Four on the Floor

I grew up at the tail end of the era that reads “Four on the Floor” as something special. While the four-speed manual transmission was common for decades and produced around the world, I picture it in it’s American incarnation. As a robust four-speed manual transmission behind a massive chuck of iron known as an American-made pushrod V8 engine. Quick and refined are not words that describe driving this power-train package. Hairy chested mainlines is the image it conjures up for me personally. A long throw H-gate, that produces distinct, satisfying “clunks” lets you know that you are moving large chunks of metal to harness that big, low-revving, American V8’s power. The process in not unlike working the bolt-action on a Mauser rifle. A series of deliberate actions that say “Yes I would like another round chambered” then receiving it. Total control of the power delivery, the transmission is never searching for the right gear, you put it in the gear you intend it to be in. When applying the gas, the clutch has everything locked up for you. Last year I bought a 1978 Chevrolet Scottsdale C20 with a 350ci small-block V8 and a four-speed (really a three speed with low gear) SM465 manual transmission as my dirtbike hauler. After a decade and a half I finally have the truck I wanted in high school, and I am enjoying driving it even more than I expected.

I was going to tie this into motorcycles, but we all know the fun of a sequential gearbox that is found on motorcycles. I’ll keep this as a piece on the four-wheeled manual transmissions. In particular, that old, unrefined, but functional four-speed from the 1970’s. Many of the points will resonate though to modern manual transmission applications in automobiles and motorcycles. These days the manual transmission is all but dead for automotive applications in America. It is rare for even a sports car to be found equipped with one, though there is currently a slight resurgence happening on that front. No longer is the manual transmission the “standard” option, it is now something special to seek out.

Why am I drawn to the manual transmission, what about it calls to me? My gut reaction would be to say control, but while I know that is a part of it, it doesn’t seem to fit quite right. I think it is the level of involvement in the driving process. As the driver you get to control not only where the car is going, but the attitude of it. Running higher RPM’s in a lower gear will keep the throttle response quick, the engine is in the power-band. On the other hand, shifting up earlier and keeping the RPM’s lower will help to smooth out any sharp throttle inputs. Both examples have times when they are beneficial. Sharp throttle response is great on a fun back road, or in traffic and you need to jump into another lane when an opening appears. Slower throttle response, and better traction is great in the wet or snow. How often do we hear about traction control systems or switchable drive modes that do this same thing with computers? Personally I prefer to manage this stuff myself, the computers can stay out of the inhospitable environment that is an engine bay, thank you very much. Think about it for a second, how many of the electronic aids have been created to fill the void formed from the loss of human inputs the simpler manual gearbox had offered before being replaced by an automatic transmission?

Beyond some of the more practical elements, there is the feeling that comes from driving a manual transmission. The small tasks that become second nature, though only after mastering them. The choice between slipping the clutch a little more or adding more gas, you are presented with a range of workable options, most are ok, and only the most extreme outliers wrong. The satisfaction of balancing the clutch on a hill, the brake is already released, but you are not moving forward or backward. The perfectly executed quick gear change, even with an old truck transmission. Doing a burnout out of a light, it is so much more than just mashing the gas, there is the clutch play in there still. Probably my favorite is merging onto the highway. A nice long run up to highway speed, then after running out the last gear a bit, the change into top gear.

All said and done I love having a manual transmission. That extra work makes the driving experience special. The getting to really know a vehicle, the learning where the engine makes power, the feel of the clutch, the responsibility to make it all work together. That mundane trip to the store now becomes a fun ride. Resist the lazy automatic transmissions, the old-man auto-clutches, and really control your machine. Enjoy for full command of your vehicle, don’t hand it off to a computer. Good luck out there, have fun, Godspeed, and good night.

-Eric Archambault

Eric Archambault