Death of the manual gearbox

When Ferrari and Porsche delete the manual option from their most hardcore drivers’ cars, it’s clear the days of the manual gearbox are numbered. Should we mourn its passing?

Let’s begin with some constructive daydreaming. 
You’ve roped in one of those impossible roads from central casting: completely empty, vanishingly long, implausibly sinuous and probably kissed by the pale, diffuse light of sunrise just at that special moment you know you’re going to shift down a gear (maybe two) and give it the lot. It’s shaping up to be a kind of perfect ‘storm’.

What you need to close the deal, of course, is a fast car with a great manual gearbox – one in which the shift and clutch actions, and the relative positioning of the brake and accelerator pedals, have been designed with as much care and precision as the lobe profiles of its engine’s camshafts. It could be a Ford Escort RS1600, it could be a Honda Integra Type‑R, it could be an Audi R8. Age doesn’t matter; great gearchanges have been around for generations. Does it mean being stuck in the past? Not at all. Evolution’s key. And by that I mean our own: motor skills two and a half million years in the making – the well spring of coordination, timing and finesse – acting at the fulcrum of the drivetrain, calling the shots on which the speed and fluency of a car’s progress depends. Shift work doesn’t get any better. 

For all that, some will say this is your lucky day. Work’s cancelled. Not just for your gearchanging hand but for your fingers too (no paddles required) and, indeed, the part of your brain that makes even the most peripheral decisions. For better or worse, you’re now at the cutting edge, driving the new Rolls-Royce Wraith – a car that takes the notion of changing gear as an interactive activity and, even by automated standards, kicks it into the long grass. Although you relish the thought that you know every curve, camber and kink of this confected road, the Wraith, toting the very latest in joined-up technology, has it mapped. Digitally. In real time, Global Positioning Satellites are telling its eight-speed ZF transmission exactly which way the road goes so that it can always be in the ‘right’ gear and make downshifts on the basis of what it knows is ahead rather than a brush of the brakes or, heaven forbid, the judgement of the driver. Thus one more operation is deleted from driving’s task list and, in a Rolls-Royce – even one with a 624bhp V12 – maybe, just maybe, that’s forgivable. The Wraith after all, by its maker’s own admission, is no sports car.

The Ferrari F12, Porsche 991 GT3 and Renaultsport Clio 200 featured elsewhere in this issue, however, define and focus their respective performance paradigms. And their collective message is clear and unambiguous. The manual gearbox has 
had its day and the new generation of eight- or nine-speed automatic and robotised electro-mechanical semi-auto dual-clutch transmissions (DSG, PDK, F1, M DCR et al) are the future. It’s a future that reads like the future, too. A future of instant, computer-aided upshifts and exquisitely blipped, rev-matched downshifts. A future in which the business of changing gear is a blameless, foolproof activity where the only (optional) input required from the driver is a gentle fingertip tug on a steering-wheel paddle. And every gearchange is always precisely the same, always perfectly executed.

It’s a future already rubber-stamped by Ferrari, which is significant for a number of fairly obvious reasons. The name synonymous with the iconic open-metal-gate gearchange has been a persistent game-changer and shaper of fashion, not least in taking the easiest task Messrs Alonso and Massa have to perform on Sunday afternoons (tugging at a paddle behind their F1 car’s steering wheel) and investing it with a ‘this is Formula 1’ seriousness Ferrari’s road car customers simply have to buy into.

So successful has this marketing strategy been that, in the production history of its entry-level California coupe-convertible, only one UK buyer has ever ordered a manual. And Ferrari UK has never actually sold a manual 599. Not one. Now it never will. The company that made the challenging but oh-so-satisfying ‘scrape-clack’ action of its gleaming, gated gearchanges a core component of the driving experience has nailed its allegiance to the finger-on-paddle interface. And when Lamborghini introduces its Gallardo’s replacement, it will shut the door on the one or two per cent of customers who demanded their cars leave the famous Sant ’Agata factory with a gleaming lever poking up from the floor. Both parties argue that a manual gearbox is a break in the electronic chain of command that harmonises absolutely everything that happens between engine combustion chamber and tyre contact patch. For the whole to work, every system in the car has to be interconnected. ‘Besides, you can’t rely on a driver to always shift gears without glitches,’ says Lamborghini R&D director Maurizio Reggiani with a surprising dose of wound-stinging salt.

