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Automatic for the People

Having now reached an age where I can justify driving both Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar, I’ve also started really appreciating the virtues of the automatic transmission – regardless which type.

It wasn’t always like that though. Truth be told, I’ve no doubt spoken words to the effect of “I will never own a car with an automatic gearbox” multiple times. The first time probably well before I even had a driver’s license. Accompanied of course by all my prejudice of automatic transmissions being solely for old people, handicap cars and especially American cars. Naturally backed up by the greatest truth of all – that realdrivers shift gears themselves. Always. And with great pleasure.

I used to place my faith in this being the only truth.

Yet now – a couple of million gearshifts later – I’ve found that this might not be the only truth. That probably has more to do with the number of gearshifts I’ve executed than it has with my age. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Now just for the record: Of course I too enjoy a smooth, well-defined manual gearshift. Goes without saying really – after all, which true car enthusiast doesn’t? The manual transmission is one of the automobiles great attributes, and there are few things in the world quite as pleasing as a perfectly timed and executed manual shift of cogs.

In terms of my own experiences, this is probably the best gearshift I’ve had the pleasure of trying: Honda NSX.

I’ve been lucky enough to own quite a few cars which were blessed with great transmissions, the best of which was probably in my old BMW 628 CSi: Precise, a bit on the heavy side and deliciously mechanical. As an added bonus, the gearshift doubled as a baton for the glorious music emitted from the straight-6 (through a rather oral sports exhaust). Shifting cogs – up and down and then up again – was pure bliss. But also necessary as the 2.8-litre engine didn’t have the most impressive torque from low down. That was a bit better in my later Honda Legend Coupé which equally had a lovely gearshift.

My old Stag was my first (drivable) car with an automatic transmission.

But it was my BMW’s predecessor which taught me about the many joys of an automatic transmission: I won an eBay auction for a 1973 Triumph Stag in splendid triple-blue complete with factory hardtop and a newly overhauled engine. The 3-litre V8 with a mere 145hp turned out to have a soundtrack miles better than I had expected – and yes, it was also equipped with an automatic transmission. While it would be all too easy to just presume that this would naturally spoil the beauty of that fabulous engine, it actually turned out to be a real eye-opener for me, as it simply offered up a thoroughly different driving experience from what I was used to. Much more relaxed. And in such an appealing way as well. In my Stag I experienced it almost as if I was given the luxury of having butler, who took care of some of my duties. Shift gears? Naturally Sir, I shall see to it.

This was in the midst of my most active car-swinging years, so I ended up only owning the Stag for six months. Not really due to any fault of the Triumph or the transmission for that matter, but simply because I wanted to try something else. I had truly enjoyed this newfound sensation of luxury, yet it would be several years before I returned to the automatic transmission. And when I did… ehrmm, well it was a rather different experience this time around. A Daihatsu Charade with a 1-litre 3-cylinder engine working through a 2-speed Daimatic gearbox just didn’t manage to replicate that addictive feeling of floating along on a wave of torque and massive capability. Perhaps that explains why I owned the Daihatsu for an even shorter period.

My second car with an automatic transmission only had two gears.

It probably also explains why, when I finally returned to automatic transmissions again last year, it was with significant cubic capacity backing those three gears. Maybe we should simply introduce a rule of thumb dictating that with a 3-speed automatic transmission, there must be at least one litre of cc per gear? It certainly holds true with both the Rover 3500 and the Mercedes-Benz SLC, where I’m back to cruising on that divine wave of torque. It’s a truly wonderful sensation.

3.5-litres of V8 in the Rover works better with an auto box. And there are even three gears.

The Rover is quite characteristic in that it shifts up into third and top gear fairly quickly, which results in a profoundly relaxed drive. As it’s not too keen to gear back down again, the majority of the time you find yourself trickling along in top gear with only a hint of revs from the V8. The gearbox in the Mercedes is much more active, and senses when to hold a lower gear for better and continued acceleration. It’s also much more willing to shift back down a gear again, all of which happens with a grin-inducing soundtrack. Of course both engines sound lovely, but surprisingly neither manage to better my old Stag – in my opinion.

The automatic transmission in my Mercedes SLC actually works even better still.

