Gearhead Diary: It’s the end of the world as we know it

PHOTO USED WITH PERMISSION The last of a now dead breed. Late model, now used, Dodge 3500 with 3 pedals and a 6 speed manual transmission.

Matt Bartmann

I’ve had a number of pickup trucks in my time. Full-size pickups with 4’ between the fenders that will hold sheets of plywood in the bed, flat. I’ve always leaned towards Fords, but I have had GM and Dodge offerings as well. The one thing they all had in common? Manual transmissions. “3 pedals and a hand shaker.”

It has been brought to my attention that you can no longer purchase a new full-size pickup truck with a manual transmission. “Auto-manual” doesn’t count.

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Like most of my “car guy” friends, I’ve always leaned towards manual transmissions. More fun to drive and more control are the usual arguments, and those arguments hold true, depending on the vehicle.

Another argument, for me anyhow, is the understanding of how they work. Different-sized gears firmly meshing to transfer the engine’s power to the drive wheels, making the vehicle go down the road. You can look inside a manual transmission and see how it works. Even a lowly shade-tree guy like myself can tackle a manual gearbox rebuild (though I mostly just take them apart for fun).

Automatic transmissions? Magic. Using fluid under pressure to make a car or truck go down the road? Hogwash. Sure, I get the idea, but, man—if they break, this shade-tree guy is out of luck. I wouldn’t even try to fix one of the things. My experience is limited to removing the pan, and having fluid drip all over me while lying under the car in question.

I’ve spent my gearhead life avoiding automatics, and the few I have had were promptly removed and replaced with a manual transmission and a new set of pedals.

Of course, after last month’s column, I admit to having had a bit of a change of heart, what with shopping for a Buick and all. But a truck? Trucks are tools. And tools are for working. Getting building supplies, hauling engines or otherwise large or heavy things. Taking trash to the landfill or getting another load of firewood.

Work. It’s not supposed to be easy. An automatic transmission in a truck just doesn’t seem right. You’re
supposed to have to work for it, and having to operate a manual transmission adds to that workload. It seems only right.

Alas, no more can you make that aspect of your work more difficult. 2018 was the last year that you could get a regular manual transmission in a full-size pickup truck.

Even then, only Dodge offered it, and only in their heavy-duty diesel 2500 and 3500 trucks. Furthermore, only about 1% of those trucks were sold with manual gearboxes. Most, I presume, by special order from die-hard folks that anticipated the end of a proper manual gearbox.

Reasons, it seems, are plenty. For one, of course, automatics are easier to drive. I totally get that. But also, automatic transmissions are easier to control. By computers, that is. Emissions standards. Computers can make it impossible for a driver to drive in a manner that is bad for the environment. Another aspect is the insane amount of power that is being generated by these modern engines. For 2019, Dodge is boasting 1000 foot-pounds of torque in the heavy-duty Ram 3500 with the Cummins turbo-diesel. It would be almost impossible to make a clutch and transmission that would stand up to that and fit in the chassis. One gentleman noted on a discussion board that a manual transmission would have to weigh 600 pounds to hold up to that kind of power.

If you want to be able to keep your 4×8’ building materials flat in the bed, and you want to have to work a little bit harder by having 3 pedals and that hand shaker gearshift lever, like I always have, you’ll just have to shop for a used truck.

This final-year Dodge with a manual transmission hauls plywood and doubles as a grocery getter and airplane tug.

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