For McLaren’s MP4-12C and P1, the option of a manual ’box was never even a twinkle in Ron’s eye. The reasoning is characteristically dispassionate and runs along predictable lines. ‘A dual-clutch transmission was chosen in each case because it enables auto and adaptive operation, which massively benefits CO2 and fuel consumption, especially important in the US,’ explains Dick Glover, McLaren’s director of vehicle research. ‘It also gives the fastest gearshifts and optimum NVH for road use. Plus it is extremely configurable for different characteristics in different driving modes, not least on the track, where our customers often take their cars.’ In fact, McLaren takes F1 transfer so seriously even the steering-wheel paddles mimic the system in the F1 car. Rather than having separate paddles, the McLaren road cars have just one rocker that’s mounted on a central pivot. Tug on one and the other moves in the opposite direction, just as in Jenson’s F1 car. ‘Sometimes our drivers find it more convenient to flick out with the other hand,’ said Antony Sheriff, McLaren’s then MD, at the time of the car’s launch. ‘It felt a little more natural, so we decided to go for this type of shift.’

Attitudes are even changing at Porsche, a brand perceived as a champion and defender of driving purity for the hardcore enthusiast and one that, come the day, would be proud to host the manual transmission’s last stand. Yet, despite going to the trouble of introducing the 991 with a seven-speed manual, the fact is that some 80 per cent of 911 and 60-70 per cent of Cayman customers tick the PDK box. Most shockingly, in the case of the new GT3 there is no manual option and Porsche’s head of GT series production, Andreas Preuninger, is anything but apologetic, claiming that the GT3’s PDK is more fun and more involving than a manual. How? He cites the seven driving gears (seventh isn’t an overdrive) and thoroughgoing hardware and software changes. ‘So I think now we have a car that shifts gear faster than anything that could be called “street legal”,’ he says. ‘In terms of speed, it feels like a sequential race gearbox. But it isn’t just that or the bang from the exhaust when it powershifts at 9000 revs – from the outside, it sounds exactly like a WRC car – that make it involving. If you pull both paddles back together it disengages the clutch. Let them go and you can clutch-kick the tail out of shape, just as if you were 
in a manual car.’

This from a Porsche car guy, a man who describes himself as a driving ‘purist’. Rally legend and consultant to Porsche Walter Röhrl is right on message too, claiming that he doesn’t need a manual gearbox anymore and neatly making the case both for and against the double-clutch transmission. ‘The PDK shifts perfectly and I don’t have to do anything.’ If PDK is better than Röhrl, why would he want to? Porsche is expected to phase out manual transmissions in the next few years. The sound of shifting sands? As Agent Smith put it in The Matrix, it’s the sound of inevitability.

The inexorable march of ‘progress’ seems to be meeting with a lot less resistance than when the idea of a car with selectable gears was first mooted. ‘More hocus-pocus from charlatans trying to cash in on the public’s fascination with the new motor car’ is how a sceptical press put it when French engineers Louis-René Panhard and Émile Levassor sought to introduce the concept of a multi-geared transmission to the world in 1894. It was intended to be a practical demonstration but turned into a chalk-and-blackboard talk on gearing theory when the motor in their demonstration vehicle died. The attending hacks were unimpressed.

