Theme : Dashboards – The Demise of the Column Shift

A Change for the Worst?

If you drive a manual car, where do you look for the gearshift? As a default, central and forward of the front seats. Until the late 1960s, this was not always so. At one time, a piece of bent metal originating directly from the gearbox and capped with a Bakelite knob, was a sign of a cheap car.

A better car, a quality car, more often had its gear change mounted on the steering column. This was only logical. This put it in easy reach of the steering wheel and freed up floorspace for a central passenger on the bench seat, or made for a more congenial driving experience when you were with a close friend. Who would have it any other way? Other types of gearboxes, such as torque converter automatics and pre-selectors followed this pattern.

Column shifts appeared in the US from the 1930s. Other countries adopted them to different degrees. They were probably at the height of their popularity in the 1950s, but even that harbinger of the hot saloon, the Alfa Giulia was originally launched in 1962 with a column change. However, tastes changed and, by the mid Sixties in the UK, they were being seen as rather old-fashioned.

Sports cars and racing cars were narrow. The column shift sat less comfortably in their cockpits, so they had floor shifts. Thus floor shifts represented sporty and, just as today’s family motorists feel compelled to order low profile tyres and sports suspension for no real advantage, so did yesterday’s drivers feel that they should have a central gearstick. This suited car companies, since there was usually less need to manufacture complex linkages and one position usually suited left or right hand drive production.

The Arm Wrestler
The Bad : The Arm Wrestler

For me, receiving my youthful motoring education in the 60s, the received wisdom was that four (then five) on the floor was the only way. Column shifts were for old duffers. My first experience of a column manual was when I bought an old Bedford van and it reinforced all my prejudices. The linkage was loose and clunky and, although I rather got to enjoy driving the thing around with the sliding door held back and the hefty movement to effect each gearchange (mercifully just 3 ratios) it was, objectively speaking, awful. It was arm wrestling – watch anyone driving an old pickup in a Hollywood movie.

The Good : The Peugeot 404
The Good : The Peugeot 404

But then the Bedford broke down terminally just North of Paris and I ended up with a rental Peugeot 504 Estate. This was identical to the car my parents had in the UK except, instead of their excellent floor change, this had a column shifter. My ungenerous thoughts about the hidebound domestic French industry lasted for less than a mile down the road. The Peugeot’s shift was a revelation. No need for exaggerated gestures and grabbing the end in your fist, this could be manipulated by cupping the lever between your three central fingers, without letting go of the steering.

Lancia Fulvia
Lancia Fulvia

But my discovery came too late. Although in other European countries, where people were maybe less interested in playing boy-racers, they had remained more popular, by the early Seventies the stick had triumphed. Mercedes still offered column shift for selected markets, like the US, into the early 70s and France, the last European bastion, carried on further into that decade, but the next generation of French cars – Peugeot 505, Citroen CX, Renault 30 – all had the floor changes that had become the European norm.. The column manual lasted in the US into the 1980s, and remained popular in Japanese made taxis until the end of the last century but, basically, it’s seen as an archaic piece of kit.

Even worse has been the fate of the automatic. Here was a device designed to minimise the work you had to do driving. Surely a slim wand pivoting around the steering wheel was the perfect way to control it. No, apparently this too had to go on the floor, preferably with a smart T-shift. I often used to drive a large automatic Jaguar with a column control complemented by a neat window above the column clearly indicating what was selected, and a small movement of two fingers would downchange the Borg-Warner for overtaking. But by the time the first XJ arrived, a Jag’s sportiness meant you had to reach blindly to the centre tunnel to pull back a clunky lever.

Would you really prefer this
Would you really prefer this
To This?
To This?

The plethora of new transmissions has meant some relaxing of the centrally mounted gearstick diktat. Citroen has brought back the column control for some of its automatic models, though probably because someone saw a picture of a DS19 dash and thought it would look cool, rather than any logical decision. Nevertheless, with steering mounted controls, a DSG gearbox should have done away with the need for a bulky centre shift entirely, but old habits die hard.

DSG - Why The Big Stick?
DSG – Why The Big Stick?