Naturally, one can contemplate whether both cars would have been even better if equipped with manual transmissions. But I really don’t think they would have. Different, yes – maybe even very different. But not necessarily better. I’ve had the pleasure of trying a manual Rover Vitesse, which wasn’t just faster (it is of course more powerful than the ordinary 3500 with carburetors), but also much more sporty. That’s probably stating the obvious, as that will typically be the result when you’re conducting a well-tuned 8-man band with a 5-speed baton. The SLC too was available with a manual transmission as long as you opted for the smaller 3.5-litre V8, but they’re rare – and I understand perfectly why this is the case.

As a bit of curiosity, even the strongest 5-litre version of the Mercedes-Benz SLC always had an automatic transmission – also in full rally trim.

The Mercedes just doesn’t possess the driving dynamics of a hard-sprinting cheetah, ready to pounce on every twisty backroad. And the transmission doesn’t want any of those shenanigans either. The engine would probably be up for it, but it needs to be provoked first – otherwise it’s quite happy playing the role of the slightly lazy but immensely strong grizzly bear. And that precise combination of chassis, transmission and engine add up to a huge competency. A spare capacity which is big enough to say “I could beat you if I really wanted to, but I’m above that and have no need to prove it”.

Behind the wheel of my old BMW 2002 Touring: It had a lovely manual gearshift with four cogs to choose from.

Such a level of relaxed capability is really, really pleasant and comfortable. The butler is discretely stood by your side, and without you even noticing, he’s constantly assisting with the drive. You are thus left with the spare capacity to focus on your business, while the butler prepares your slippers, the afternoon tea and keeps all 200 horses safely under control – whether the road ahead is full of ques, red lights or overtaking.

Yes, it’s a real adrenalin kick to charge up and down the gears in my racing Spitfire with its total lack of torque, 7000 rpm powercurve and accompanying scream of a soundtrack. But just not all day long, and especially not on your way to a committee meeting in Hannover. Or anywhere else for that matter, where the drive is not the main objective. Such as you daily commute to work. In these situations, I now regard it as a real privilege to nothave to shift gears myself.

All of which was possibly a slightly longwinded way of explaining why both of our current daily cars (respectively 18 and 22 years old) are equipped with automatic transmissions, just as two of our classic cars are as well. It’s perfectly intentional too, because sometimesautomatic transmissions shouldn’t be reserved only for older people’s cars, handicap cars and American cars.

5 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt

    Jeeeez…. Claus, to think that I’ve known you for this many years, yet I’ve never realised – until now – that you were already quite that old… ;-)

    Reply
  2. Claus Ebberfeld

    It’s the mileage, not the age as such, @anders-bilidt :-).

    But you can have a go in the SLC next time you visit: That’s a pretty good case FOR the automatic gearbox in the right package.

    Reply
  3. Dave Leadbetter

    Yes, horses for courses but a good automatic is a thing of wonder. Clearly, they operate via witchcraft and dark arts and are therefore ruinously unfixable when they break for no apparent reason, but that’s all the more reason to let them do their thing and not mess about with overriding the gear selection. Open one up and the brain looks more complicated than mine. I’ve overwhelming owned manual cars but I was an early convert due to a Mk2 Golf with a three speed auto. It was no racer and the auto box suited the slightly bouncy but comfortable nature, so inevitable I eventually detonated the gearbox by continually attempting to drive it like a GTi. Recently we had a 3.0 Jaguar on fleet for 18 months with double the available gears of the old VW and a big wall of torque to boot, and that was a fabulous champagne car at lemonade money. To have a manual variant would have completely missed the point of the car. There is something childishly satisfying about overtaking in such a car, and it becomes effortless to embark on a transcontinental dash to some glamourous coastline (or due to my budgetary restrictions, the Isle of Wight).

    Mercedes weren’t the only rally team to use automatics, I have a vague recollection of Opel trying them out on the Monte in the very early 70s. I don’t think I imagined it. Presumably it proved to be daft idea. Horses for courses.

    Reply
  4. YrHmblHst

    Good choice using the photo of the GTO with a Hurst ‘his-n-hers’ shifter stirring the Turbo 400. :)

    Again, as said, its a matter of horses for courses. I to have long loathed slushboxes , save for in pickup trucks. And many of those over the years have been manuals too, but if yer gonna tow anything, the auto wins every time. Despite what a certain Mr Jim Hall thought [and proved], i just didnt – and dont- think a sporting car should be without that third pedal. However, daily drivers that are stuck in traffic, trucks and certain of ‘GT’ cars are certainly fine with automatics, agreed. Plus, theyre easier on the driveline and faster anymore on the dragstrip. But I just cant make myself have an auto in any car that even pretends to turn a corner with alacrity… :)

    Reply

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