A year later, P and L were back with a test car for the press to drive. Its front-mounted engine drove the rear wheels via a clutch, a three-speed sliding-gear transmission and chain-driven axle – a drivetrain that would serve as a blueprint for vehicle makes over the following 90 years. The only modern features missing from the set-up were a differential rear axle (to allow the rear wheels to turn at different speeds when cornering) and a driveshaft. These came along three years later, in 1898, when millionaire-turned-auto-hobbyist Louis Renault connected an engine with transmission to a ‘live’ differential rear axle by means of a metal shaft. Henry Ford’s Model T of 1908 provided another root for transmission development. It used a central ‘sun’ gear surrounded by three ‘planet’ gears, an arrangement that would become more relevant for automatics than manuals.

Synchromesh, the invention that permitted drive and driven gears to be brought into mesh with each other smoothly without clashing, was introduced in the late ’20s and, after a few running improvements, the design was patented by Porsche and is recognisably the one still widely used today, and will continue to be until manuals are eventually run out of town by self-shifters.

The manual versus auto debate is older than you might think. The first transmission that attempted to remove the ‘drudgery’ of changing gear was invented in 1904 by the Sturtevant brothers of Boston. It provided two forward speeds that were engaged and disengaged by the action of centrifugal weights without need for a foot-operated clutch. As engine speed increased, the weights swung out to engage bands – first the low-gear band and then the high-gear band. Nice idea in principle. In practice, the weights often flew apart, endangering other road users.

Numerous attempts at automation, some more successful than others, ensued. But it wasn’t until 1937 that the auto gauntlet was slapped firmly in the path of the manual gearbox, though curiously enough Oldsmobile’s Automatic Safety Transmission (AST) had a clutch pedal. It was used to switch between Low and High ranges and engage reverse. In Low range, the transmission shifted automatically from first to second, in High it auto-shifted from third to fourth. So it was actually a semi-auto. With a clutch. Perhaps its most significant contribution to the development of the automatic, however, was the idea enshrined in its name. ‘Safety’. With this transmission, Oldsmobile claimed, the driver could keep focused on the road rather than be occupied with shifting gear (well, apart from depressing the clutch) – exactly the same argument used by proponents of paddle-shift double-clutchers and motley autos today. The AST’s other claim to fame was that it was the forerunner to the granddaddy of the modern ‘slushbox’ auto, the GM Hydra-Matic that Oldsmobile introduced in 1939.

The idea that there had to be a best-of-all-worlds middle way combining the layzee-boy convenience of a full auto with the control and involvement of a manual gave rise to the semi-auto or ‘clutchless manual’, though pioneering mainstream examples from the ’70s showcased by cars like the NSU Ro80 and Sportomatic- equipped Porsche 911s fared no better critically than when the clutchless manual made an attempted comeback with upgraded electro-hydraulic tech years later. Dickie Meaden recalls an encounter with a Ferrari Mondial T in the early ’90s in particularly unglowing terms: ‘I think it was the first two-pedal manual Ferrari had tried and it was f***ing awful. It still had the open gate and stick, but no clutch. It was my first Ferrari, too. Hardly a glorious introduction. You’d have to say they’ve got the hang of it now though...’

At about the same time I flew to Germany to try a 911-based RUF BTR with a similar EKS (Electronic Clutch System) two-pedal transmission. It worked in a ‘hmmm, that’s novel’ kind of way but failed to drop the hint that it was really the baby steps of a revolution. Besides, I was a bit distracted by a lanky blond bloke called Stefan Roser who was working for RUF at the time and detailed to be the car’s chaperone for the day. I thought Stefan was a spare part from the workshop and didn’t twig until a few weeks later that he was the owner of the twirling hands and white-socked slip-ons in the legendary RUF video of the twin-turbo 911 Yellow Bird CTR smoking the Nürburgring in a continuum of variously angled drifts. I just remember feeling unmoved by the EKS and pathetically inadequate as a driver.

Maybe I could have competed with Stefan on clutch control but, as a future prospect, that was beginning to look increasingly remote. At least in the kind of cars he and I liked driving. With the introduction of steering-wheel paddles everything changed. Automated manuals may have been in their infancy – rather crude and clumsy single-clutch affairs with thumpy shifts – but the F1 link and hands-never-leave-the-wheel racer mentality were swiftly cemented as a successor to four-on-the-floor (five, six and seven, too). Soon paddles began to appear on conventional, torque-converter autos and even the slowly proliferating CVTs (continuously variable transmissions) that could be programmed to emulate a conventional six- or seven-speed auto with stepped shifts as an alternative to the seamless drone usually associated with CVT. Yep, even the Honda Jazz got paddles.

If any underlying technology is swinging the tide against the manual gearbox, though, it has to be the dual-clutch transmission (DCT). It’s what carmakers had been waiting for to finally make sense of paddles: fast, slick and (way) too clever to fail. With BorgWarner as a development partner, the Volkswagen Group pioneered DCT and has been the prime mover for dual-clutch technology in Europe, fitting it to everything from the VW Polo to the Bugatti Veyron, as well as numerous ranges of commercial vehicles.

According to the script, DCT is the Holy Grail nailed, combining the convenience of an automatic with the fuel efficiency of a manual. The tech is familiar now and although it’s been enhanced with more ratios and lighter dry clutches, the way it works hasn’t changed: one clutch for odd and one clutch for even gear-sets and, unlike a conventional auto, there’s no torque converter. So it’s fast, smooth shifting and optimal efficiency all the way. The ‘what’s not to like?’ pitch continues by appealing to the driver’s wallet (a claimed three to five per cent more fuel efficient with parallel benefits in reduced CO2 emissions).

There’s certainly an element of ‘making people want what it suits you to let them have’ at work here. Of course carmakers like automated transmissions. They can charge more for them and standardise their production processes. Porsche’s Andreas Preuninger expands on the rationale: ‘There’s no chance of a manual on the new GT3. We don’t want to offer too many options on our GT cars. And if you’ve got a manual and a PDK you’ve got to have different set-ups for the suspension, the aero, the tyres, everything. We are a small team and can only concentrate on one car.’

Automated transmissions are also rather good at massaging the official consumption and emissions tests, shuffling up to sixth or seventh as swiftly as possible, a trick that can make supercars look almost environmentally friendly. And even if the figures are all but impossible to replicate in the real world, it’s true that DCTs reap their largest efficiency gains when paired with large, powerful engines. As it’s about to bite the dust, take the six-speed manual Lamborghini Gallardo LP550 coupe’s combined consumption of 19.6mpg and 341g/km of CO2. The e-gear car manages 21.2mpg and 315g/km of CO2, and that’s with a relatively antiquated single-clutch automated manual. The Gallardo’s replacement 
will probably run with a version of the Aventador’s lightweight single-clutch ISR (Independent Shifting Rods) transmission but, to no-one’s surprise, there will be no manual option.

So it seems ‘progress’ has a very particular flavour and a definite direction: to make the driver’s job easier. We’ve been sold the idea that the latest generation of automated and automatic transmissions are a valid substitute for doing it yourself and, without equivocation, a Good Thing. True, against the clock, they’re better than you, me, Walter Röhrl and whoever the most skilled cog-juggler ever to take to the open road might be. Mere flesh, blood and synapses can’t compete with 50-millisecond powershifts. But more rewarding, more involving, more fun?

I’ll leave the final words to Peter Boutwood, managing director of Noble, the small Leicester-based maker of the M600, one of our favourite supercars and the owner of a great manual gearchange.

‘We want to reward the driver for good input. And it’s a singular place to go because most people want to be rewarded whether they’re good or bad. There’s a niche for people who really want something that reflects the pride they take in their driving. We use a six-speed Graziano gearbox. We could do paddleshift if we wanted to, that’s no problem. But, at the moment, we’re very happy with our ethos of being an analogue car. I think there’s room for us and I think that more and more people are going to copy us. All this electronic wizardry is taking something away from the driver. Something that can never be replaced.’

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