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Gearshifts: a moving target


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Gearshifts: a moving target

Paul Stenquist / New York Times

For the earliest automobiles crawling along horse-cart roads, a single fixed ratio of engine rpm to vehicle speed was entirely adequate. But before long, it became clear that building vehicles capable of both brisk acceleration and respectable top speeds would require some method of changing the speed relationships — the drive ratios — to match the conditions of the moment.

More than a century later, there is still no single best answer to how those changes should be controlled — in fact, there's not even a universal agreement on the best location for the lever, handle, knob or switch that controls the ratio changes.

Among the newest sports models, at least, there is some consensus. The shifter mechanism that controls gear changes for the F-1 SuperFast transmission of the Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano consists of two paddle-shaped electronic switches on the steering wheel, one for upshifts and one for downshifts.

Tapping either starts a sequence in which the control software of the automated manual transmission considers engine speed and gas pedal position to determine when its clutch should release and apply, and how rapidly the gears should shift. In performance driving, shifts are executed in a nearly imperceptible one-tenth of a second.

Variations of the paddle shifters, an innovation derived from Formula One racecars, can be found in many new models, their designs ranging from simple buttons to elaborately shaped blades. But the path from the earliest shifters to today's paddles isn't a straight line. It's more of an up-and-down affair, from the floor to the steering column and the dashboard and then back to the floor, each move driven by a different view of fashion or function.

The early days

While some early cars could be operated with more than one drive ratio, they could not be shifted while moving. That changed when two Frenchmen, Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor, developed a sliding-gear transmission and a shift mechanism for their 1895 Panhard-Levassor.

By 1904, nearly all automakers had adopted sliding-gear transmissions.

For the gears to mesh, the driver had to match the speeds of the engine and the selected gear, certainly an acquired skill.

In later years, mechanical synchronizers, which act as brakes to equalize gear speeds, made ratio changes easier.

Still, the shift lever remained on the floor and, with few exceptions, stayed there for more than 40 years. Finally, it was a matter of comfort — the awkwardness of a passenger in the center of the front seat having to straddle a gearshift lever in frequent use — that provided the incentive to move the transmission controls out of the way.

In the late 1930s, the shifters of many cars got up off the floor and relocated on the steering column, making the bench seat practical. Among the first standard-equipment column shifters were those used on the 1939 Plymouth, proclaimed in sales brochures as Perfected Remote Control Shifting. Column shifters became available on Chevrolets and Fords around the same time, soon joining the list of standard equipment.

Performance a selling point

Coupled to the transmission with levers and rods, column shifters retained the relative shift movements of their floor-mounted predecessors, and "three on the tree" became the industry standard. But the column shift really came into its own as automatic transmissions became common late in the 1940s, and remained the gear changer of choice for more than 20 years.

By the 1960s, what had been new two decades earlier was on its way out of fashion. Two factors — a new focus on high performance and evolving passenger-cabin design — would combine with changing tastes to all but eradicate column shifters.

Because the imprecise column shifters were ill-suited to racing, the automakers cut holes in sedan floors and mounted heavy-duty shifters on manual transmissions. Pontiac, for example, offered a special-order 4-speed manual with an aftermarket floor shifter, made by Hurst, in 1961. Stout shifters made fast gear changes possible, and "four on the floor" became a must-have for the muscle-car set.

At about the same time performance was becoming a prime selling point in Detroit, evolutionary changes in automotive interior design made bucket seats and center consoles popular, so the bench seat was no longer an impediment to a floor shifter. By the mid-1980s, column shifters had largely disappeared from passenger cars sold in the United States.


As the new millennium dawned, the winds of fashion and function blew in a different direction, and shifters started to move again. Some, like the shifters in the Fiat 500 and Honda CR-V, crept up onto an extension of the lower dash, a truncated console of sorts.

But others made the leap all the way up top. Both Chrysler and Honda minivans were designed with shifters for automatic transmissions positioned well up on the dashboard.

The migration of gearshift actuators, to the steering wheel or steering column, has been made simpler through the use of "by-wire" technology, relying on electronics rather than mechanical linkages to make gearshifts. But exactly which position is optimal continues to be a topic of debate.

The paddle shifters of some automobiles are mounted on the steering wheel and move with it when making a turn; others are on the column, and remain stationary. Some argue that the fixed position of column-mounted paddles make them easier to find; others say that wheel-mounted paddles are better because they remain closer to the driver's hands.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20101212/AUTO01/12120304/Gearshifts--a-moving-target#ixzz180CcI2zl

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i like paddle shifters. i think it works decently either way, mounted to the wheel or column. the paddles like on the malibu are very convenient to the thumb. the stationary paddles like on the mitsubishi outlander, are large and you reach them in just about any wheel position..i would maybe lean slightly to the large stationary ones on the column.

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