Anyone new to the the muscle car hobby will quickly stumble across a golden era muscle car with a floor-mounted 3-speed manual transmission. It’s a shock to these newbies who were under the misimpression that all manual transmission equipped classic muscle cars left the factory with 4-speeds. Imagine the surprise when a newbie stumbles across a legendary muscle car such as a 1969 Pontiac GTO Judge, equipped with the potent Ram Air III 400 CID V8, only to discover it has a factory floor-mounted 3-speed manual? Even though most 1969 GTO Judges were equipped with either the optional 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission, the 3-speed manual was the standard transmission. Not only was this the case with most years of the GTO but also with many other muscle cars during this era.
To understand the history of the floor-mounted 3-speed, one has to go back to the first mass produced car – the Ford Model T. It was a primitive car but it had a third foot pedal (the clutch pedal) and a floor-mounted manual transmission shifter. The Model T was the vehicle that introduced the masses to the driving motion of the left foot pressing a clutch pedal in conjunction with the right hand shifting the transmission via a floor-mounted shifter. As cars and work trucks progressed from the Model T the floor-mounted transmission shifter became the industry standard. By the 1940s the manual shifter moved from the floor to the steering column. And by the 1950s when automatic transmissions became popular, the automatic transmission gear shifter was also found on the steering column. With the advent of the new emerging youth market in the 1960s some base level cars became equipped with a standard 3-speed manual floor-mounted shifter.
Pontiac started the muscle car segment by taking a base level mid-sized 1964 Tempest and dropping in a large displacement 389 CID V8 (which at the time was only reserved for Pontiac’s full-size cars). Pontiac tweaked the package with some other performance enhancements and voila – the introduction of the world to the 1964 GTO. The bare-bones Tempest based GTO was standard with a 3-speed manual floor-mounted transmission. Every other American automaker followed suit and used a base-level mid-sized or compact car with a standard 3-speed floor-mounted manual transmission shifter as the basis for its muscle car offerings. These automakers would also offer as optional equipment on these cars, a floor-mounted 4-speed manual shifter. The young adult males who were buying these muscle cars generally preferred the extra gear and opted for 4-speed manual transmissions instead of the standard 3-speeds. Automatic transmissions were also optional on many muscle cars. The same was true with the first pony car – the Ford Mustang. Many of the first generation Mustangs left the dealer lots with a standard 3-speed manual, optional were both a 4-speed manual transmission and 3-speed automatic transmission.
Young muscle car buyers on very tight budgets generally opted for the 3-speed manual transmission even though they preferred a 4-speed. To illustrate this point if a young buyer pinching those pennies back in 1965 wanted to buy a new Mustang with a 289 CID V8 the 3-speed manual was standard. The optional 4-speed was a $184.02. Today that seems reasonable however $184.02 1965 dollars adjusted to 2015 dollars is a whopping $1,384.93.
The 3-speeds were just as beefy and robust as their 4-speed counterparts. Performance parts such as Hurst shifters were just as readily available for 3-speeds as with 4-speeds. Most 3-speed buyers didn’t have buyer’s remorse since the missing 4th gear wasn’t apparent until higher highway speeds.
Where the 3-speed manual was a hindrance was when a driver was used to the 4-speed shift pattern. Most 3-speeds were configured so that first gear in the shifter pattern was located where second gear was on a 4-speed. This could be confusing to most 4-speed trained brains. After engaging a 3-speed’s first gear, shifting up to second and third was no big deal. The kicker was when a driver was used to the 4-speed shifter pattern, would attempt to downshift a 3-speed to first gear using a 4-speed state-of-mind. This attempt to move the 3-speed shifter to where first gear was located on a 4-speed caused that horrid gear grinding sound. Reverse gear on a 3-speed was located where first gear was located on a 4-speed. Fortunately Reverse gear didn’t fully engage when forward motion was occurring thus preventing in most cases a total transmission meltdown but still causing some noisy gear grinding. In other words making this mistake once didn’t destroy the transmission but doing it enough times certainly shortened the life of the transmission.
A lesser known factor in why buyers opted for the 3-speed was insurance costs. Some insurance companies priced muscle cars at lower premiums if they were equipped with 3-speed manuals. This may not seem like a big deal but the main reason why muscle cars across the board took a massive dive in sales starting in 1970 was high insurance costs. By 1969, young male drivers from ages 16 to 25 were deemed to be high risks behind the wheel of powerful muscle cars by most car insurance companies causing skyrocketing insurance premiums. In some cases the monthly insurance bill rose so high it was greater than the price of the monthly car payment. In some cases opting for the 3-speed instead of the 4-speed dropped insurance costs for this demographic just enough for them to afford both the muscle car purchase and insurance. The insurance logic behind lower insurance premiums for 3-speed equipped muscle cars was that the 3-speed manual equipped cars had lower top speeds than their 4-speed counterparts.
The 3-speed lingered around during most of the 1970s in smaller numbers than the 1960s and by 1980 most 3-speed manuals were gone. The 4-speed eventually replaced it and was then replaced by the 5-speed. Today not many cars are equipped with manual transmissions. If you find one you have to pay a premium over an automatic and generally they have 6 or more forward gears.
Next time you see a 3-speed manual equipped muscle car don’t fear, it’s not a monster but an interesting bit of muscle car history well worth a second look and even a test drive.
Written contents in this article – © 2015 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved