What Happened to Column Shifters?

Whether we like it or not, the days of the manual transmission are slipping away. Perhaps when the first hydramatic automatic transmission came out, people never believed they would take over the auto industry. While the most popular cars to hold on the stick shift, like the Chevrolet Corvette, has ditched the clutch pedal, there are still a handful of cars you can buy with a manual transmission. But there is one type of shifting that seems to be lost to time: column shifters.

What is a column shifter?

If you’ve ever driven a manual transmission car you are probably used to having the shift knob on the center console, or even maybe protruding straight up from the floor. In a column-shift car the gear selector is located on the steering column, hence where the name column-shifter comes from. While they were once quite common, there are a lot of reasons that almost no production car comes with the option for a column shifter.

Cadillac Series 62 Convertible 1940s classic car dashboard on display at the 2019 Concours d’Elegance at palace Soestdijk | Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty Images

Why it went away

As you could imagine, the placement of having the gear selector on the steering column isn’t exactly ergonomic. With most cars offered in manual transmission options today being sports cars or performance-oriented passenger cars, there is no benefit to having a column shifter. In fact, they could be uncomfortable to shift, and because of the placement, it didn’t exactly make for a quick time changing between gears.

close up of shift and handbrake of 2021 Ford Bronco
2021 Ford Bronco manual transmission | Ford

Other factors

There were more reasons than just convenience that led to the inevitable death of the column shifter. For one, the placement of the gear selector on the steering column was designed for convenience when it was common for cars to have bench seats in the front. Really, the column shifter died out because there was no real need for it anymore, and no one really wanted to buy them once the automatic transmission became readily available.

General Motors Manual Transmission
An image of a cutaway manual transmission showing the internal workings and gears of a transmission built by General Motors for trucks in the 1940s | J. B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty Images

Do Americans Hate Manual Transmissions?

There are still a number of cars on the used market that you can find with column shifters, though they aren’t very common. Perhaps it was a sign of the times, or maybe it was the first wave of the manual transmission dying out.