The History of Manual Transmissions

by Mike Parker
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The purpose of the transmission in an automobile is to transfer the power created by the engine to the wheels via a drive shaft or half-axles. Differing gears in the transmission allow for different levels of torque to be applied to the wheels depending on the speed at which the vehicle is traveling. In order to change the level of torque the gears in the transmission need to be shifted either manually or automatically. In the beginning all transmissions were manual.


French inventors Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor are credited with the development of the first modern manual transmission. They demonstrated their three-speed transmission in 1894 and the basic design is still the starting point for most contemporary manual transmissions.

Improved design

Panhard and Levassor used a chain drive on their original transmission. In 1898 auto maker Louis Renault used their basic design, but substituted a drive shaft for the drive chain and added a differential axle for the rear wheels to improve performance of the manual transmission.

Time Frame

By the beginning of the 20th century most cars manufactured in the United States featured a non-synchronized manual transmission based on the Panhard/Levassor/Renault design. The next major innovation occurred in 1928 when Cadillac introduced the synchronized manual transmission, which significantly reduced gear grinding and made shifting smoother and easier.


Manual transmissions were the standard on most vehicle for the first half of the 20th century, but automatic transmissions were being developed as far back as 1904. General Motors introduced the clutchless automatic transmission under the moniker, Hydra-Matic, in 1938, but the first true fully automatic transmission didn't appear until 1948 with the Buick Dynaflow transmission.


Americans tend to prefer automatic transmission in their vehicles while Western Europe is--and is expected to remain--the largest market for manual transmissions through 2014. Eastern Europe and Asia are also large markets for manual transmission although Japan appears to be embracing more automatic transmissions. In the United States, more manual transmissions are found in the Northern states than in the Southern states. It is surmised that manual transmissions give better control on icy roads and are thus more useful in the North where the winters are more harsh.

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