan. Besides that, they may not hang on tightly to your tires any more, perhaps even letting go completely and/or causing a loss of steering control. That goes beyond annoyance and becomes a significant safety issue.

Why you should maintain hub assemblies and wheel bearings

Located between the brake drums/discs and the drive axle, the hub assembly is mounted to the holding bracket of the chassis on the axle side. On the drum/disc side, the wheel is connected to the hub assembly via bolts. The wheel bearing itself is inside the hub unit.

These low-maintenance parts must take on the load of the vehicle, whether it’s in motion or standing still. Their importance rises even more when you’re driving over potholes and other rough patches. And, even though they are low maintenance, wheel bearings certainly aren’t no maintenance.

Your goal is to minimize the amount of friction generated by the wheel bearing. This can be accomplished by the use of quality grease specifically intended for high temperatures. Be careful not to overdo how much grease you apply, though, as this can result in overheating because of friction that can’t appropriately be dissipated. With repeated overheating incidents, damage can occur.

And, even though proper application of grease will help these parts last longer, they will eventually need to be replaced. Typically, you should check and maintain your wheel bearings every 25,000 to 30,000 miles. An average sealed wheel bearing lasts 85,000 to 100,000 miles although some can last as long as 150,000 miles.

A note about gas mileage: If you surf around online auto forums, you’ll find conversations about whether or not bad hub assemblies and/or wheel bearings can have a negative effect on gas mileage. As on many car-related topics, there isn’t clear consensus, with some commenters noticing an improvement after hub assembly/wheel bearing repair.

Hub assembly

Hub assembly

Diagnosing a potential problem—use your senses

Diagnosing car troubles by sound alone is an inexact science, but you should not ignore new or unusual car noises. According to an often-quoted study from Braxton Research, 51% of wheel bearing problems are found because of noise (24% are found during a brake job and 19% during an alignment).

Having said that, although noises from bad hub assemblies and/or wheel bearings come from the area of your wheels, not all strange sounds from the area of your wheels is assembly- or bearing-related. They could indicate a problem with your brakes or CV joints. And if the noise comes and goes with the application of your brakes, the problem is more likely brake-related.

Still, be sure to check your hub assembly and wheel bearings if you hear:

  • Chirping, squealing or grinding sounds with different intensities at different speeds. These noises may get louder or softer upon turning.
  • Humming that exists when you drive and increases when you start to turn your steering wheel

 If you ever sense a vibration from your wheels or your wheels “wobble,” be sure to check your hub assembly and wheel bearings.

Confirming and fixing the issue 

Jack up the car into the air and spin the wheel by hand. Can you feel any roughness or excessive drag? If so, you may have a bad wheel bearing. Check your car manual to see the maximum amount of movement that can be considered acceptable.

If you’re unsure whether or not there is too much movement, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You should replace your hub assembly and wheel bearings. Here’s how to replace wheel bearings. Even if only one side is bad, it makes sense to replace them in pairs. The “good” side is likely to cause problems in a relatively short time.

Also, after driving the car, you can check the temperature of the hub assembly. Typically, a hub assembly that is worn out will be hotter than the other hub assemblies on the vehicle. This is due to excessive drag produced by the worn out bearings.

Don’t forget the wheel speed sensor

Vehicles with antilock brakes may have a speed sensor built into the hub assembly. The sensor ring may move about as it rotates if there is a worn wheel bearing, which may trigger the appearance of an ABS warning light. Use a scanning tool that accesses your ABS to diagnose.

Meanwhile internal corrosion within the wheel assembly can send up a false alarm of worn parts. If your vehicle has a removable sensor, then simply remove and clean it. then add a zinc corrosion inhibitor to the hub before replacing. If the sensor is not removable, then the entire hub assembly will need to be replaced.

Hub and bearing assemblyWhat to look for when buying or replacing bearings

  • Beware of cheap bearings constructed of low quality steel with poor heat-treating. These tend to fail prematurely. Bearings should only need to be replaced once during typical car ownership.
  • Cheaper hub assemblies might include bearings that are smaller than OEM, which is another factor that could lead to early part failure. Still other cheaper parts contain double ball bearings rather than one stronger bearing. If possible, avoid these choices.
  • Note that manufacturers recommend a torque wrench rather than an impact wrench when installing. That’s because an impact wrench can damage axle nut threads and CV joints. Plus, the impact wrench can prevent proper torqueing of nuts and bolts.
  • Always consult your owner’s manual first. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to make sure you don’t void any warranties.

Pro Tip: Avoid being penny smart and pound foolish. Replace axle nuts rather than attempting to reuse them. Also, invest in quality seal drivers to ensure a quality seal and therefore protect new wheel bearings.

 

Have you replaced the wheel hub assemblies and wheel bearings on your vehicle lately? Share your tips and experience with others in the comments.