It was around the middle of the last decade that Alan Macey realized how bad things had gone for the manual transmission. The clutch pedal had started disappearing from American-made vehicles before it was born, but suddenly a shifter wasn’t even available as an option on a muscle car like the Dodge Charger. So in 2015 he started The Manual Gearbox Preservation Society.
The group is made up of the kind of drivers who believe that physically changing gears is as important to driving as putting your foot on the gas or turning the steering wheel. Macey isn’t so dogmatic – his garage houses both a manual and an automatic – but the longtime car enthusiast and industry veteran is concerned about how automated driving has become.
“I grew up in the rural suburbs of Detroit. I spent a lot of time driving jeeps and smaller cars on those back roads and had a lot of fun,” Macey said. Robb Report. “If I had to make one observation about how cars have evolved in my life, it’s that they’ve become less and less engaging.”
Macey is under no illusions. He knows the manual transmission won’t experience a sudden resurgence in popularity. In the early 1980s, the percentage of cars rolling off American production lines with a stick shift was only 35%, according to The New York Times. In 2020, that number was just over 1% (or about 188,000 cars), which might explain why only 18% of drivers in the country even know how to drive one. But Macey isn’t choosing a costume for the Manual Gearbox funeral, either. In fact, the growing popularity of electric vehicles – many of which are sold on the promise that they will further automate the driving experience – has actually given him renewed optimism for the manual transmission.
“I think it was in the 70s when quartz watches came out,” he said. “And there were probably a lot of people who thought that Swiss automatic watches would be a thing of the past. It even appeared more recently with the Apple Watch. But I think we’re all quite aware that luxury [mechanical] the watch industry is very lively and prosperous.
If you know anything about how electric vehicles work, chances are you think Macey’s hope is misplaced, mostly because one of the biggest selling points of an all-electric powertrain is that it doesn’t need a multi-speed transmission to work. Unlike an internal combustion engine, which has a narrow rpm range in which it can operate efficiently – the reason you have to change gears to keep it from stalling – an electric motor has a much wider optimum range that doesn’t requires only one speed. That’s why almost all electric vehicles come with a single-speed direct-drive transmission.
But there are exceptions. Take, for example, the Porsche Taycan. Introduced in the fall of 2019, the German brand’s first electric vehicle is a true high-performance vehicle capable of going from zero to 60 mph in 2.6 seconds and reaching a top speed of 161 mph. But what really caught the attention of some enthusiasts was the two-speed transmission on its rear axle.
The Taycan’s gearbox is an in-house invention, so we don’t know all of its intricacies, but it Wired the article does a good job of breaking things down. Basically, first gear gives the Taycan more access to torque, allowing it to accelerate even faster; second allows the motor to run at a lower speed while maintaining speed, improving efficiency.
The Taycan shifts between the two gears automatically – at around 62 mph, according to Engineering Explained – but the presence of a multi-speed transmission opens up the possibility that drivers can make the change themselves. And although Porsche does not yet grant this privilege to its electric vehicle drivers, other brands are already open to this possibility.
Over the past year, three different companies have shown their willingness to put a shifter in an EV. During last year’s Monterey Car Week, Gateway Bronco showed off an all-electric version of its popular restomod available with an optional five-speed manual transmission. Then, last February, a Toyota patent was discovered that described a system for electric vehicles that included a shifter and clutch (albeit fake). Finally, in April, Jeep unveiled its second Wrangler Magneto concept, which features a six-speed manual transmission for “ultimate control over the propulsion system.”
There’s only one electric vehicle you can buy today with a manual transmission: the Gateway Luxury-GT Ford Bronco. The latest addition to the Illinois boutique’s line of restomods starts at $265,000 and is indistinguishable from its gas-powered models until you open the hood. You’ll find a Legacy EV electric crate motor that produces 400 hp and 800 lb-ft of torque. As is the case with most electric vehicles, the 4×4’s torque is instantly available, but if you want even more control over that output, the shop will connect the drive unit to a manual gearbox. five-speed that sends power to all four wheels.
If you opt for the manual transmission, which costs an additional $11,229, you’ll see two major benefits, according to Gateway founder Seth Burgett. The first is self-explanatory: the feeling of shifting gears yourself. You won’t use the first two gears much (it’s not like you have to worry about stalling), but anyone used to rowing themselves will feel comfortable in gears three through five. The second benefit is added control, especially off-road, which can be tricky with an internal combustion engine, requiring real patience and control, feathering the clutch to get the perfect power and torque . That’s not the case with Gateway’s EV, where twist and propulsion are available immediately, with a kick, once in the correct gear setting.
“When you have an electric, it’s extraordinarily accurate,” Burgett said. “You press the accelerator pedal until you have the torque and speed you need, then you back off. You have much tighter control with an electric off-road vehicle than with a essence.
Burgett is not alone in finding this to be the case. Jeep brought the battery-powered Wrangler Magneto to the final two installments of its annual Moab Easter Safari. The vehicle is a retrofit that started out as a gasoline-powered 4×4, but saw its old engine replaced with an electric drive unit. One aspect that hasn’t been changed, however, is its six-speed manual transmission. While by no means necessary, the automaker has seen real benefits from this feature, especially when it comes to off-roading.
“What’s really good is the off-road control and finesse, especially in a very tight situation,” said Mark Allen, design manager at Jeep. Robb Report. “The vehicle reacts like a manual gearbox, where it is a direct drive. I don’t have a torque converter to go up or down. But the good thing is you can’t stall it – and that’s always the dread when driving a manual transmission in a tough off-road situation. But it can’t stall, because it doesn’t work.
Sadly, that doesn’t mean a manual transmission will make it into any of Jeep’s production EVs, the first of which is slated to debut next year. The automaker sees the Wrangler Magneto and the upgraded 2.0 as “an open door to the lab. . .a testbed” that offers Allen and his team a chance to cobble together a working vehicle, with help from some of the marque’s most diehard supporters. The battery-powered 4×4 also shows hardcore enthusiasts that they haven’t been forgotten.
These enthusiasts, some of whom may well be members of the Manual Gearbox Preservation Society, aren’t ready to give up the shifter. They’re like music lovers who have stuck with vinyl through the cassette, CD, MP3 and streaming eras because they think it just sounds better. There’s no reason for Gateway to include an optional manual transmission on the Luxe-GT, except that there are drivers who really want it. As long as this interest persists, regardless of their niche, someone will continue to install manual transmissions in cars, SUVs and trucks whether they technically need them or not.
“Some technologies kind of fade into history because they never had anything really rewarding about them,” Macey says, describing the satisfaction of a particularly nice downshift. “While other types of technologies or activities, there is something about them that transcends their functionality.”
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