Shifting gears

There’s something powerful about shifting gears, whether in a car, truck or tractor. To have the option to how to use the power of the engine that is attached to the transmission you shift feels pretty good. Even the smallest car engines produce around 100 horsepower, compare this to the majestic eight-horse team of Budweiser Clydesdales and it’s no wonder people feel big and bad shifting and driving their own personal 100 horse string. This is changing, however.

The manual transmission was created in 1894 and made better with a commercial synchromesh transmission in 1928. Prior to the synchromesh, manuals were called “clash transmissions” because they made a lot of noise when shifted. Automatics came along in 1921 and used compressed air to change gears, this was improved in 1932 when hydraulic oil replaced air.

I grew up believing that manual transmissions were the only way to go. Manual transmissions lasted much longer and were a more efficient way to transfer power which created better gas mileage. You rarely saw a work pick-up or heavy truck use an automatic transmission as most could not handle such heavy use.

The first heavy truck I ever drove with an automatic transmission was an old Ford tandem-axle. I don’t know if it was the 534 cubic inch engine or the transmission however this was a combination that paled in comparison to diesel powered trucks backed by manual transmissions which I later drove. I had heard about the Allison transmission used on Mack trucks and that it had a million-mile warranty however I didn’t see many of them. Somewhere in the late eighties or so, it seemed like the world really began to rely on the automatic transmission as it became more efficient, more dependable and an integral part of fuel efficiency on cars that demanded consistent shifting.

I loved shifting my brother Dave’s Dodge Dart. He probably doesn’t even know but I would sit in his car when I was young and practice. I also loved driving around the country in my Dad’s old 1960’s-era Dodge truck which shifted so deeply and nicely. I always felt like the automatics were so tame and boring, I made the decisions with a manual transmission whereas I was not a part of the decision-making process with an automatic.

My first satisfying experience with an automatic tranny in a semi was probably in the late 90’s. When you haul sugar beets, the trips are short so you do a lot of shifting. I’ve always said that shifting was like having an additional part-time job in a truck so dropping this task was nice. It was also better in the muddy fields as shifting from 1-2 or 2-3 under tough driving conditions sometimes resulted in a blown shift. It seems fewer people know how to shift so I suspect it’s easier to hire drivers when you offer automatic transmissions. This is a suspicion back by a 2016 Los Angles Times story which reported only three percent of cars sold in America are equipped with a manual transmission.

I don’t know if culture mirrors technology or vice versa. I suspect we are often driven by the creative engineers behind the conveniences we enjoy-we are also driven mostly by vehicles with automatic transmissions.

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