The spirit of the column shift did not die altogether in Europe. Aware of the selfconsciousness of three burly, hetrosexual males in close proximity in the cab of a van, the Sevel manufactured light van of the early 80s (sold as a Fiat, Peugeot, Citroen, Talbot and Alfa Romeo) put the gearshift on the steering column, whilst competitors continued to place it on the floor, unhelpfully between the legs of the central passenger.

With the 1994 replacement, an elegant compromise was found with the dash mounted stick shift close to the steering wheel. I’ve driven two generations of Fiat Ducato with this arrangement and I consider its gearchange better than that on many hatchbacks I encounter. Car manufacturers, including Fiat and Honda, have also taken this up, freeing up floorspace and putting the control nearer to the steering wheel.

Fiat Ducato Van
Fiat Ducato Van

The fate of the column shift encapsulates the mindset of the car industry. It is very conservative and depressingly homogeneous. It is also very happy when it can combine fashion with the cheapest possible solution. When one manufacturer heads down a path with moderate success, others follow without quite analysing why. Old ideas are dumped entirely, rather than being seen as right for certain situations and worthy of development. In 20 years time, someone will likely be writing here complaining about the wholesale dumping of the central gearstick.

Peugeot Annotated Dash

23 thoughts on “Theme : Dashboards – The Demise of the Column Shift”

  1. All of that was new to me. For a start I always assumed column-mounted shifts were for automatics. I´ve never driven a car with such a feature; the closest I got to such a feature was the strange umbrella-handled gadget found on a Citroen Dyane. How did that work? The R4 had something similar too. I suppose it was just the same a floor-mounted shift but mounted in a different plane. I had the feeling the Citroen Dyane driver was moving the gearstick in more than one plane though. Is that possible. Is the column mounted manual transmission operating plane orientated so its vertical and parallel with the car´s X axis?

    1. Likewise I always wondered how those things worked. I was aware that manual column-mounted shifts existed but kept forgetting that all the answers are available out there at the click of a mouse. Or maybe I’m just not curious enough.

  2. The Traction Avant also had a dash mounted change. The Citroen/Renault change was a horizontal rod reaching forward to the gearbox. Twisting it left and right moved the vertical rod it was attached to between the planes of a conventional gearbox. On the Citroen, second and third, being most used, are in the same plane. Again, I found the system more convenient than a floor shift. The first Renault 5s inherited that gearchange from the Renault 4s they were based on, but this soon disappeared. The system did stay on the 2CV until the end though.

    1. Here is the gearchange from a French Traction and a UK built one. As you can see, the position didn’t change with right hand drive, making the French one more convenient. Note also the mandatory timber dash for the UK.

  3. Much as I was sorely tempted by both of the Bristol 412s I drove a few years back, what did disappoint me was the presence of a central stick change for the automatic box. I felt that a nice little wand beside the steering wheel would have been far more in keeping with Bristol’s philosophies.

    1. Later models had particularly horrid looking floor mounted sticks – no doubt covered in leather but completely out of place.

  4. I only was thinking about driving a manual column shifted vehicle yesterday morning. I was a young chap, about 18 and I was asked to drive a relatives utility to the dump with a very large load of building rubbish. It was a 1 tonne Holden utility (based like the current versions on the sedan at the time) with a load well in excess of 1 tonne, more like 1.4 as the leaf springs were no longer semi-elliptical but linear. Fortunately it had a 4.2L V8 to help shift the load. The tyres were inflated beyond sensible and still it swayed on the carcasses of the tyres with an alarming rhythm- much like I imagine riding a camel on sand would feel like. The incentive was driving unladen on the return with a nice big engine, no rear weight and rear wheel drive. Despite these exciting features I do favourably recall that the “3 on the tree” column shift was very easy to use. It did seem to be the most sensible place to put the selector and it did afford the easy leg room for the centre passenger on the bench seat. It is an experience well worth seeking out.

  5. We shouldn’t forget to mention the (automatic) column shift’s renaissance, as heralded by the E65 Seven. BMW has since abandoned the concept, but Mercedes are still using it for some model ranges they deem appropriate.

  6. I have a couple column shift cars (Saab V4s) in which I’ve done many kilometres and I’ve driven a couple others occasionally (Mitsubishi L300 and L400 and Peugeot 504 to name a few) and I have to admit it’s a rather old fashioned system indeed. Nice for country lanes, but rubbish for quick shifting in city traffic and when overtaking. I like the shifter type the Ducato van has (and for example the Mercedes Sprinters and Honda Civic that I’ve driven quite a lot). It combines the advantages of the nearness of column shifters with the speed and ease of use of floor shifters.

  7. Nissan still uses column shift in smaller automatic cars to increase floor space and a cleaner look. I owned a Nissan Cube. It even had a “sports” button on the column which was basically just an overdrive button.

  8. Which version of the Cube? That’s a very appealing bit of industrial design, the Cube. I have some photos of a Cube I saw in Dublin at Christmas. Apart from the colour, grey metallic, it looked excellent.

  9. Lets not forget another form of control that was popular in fifties America, the push button selector
    which started appearing in the 1955 Packard cars. The following year saw Chrysler products join and a year later Mercury division of Ford.
    Each had their own version with some being cable operated while others used an electric servo slave motor.
    My father purchased a new 57 Mercury which had the pushbuttons displayed in a square chrome bezel on the dash to the left of the steering wheel. This unit employed a servo motor doing the selecting at the auto gearbox and I remember when shifting from reverse to drive there was quite a delay which made manoeuvring somewhat tedious. I passed my driving test in this giant tri coloured chrome laden barge even though I could drive a manual.
    I later owned a Chrysler Valiant which employed the cable system that was quite successful, I might add this was considered a compact car to compete with the imports flooding into America threatening Detroit but never the less had the luxury of push button drive.
    I believe pushbutton selectors had a ten year run as this was about the time I came to the UK and was learning to master shifting with my left hand while piloting an MG TC on the wrong side of the road!

    1. Push button selectors always seemed to be different for difference’s sake. They didn’t offer an intuitive system and offered both the chance of pressing the wrong button plus added complexity.

      Renault had a push button ‘automatic’ on some of its rear-engined models in the early 60s, but this was actually a manual controlled by electomagnets. I was aware of some US cars having push buttons (yet another straw that broke the Edsel’s back) but, until reading your comment and having a quick search just now, I hadn’t realised there were quite so many types and layouts. Enough to merit a piece on themselves. And a recipe for accidents, I’d guess. Is this one that slipped through Ralph Nader’s net?

  10. Having lived with the push button selectors when they were popular I didn’t hear of any rejection or problems other than teething glitches on some early makes. It was the push button era so became widely accepted on American cars. They were only used on automatics so safety wasn’t an issue plus ergonomics or standardisation didn’t seem to apply then. The Edsel died because there was no market place for it between the Mercury and Lincoln plus styling was controversial. Actually it was no more radical than other makes but at a time when they were styled to appear longer lower and wider the Edsel had a stylised vertical grill, a throwback to the thirties radiator grill.
    I think a dedicated article would be great.

    1. Don’t many buses not have push button selectors? I’ve even seen an MAN coach with a dash mounted rotary selector, more like an escapee from the HVAC panel than the Jaguar pop-up thingy…

  11. Hello – I am not sure if this is the proper forum, or if anyone can answer my question, but I am writing a story in which the action depends on the protagonist having a column gear shift in his car. It is set in the sixties. I know nothing about cars, and I was born in the seventies. Can you give me an example(s) of a kind a car a middle-class man would own, in America, in the early sixties, that wold have a column shift? I would greatly appreciate it.

    1. Hello Kelly – you have loads of choices, but how about a 1960 Buick Electra? It came in 2 and 4 door body styles and a convertible. Or perhaps an Oldsmobile Super 88? When you’re choosing, please note that some cars have the shift on the left, others on the right.

  12. I would recommend a circa 1963 Mercury Meteor because of the period evocative name. As an intermediate size car it was relatively affordable. And best of all it has “Cruise-O-Matic” written on the indicator.

  13. I’ve only recently discovered manual column shift on a trip to Egypt and was wowed by the easeness our taxi driver shifted in his million km plus 504 taxi.

    I was impressed.

    Compare that to the leased 3008 I had un Europe where the central column was so big it felt my passenger was sitting in a differently room…

    The statement about makers following fashion is a prefound one. This doesn’t just happen to car makers – witness the mobile phone makers abandoning a perfectly functional 3.5mm headphone jack and switch to usb just because Apple did it. Damn you Jobs..

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