Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stirring Cogs on the Steering Column

Changing gears in a manual gearbox has - for the most part of the last eighty years or so - been done with a lever that was mounted on the floor or on the steering column. As tastes and fashions change, so does the location of the stick used for the purpose.

Gear levers were originally connected directly to the gearbox to provide a better "feel" for the equipment in the days of non-synchronized units. Since the gearbox itself was directly under the floor, it followed that the gearstick would sprout from the middle of the floor where the driveline lived. Not counting the early experimentation with external gear lever placement, the floor shift stayed centered in the floor.

In 1938 General Motors offered an option for a column mounted gear lever. Called "Safety Gear Shift Control", it added ten bucks to the price of the car, but it was new and convenient. Passengers riding in the center of front seat were finally freed of dodging the driver's gearchanges on floor shifters. Soon, all domestic American cars offered a column change as an option and eventually it became the standard placement.  

This elegant solution was not lost on our British cousins. Postwar, British carmakers offered a number of models with a three of four speed gearbox with column shift. Let's take a look at a few of them.

Sunbeam Alpine Mark 1

Courtesy Alpine Owners Club
Made famous by their wins on the world rally stage, the Mark 1 Alpine also featured prominently in the film To Catch a Thief starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. These 2.3 liter, four cylinder convertibles based on Sunbeam-Talbot 90 saloon underpinnings with bodies built by Thrupp and Maberly  coachbuilders. Early Alpines are rare and highly sought after.

Austin A90 Atlantic 

Courtesy Austin Owners Club
The Austin A90 Atlantic was conceived as a dollar earner during Britain's 'export or die" period when British automakers were allocated scarce steel based on their export sales. A bit overwrought by British standards, the Atlantic aped chrome laden American offerings of the time. Powered by a whopping 2.7 liter four cylinder engine, the Atlantic could be had originally as a convertible and a coupe joining the ranks soon after.   

 Morris Oxford

As with most makers of saloon cars for those of moderate means, Morris also offered a column shifter in their Oxford family car. Unlike the two cars mentioned earlier, the "Farina" Oxford's stick was attached to a four speed 'box. The engine is the familiar B-series four cylinder found in countless cars and trucks built during the time. Check out this video of a somewhat needy '62 Morris Oxford under way. Some young readers may have never seen a column shifter in action.

 Jowett Jupiter

Courtesy imagetakr
While we've looked at larger British cars, a handful of smaller sports car came from the factory with a column-stirred gearbox. The Jowett Jupiter was the result of an attempt to use Jowett Javelin components to build an upscale sporting car. The 1.5 liter flat four powered convertible offered a bench seat, taking full advantage of the extra room a column shifter allowed. Fewer than 1,000 were built making survivors rare indeed.   

Your faithful blogger had his share of column shift experiences, too. Ownership of an old Dodge pickup with linkage so sloppy that it would occasionally require some quick underhood reassembly, usually at traffic lights when it would go into a box-full-of-neutrals mode. A quick drive in a co-worker's fintail Mercedes was my first (and so far, only) experience with a four speed column mounted shifter back in the day. 

Do you have experience with British-built column shift gearboxes? Tell us about it in the comments section.

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