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In the late 1930s, column shifters became the norm in cars. The steering column was coined the “tree.” As such, the typical three-speed manual transmission controlled by the column-mounted selector became known as “three on the tree.”

As some may remember, learning how to operate them wasn’t very intuitive. Of course, the remaining examples are now uber-classic. If you ever find yourself needing to drive one in some sort of dystopian post-apocalyptic event, here’s how to work a “three on the tree.” A couple of great (and humorous) tutorial videos are also embedded below.

The steering wheel and dash of a 1960 Ford F-100 truck with a three-speed manual transmission
1960 Ford F-100 pickup with “three on the tree” | Bring a Trailer

How to shift a “three on the tree”

The pedals work like any other manual. You’ll have three: the gas, brake, and clutch.

Image a four-gear “H” pattern drawn on the side of the column that the shifter traces while you’re driving. Reverse is the top left corner of the “H.” First is the left lower corner. Second is the right upper, and third is the lower right.

The selector stick is spring-loaded, so it should almost guide itself along the “H” pattern with a bit of assistance.

Check that you’re in neutral. It’ll look between 2 and 3 o’clock on the steering wheel. Imagine it’s the center horizontal line of the “H.” You’ll notice some play in the shifter.

To go backward:

Reverse is straight up from neutral and a bit toward you. It’s high; think of putting the stick at about 1 o’clock on the steering wheel.

To go forward:

First gear is down past neutral. Notice the shifter moving slightly toward you due to the spring load, and lower it to between 3 and 4 o’clock.

Second gear requires a quick pit stop at neutral. Then, notice the shifter move ever so slightly away from you up to about 1 o’clock. Remember that if you forcibly “pull” it toward you and up, you’ll land in reverse. Let the shifter do its tracing.

Third gear is pretty much back where first was, between 3 and 4 o’clock. Again, the spring-loaded stick should know to go from second to third basically on its own.

And that’s it!

To help you identify late cars that used this setup, here’s a list of 10 of the last “three on the tree” production cars, courtesy of J.D. Power:

  • Fiat Ducato
  • Ford XF Falcon
  • 1986 Ford F100
  • Peugeot 504
  • Mercedes-Benz W124 E-Class Taxi
  • Toyota Hiace
  • Nissan Cedric, Toyota Crown
  • Citroen 2CV
  • SAAB 96
  • Trabant

Watch a longer video on how to drive a “three on the tree” below. Happy shifting!