The Demise Of The Manual Gearbox - The Evolution of Supercar Transmission

THe pulse of the manual gearbox is fading through man's perpetual and occasionally cursed lust for innovation.

3y ago

I’ve been interested in cars since before I can remember: an interest that's seeped its way into countless aspects of motoring. My earliest fascination however was centred around the magical lever in the middle of the car, moving backwards and forwards, and occasionally from side to side, whilst the driver depressed their left leg and lifted their right leg in unison.  

The act of changing gear was hypnotic to my 3 year old mind. They say it's rude when children stare - but I was powerless; completely entranced by this simple yet fundamental part of driving! Every trip in a car was an excuse to feed my sponge of a brain the gear-changing food it required - until one memorable day, when I got into a car, looked at the centre console on autopilot, and began to feel quite faint…

Rather than the kind of gear stick I’d become accustomed to seeing, there was something which could only be described as an imposter. It didn't move from side to side in a standard H motion; its basic movements were backwards and forwards. Then there were the gears themselves. They weren't the usual “R, 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5” my pattern-obsessed mind had absorbed from experience - they were “P, R, N, D, 3, 2, & 1”. And if I wasn’t shocked enough by the strange object masquerading as a gearstick, I then peered down into the driver's foot well - an action which made my little voice squeal “but…but…where’s the clutch?”. A 3-year-old making such an astute observation was met with the type of laughter only an unknowing junior comedian can conjure - but I wasn’t laughing. A car without a clutch peddle - what kind of witchcraft was this?!

Automatic transmissions were an anomaly I'd never encountered before. In my confused, infantile years, I wasn't sure whether to love them for their ability to change between gears all by themselves, or despise them for denying me something to fix my gaze onto for the entirety of the journey. Luckily for me, therapy came in the form of a 50 pence piece, which helped me swiftly switch my attention onto the type of tooth-rotting banquet I'd buy with my newfound fortune.

It was at this tender age that a new type of transmission technology only heard of in racing was being introduced into road cars: Paddle Shift Gearboxes. The idea was that instead of using a pedal and a lever to change gear, the driver simply pulled a paddle on the left side of the steering wheel to change down, and a paddle on the right side of the steering wheel to change up. This way, every time you changed gear, you could pretend to be a racing driver: a fact which made paddle shift gearboxes a feature on cars only purchased by those who wanted to change gear with paddles for the sake of it - not because it was better than a conventional manual, because my God, it really wasn’t! 

When paddle shifters were first introduced onto road cars back in 1997, they were an option on the Ferrari 355. You might think that if Ferrari were endorsing it, then it must've been brilliant? But in this early example of the technology, employing a paddle shift gearbox to swap cogs was about as clever as employing Guy Martin to give you elocution lessons.

Each gear change sent a shockwave through the car which gave the occupants whiplash. Somehow, changes managed to be slow, yet as brutally fierce as a Kangaroo’s dropkick. You’d pull a paddle, read a book, shoot forwards as the gearbox finally decided to attempt a gear change, then you’d slam back once the gear had actually been engaged. Looking back, you’d think it wouldn’t take someone with much of a brain to realise that this was a failed experiment, and they should've conformed to the saying "if at first you do not succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried”. But this new technology was pursued through man’s perpetual and frequently cursed lust for innovation, and a few years later these gearboxes started to become commonplace on performance cars. 

Back in the early 2000’s when paddle shift gearboxes began to find more popularity, the majority of cars that had them were also available with a proper manual. However, because Michael Schumacher used paddles in his F1 car, if you were the sort of person who lived to collect as many bragging rights as possible, you'd want a flappy paddle gearbox just to make your ego believe that because you changed gear like Schumacher, you're as good as Schumacher. They may’ve been an option ticked primarily by the orange exhibitionists of the world, but during their induction years, some serious drivers admired them for their racing credentials. However, it took an infinitesimal duration of time for these 'serious drivers' to realise they were, in fact, a novelty akin to that of a pet rock. 

It may’ve taken some form of genius to design the paddle shift gearbox, but it only took someone with an IQ barely greater than their age to realise that a transmission that sends you to the chiropractor with the pull of a paddle is irrefutably unacceptable! Change was needed, and if I apply some blunt logic to the problem, the solution was simple: just replace the paddle shifters with a stick and 3 pedals. Unfortunately however, gearbox designers at the time weren’t that stupidly ingenious, and instead a far from obvious solution was devised.

I’m talking about Direct Shift Gearboxes: DSG’s, or “Double Clutch Gearboxes” as they’re more commonly known. No, they don't incorporate a 4th pedal with the desired stick (as I thought they did when I first heard of their existence when I was 9). Instead, they are a form of paddle shift gearbox that uses 2 input shafts as opposed to 1, with a clutch managing each shaft. Bear with me while I try to explain how they work without inadvertently curing your insomnia. 

