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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.