Saturday, May 30, 2009

Changing gears - 100 years of evolution and preferences

When you bought a car in the 60ies the choice of the transmission type was pretty clear, and often there wasn't even an alternative to the manual 4 gear transmission you could buy. Changing gears manually was a key skill trained and practiced in motoring for most of the 20iest century. Only luxury cars could be ordered with an automatic transmission, making driving easier, more comfortable and smoother. There was a period when fast cars were delivered with pre-selector gearboxes before the second world war. And Porsche pioneered the double clutch gearbox in Le Mans, but didn't bring it to the consumer world. Racing adopted sequential gear changes in the 90ies. And Daf enjoyed mostly lady drivers with the so called "Variomatic". The standard however was for a long time, even until recently, changing 4, 5 or 6 gears manually. With the introduction of computer power and with the progress in robot technologies though new forms of transmissions became possible. Alfa-Romeo (Selespeed), Ferrari (F1) and many others offered robotized manual gear changes. The clutch was operated by motors, same with the gear change. "Flappy paddles" behind the steering wheel were used to command the gear change. The first versions were not at all convincing, but with every new version the systems became better. In parallel Audi brought back the "Variomatic", now called "Multitronic". And Volkswagen and Audi again also introduced the "DSG", the modern version of the double clutch transmission, allowing for instant gear changes, in the meantime adopted also by BMW, Porsche, Nissan and many others. Traditional automatic transmissions were also improved and are now offering 7 and 8 gears, direct by-passes and therefore better fuel consumption. More and more cars today are sold without a clutch pedal, many don't even show a gear change stick. Welcome to the modern world of motoring.
Having driven most of these engineering wonders and having enjoyed the convenience and comfort of some of the solutions I still remain a fan of the old fashioned manual gear change. Automatic gear boxes are fine when I commute, drive for business and try to find parking spots in the city. But whenever I want to drive for fun and prefer to be engaged in a real driving experience, then my preference is changing gears manually, feeling the mechanics of the transmission and listening to the engine sound when going from one gear up or down. I know that many petrolheads feel the same. But besides this nostalgic perspective, manual boxes also offer some other advantages, as they are much simpler to repair, last usually longer, are lighter and allow for more changes, i.e. the gear ratios. The complex and electronically sophisticated solutions in modern cars will make it difficult to maintain these cars in 30 or 50 years, while you will always be able to find somebody to fix a manual transmission (hopefully).
What's your opinion here?

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