When cogs are swapped on a single shaft using paddle shifters, the gearbox is effectively the epicentre to a mechanical earthquake that ripples through the entire car – and subsequently, your skeleton. However, using 2 input shafts solves this problem because it means multiple gears can be engaged at once - the gears before and after the one you’re in. Multiple gears can be engaged at any one time by housing different numbered gears on the different shafts: one shaft takes the odd numbered gears, whereas the other takes the even numbered gears. So, when you want to change gear, regardless of whether you want to change up or down, the gear’s there, as the car just swaps clutches. Confusing, isn’t it? Well, you’re in luck - because here’s a handy diagram...

DSG’s revolutionised paddle shift gearboxes, and made the changes not only smooth, but instantaneous. If you were to hold a race between yourself blinking and a double-clutch changing gear, your eyelids would romp home last. DSG’s really are the best type of paddle shift gearbox you can get…in the same way that inside a hospital is the best place to be shot!

For a start, they’re incredibly heavy; they can weigh up to 250lbs more than an equivalent single clutch system. Not only that, but they don’t replenish the driving enjoyment lost through not having a proper manual, for which there is no substitute. Many manufacturers have made their own DSG’s with varying amounts of success. But the best form of DSG - the best hospital you could possibly wish to be in if you were to be shot - is Porsche's PDK system, which stands for (drum roll please)…Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe - German for “Porsche Dual Clutch Transmission”. PDK is without question the best double clutch gearbox currently on the market; however, bolt one to Porsche’s greatest driving machines and deny people the joy of changing gear themselves, and this gearbox suddenly becomes the key ingredient in an automotive travesty. 

Every time a purist breathes a word about Porsche's 991.1 generation GT3 and GT3RS models, it's nearly impossible for those compliments to not be marred by the fact they are PDK only. Great gearbox, it may be, but when a car has all the ingredients to provide a truly exceptional driving experience - yet the one key ingredient is left out - the discrepancy is inescapable. It's like Apple Pie without the Apple!

Porsche originally claimed that the market wants PDK’s more than manuals - but 'the market’ they talk of is a demonstrable diversity - something they obviously realised, as we now have the utterly brilliant 911R, and the 991.2 GT3 Manual. Yet despite the presence of the R and the new GT3, the 991.1 GT3RS still provides the perfect example of how the world is progressing overall - a point which has a rather vexing side effect...

When a performance car mercifully comes along with a manual nowadays, that word “manual” sings in our ears like an Ice-Cream jingle sings to an excitable child. But what if the car in question doesn’t have a particularly good manual? Do we criticise it, or do we love it regardless because it’s a manual?

Take the Vauxhall VXR8 for example. It's a fun car - but it has a truly dreadful manual gearbox. It's hard to complain about this however, because the fact it’s got a manual is something to be savoured and celebrated. And to be perfectly honest, beggars can’t be choosers. You want to know what changing gear in a VXR8 is like? You know those huge crates of boulders you find at garden centres? Well, shove a broomstick in one and try moving it. But even stirring oversized garden accoutrements is reason to rejoice…BECAUSE IT’S A MANUAL!!! 

There does however come a point where cars become so fast, that if they were equipped with a manual, you’d be overloaded with things to do. This is particularly true for the hypercar monsters of today that can not only thunder down straights, but also weave through corners with physics-bending pace. Paddle shifters aren't denying you anything here - they're a huge bloody relief!

Where the manual gearbox shines is in cars lower down the pecking order that showcase the beauty of performance; rather than the Chirons of this world that showcase the bowel-moving properties of performance. With 500 horsepower, the 911R and 991.2 GT3 fits inside this bracket perfectly. Besides this however, there are, thankfully, some other sportscars other there with a manual gearbox and just the right amount of performance…

From Britain, there’s the Jaguar F-Type V6S, the Aston Martin V8 Vantage S, Aston Martin GT8, Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Manual, both the Aston Martin V8 & V12 Vantage AMR, and the Lotus Evora 400; from Germany, there’s the BMW M4 & M3, and the wonderful Porsche Cayman GT4; and from America, there’s…well, pretty much everything really! Which considering America’s history with “stick shifts”, is both strange and really rather heartening.

Not too long ago, America was as synonymous with automatics as it is with stars and stripes. Now however, it’s the one place you go if you want a sportscar or supercar with a manual gearbox. Of course, a manual doesn't mean much if it's connected to something that provides you with all the driving enjoyment of a Kamikaze. Luckily however, America are making some sensational performance cars right now! There’s the C7 Corvette Grand Sport, the Cadillac ATS-V, the Camaro ZL1 1LE, the new Mustang, and my absolute favourite, the Shelby Mustang GT350R. But there’s more, and this is actually quite annoying: not only do America make some great manual cars, but they get manual versions of European cars we over here in Brexitland only get with DSG’s. 

