Missing in Action: Column Shift

By J. Smith

09.28.2009

ThreeOnTheTreeFor decades, a column shift served as the standard set-up for gear selection.  Nary a car made between 1940 and 1980 had a floor shift, including the manual trannies.  What with Modern Times, however, the column shift is missing in action.

The column shift is inherently unnatural, at least in a rear-drive vehicle.  In early cars, body builders simply put a hole in the floor for the shifter because that happened to be the best location for transmission linkage.  In most cases, it was also placed such that one’s hand, in repose, would effortlessly and naturally rest on the shift lever.

There were some exceptions, the most notable being the Model T.  The Model T employed a planetary gear system operated via foot pedals.  One pedal engaged reverse and another pedal served to put the car in first, second or neutral.  The third pedal controlled the central brake—which worked on a band in the transmission—and the throttle was controlled by a lever on the steering wheel.  Strange though this set up seems, it would have been the standard 90 years ago when the Model T accounted for over 50% of industry sales.  By 1927 when the Model T ceased production, however, the floor-mounted shifter, attached to a three-speed-and-reverse tranny was the standard pretty much everywhere.  By the end of the 1930s, however, column shifts began to dominate the US Market.

I’m not exactly certain of the reason for changing to a counter-intuitive method of gear selection—and to be fair, I’ve never driven a column-shift manual before.  I believe that the shift (bad pun somewhat intended) was largely due to seating comfort.

American cars have always been larger than those in other markets.  And American cars, by the end of the 1930s, could accommodate a third person—at least one of slender proportions—in the center position of the front bench seat.  This enabled manufacturers to tout their vehicles as six passenger models.  Sitting in the center of a three-person bench seat is tight and uncomfortable.   But adding the discomfort of putting a shift column between the center passenger’s legs not only adds to the discomfort, it creates a scene in which an embarrassing faux pas is more or less guaranteed.

By 1938, Plymouth made the column shift standard on its P8 Deluxe Line.  Chevrolet offered column shifters as an option in the late 1930’s, making them standard in 1940.  Ford also made the column-shift standard in its 1940 models.  And the column-shift transmission dominated auto sales in the US through the 1980s.

In an automatic, where you shift it into “D” and leave it there, a column-shifter makes some sense.  Sure, it’s a little awkward; your hand doesn’t naturally fall to rest on the gear selector, but you don’t have to shift all that much either.  But on a manual transmission, a column shifter seems not merely unnatural, but inefficient, even burdensome.  The driver must continually lift his or her hand to shift, with no support for the arm.  Inconvenient or not, the “three on the tree” was standard in manual transmissions through the early 1970’s.  The last one was sold in the US on the 1986 F-150.

The demise of the column shifter traces to the 1960s.  Bucket seats and center consoles became sought-after options in personal luxury cars like the Thunderbird and Riviera.  A column shift on a car with center a console and buckets just doesn’t make sense.  Meanwhile, among the younger generation muscle cars were popular.  And if you want to go fast, you need to shift at the peak of the horsepower curve, which is most efficiently accomplished with a floor shift.  And among imported sports cars—MG and Triumph together sold more than 50,000 cars in the U.S. every year—floor-mounted four-speed manual transmissions were standard.  And the ubiquitous Beetle used a floor-mounted shifter as well.

Soon, the column-shift manual became dowdy and unfashionable, associated with uptight dowagers and people too cheap to fork over a few extra dollars and spring for a floor shifter.  And American consumers generally eschew things associated with old people or poverty.  And as bucket seats became the standard, even the column-shift auto began to fade away.

Nowadays, it’s hard to find a column shift on a car.  Other than Buicks, the Impala and Crown Vics—notice a pattern there?—I’m not sure if anyone makes them anymore.  They are disappearing from trucks as buckets supplant the bench.  I see them in minivans, although even there they seem to be retreating in favor of stubby Corvair-like dash-mounted shifters—which is even less sporting than a column shifter.  And some makes are even using a dial, which is as bad, if not worse, than the push-button gear selector in early 1960s Chrysler products.

At any rate, the mode of gear selection is a process in which aesthetic values and technical means, with a nod towards safety, combine to determine form.  And column shifters are no longer pretty and no longer necessary.  Given the possibilities opened by computers and electronics, the shape of shifting to come is seemingly limited only to the imagination.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: J.S. Smith

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24 Comments

  1. It wasn’t that hard to get used to shifting off the column but it was a lot easier if you had short legs and could sit close to the steering wheel.

  2. My ’55 Chev 210 2-dr in Neptune Green: Stovebolt 6 and 3 on the tree.

  3. I like it on the column if it’s an auto box.

  4. A column shifter with 3 speeds is not that hard to get used to. Those with 4 speeds (admitedly rare) were much harder to drive.

    Now the old manuals without synchros that you had to double-clutch, those too some real getting used to.

  5. Even though I am a young guy, 22, I have my aunt’s old car with a four-speed on the steering wheel post. I use it as my daily driver cause I’m cool like that, and it’s not as easy as using a shift on the floor, but it’s not awful or anything. But it is helpful to have an upright driving stance, as someone else pointed out.

    If I go to a place where they have valet parking, I always have to park my own car, because no one is familiar with the column shifter pattern anymore.

  6. Many Japanese vans with automatic transmissions still have column shift…notable the JDM version of the Honda Oddi-see

  7. Mercedes and BMW currently have column shifters. It is did not go away and even become the sign of luxury.

  8. I like column shifters because they’re space efficient, but I have to admit that the last column shifter I drove (a rental Dodge Grand Caravan) had such a loose, gummy shifter that I constantly overshot my intended gear. It really felt cheap. My dad’s Buick Park Avenue is much better.

  9. With a auto trans it’s better than on the flor, because then you get more space on the floor. or consolle

  10. I much prefer the shifter up top on the column as long as we’re talking about an automatic transmission. Up top, with shift paddles off the steering wheel.

    I wish all cars had the shifter up top, leaving more usable room for the front seat passengers’ legs, etc.

  11. In the ’60s, my ‘high school car’ was a ’49 Packard with a manual three-speed on the column. It was as big as the ‘Queen Mary.’ That column shifter gave lots of extra space in an otherwise huge front seat for, shall we say, ‘drive-in movie activities.’ Ah, memories….

  12. You have to wonder what logic wins out when the transmission selector ends up on the floor in a commercial vehicle since the column would be so much better.

  13. I hate the shift on the column and would never buy a car like that.

  14. Column shift was considered an important safety feature when it was introduced,as the floor shifts of the 30s had long,long throws and took drivers hands far from the wheel.American cars of the 50’s were easy to drive with a column shift as first was just for starting from a stop and the car was driven in second and third,and most could be driven in high,(3rd)most of the time.

  15. Column shift autos are easy enough because you hardly ever shift–most of my autos have been column shift. But if you have to shift often–i.e., you have a manual tranny–it seems like it’d be a chore.

    Mark: non-synchro just takes a little getting used to. My Mini has non-synchro first, but even at a full stop it will grind a little unless you shift into second beforehand. Double-clutching for every gear slows your shifting, but it’s not hard to get accustomed to.

  16. BTW: Where did that picture come from?! United Steel Workers of Montreal–does such a thing exist?

  17. The column-shift wasn’t just Detroit’s domain. Until the early 1970s, column-shifts were de rigeur for French and German family cars. The Peugeots 404 and 504, Citroen DS, Opel Rekord and Mercedes “Fintail” all had column-mounted shifters — albeit with 4 speeds! Even Alfa Romeo’s sporting sedans had them on the tree until the mid-1960s.

  18. The four on the tree. Yeah, now that was some fun.

  19. i always thought that column shifter (for manual) was a better solution. since your hand has to move less distance than a floor shifter. but then again, i’ve never used one so maybe you are right about their counter-intuitiveness.

  20. Only column shifters available for 2014, are Escalade, Silverado, Express, Tahoe, FSeries, Sierra, Yukon, and “police versions”, of Taurus, and Explorer.

  21. the only stick i have ever driven is a 3 on the tree, 67 chev c10 first car, daily driver!, manual steering/ brakes can be a handful sometimes

  22. Personally, I like the column shifter better because you have the flip console and the option of third passenger seat ing in the front.

  23. I remember a immovable column shift lever with a knob on the end that held a finger operated tab to select the automatic drive selector in a marked pattern like a standard transmission floor stick shift. Did I dream that? I haven’t been able to find it in pictures on the internet.

  24. Where can I purchase a replacement including the steering wheel? Ford f-150 1986 column shift manual transmission

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