In England, if you want to buy an F10 BMW M5 or F12 M6, you only have 1 choice of transmission: a 7 speed double clutch. In America however, you can have either with a 6 speed manual. As much as I wish this transmission was available globally, there’s a perfectly reasonable argument that a manual isn’t necessary in either of these cars because they're more about luxury than they are purity. And to be fair, the DSG they use is great gearbox which suits their character perfectly. The old E60 M5 & E63 M6 however had an atrocious single clutch gearbox which we had to endure through dreaded paddle shifters. But guess what: America got them with manuals too, which is what those cars desperately needed! 

The manual is still alive, luckily - but its pulse is fading. The world is swaying towards DSG’s more and more nowadays, and it's a crying shame. I have a feared picture in my head that one day a great performance car with a manual gearbox will come along, like some of the cars we're fortunate enough to have today. The only difference with this car however is it will be the last: an ending to the great and treasure chronicles of the manual gearbox. When this car comes along however is anyone's guess. I just hope it's not here right now.

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Written by: Angelo Uccello

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Comments (12)

  • Great article! I and many others share your passion for the manual. It used to be that people who chose to drive automatics had to accept that they simply weren't man enough to handle shifting gears themselves. Now, thanks to the nonsense regurgitated by auto journalists who have no businesses writing about the joys of driving, flappy paddle drivers actually feel cool for choosing their weakling gearbox, and actually say stupid things like "it gives me more control" and "it's way more involving" (gasp!). There simply is no greater feeling than working a clutch and throwing a stick, no matter the provinance of the unit. It's why I refuse to buy ANY vehicle without a stick, be it my DD commuter (stop and go traffic is even better with a manual), my weekend car, or my pickup truck for Home Depot, kayaking, etc. Everything I own has a manual. They're not all great, they're not all smooth, but they all share one all-important attribute: they are FUN. I'll always drive manuals, and when they quit making them, I'll drive old ones. But I will never own an automatic.

      3 years ago
  • Having owned some proper drivers cars (e.g TVR Tuscan), and driven many more, I bought my first DCT in my F10 M5 new, two years ago. Anyone who thinks DCT is a better customer experience than a manual gearbox cannot like driving. As an auto it is arguably as smooth at changing gear in comfort mode, in other modes, it is categorically not. My biggest gripe though, is doing a 3-point turn on a hill, which I do every time I drive it, as my driveway is on a hill on a narrow road. This is where the fun starts...on many an occasion, the car decides that it is not sure if it is in gear, you then squeeze the throttle gently, as you do not want to release 600BHP instantly, but nothing happens and you start rolling into either the parked car behind the house, you then add more throttle (about half) at which point the car realises you want to move and drops all 600BHP at once which, with only a few feet of movement required, makes for an interesting/heart-stopping moment. There are often two black tyre marks on the road or drive, depending on if it is entry or re-entry which are testament to this. The second point is about feel. Aside from feeling like it is Playstation 2, the steering/throttle are digital, the gearbox makes you feel very detached from the driving experience. Do I really need to change gear by 0.4 seconds or whatever faster in real life, er no. Do I need to reduce my lap times by that amount, er no. I like many other people here, don't track day their daily driver, and if I did, having the car change gear less than half a second faster would not be the most effective way to improve that lap time. Slicks would be a good start. I digress. The biggest issues facing the car industry and all of us here are technology and journalists. The former as cars are becoming far too digitised as a driving experience, and the latter as journos think that DCTs are better than manuals or autos, they are in fact better than neither as a driving experience. So, either we need to change the journos, or stop buying DCTs, unless of course, I am in the minority here?

      3 years ago
    • Very good points you raise. I imagine reverse uphill parallel parking is a similarly bottom-clenching experience? You hear manufacturers saying that the market now demands DSGs - but I can't help but wonder if the "market" has come to that...

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        3 years ago
  • After 20 years of driving manual transmission cars I bought my first automatic (zf 8 sp) and although it can shift faster than any human, i hate to say its so boring! Youll never have the full control over the car like in a manual. At least i kept one of my other cars with a manual transmission so that i can still enjoy rowing my own gears.

      3 years ago
  • Great article! The manual may be on its way out; maybe the best we can hope for is to slow its demise, but it is magic! Really I can say I'd rather have a Fiesta ST than a flappy paddle supercar! At Alpha Gearhead we're starting off a recurring column to highlight the joy of driving manual..

      3 years ago
    • Thanks a lot, mate :). I understand that appeal of the Fiesta ST over a paddle shift supercar. Great idea for a column, and great name!

        3 years ago
  • Have any of you heard of the “phantom manual” as I like to call it.? I forget the name, but there is a car with a dual clutch transmission, hiding a manual. All you have to do is flip up a cover on the gear lever, and the car will magically transform into a manual.

      3 years ago