Home Transmission & Drivetrain Column Shifter: Are They A Forgotten Treasure?

Column Shifter: Are They A Forgotten Treasure?

by Kelvin Yates

If current trends continue, the art of shifting a manual transmission will be lost in the next generation unless serious measures are taken. The majority of manufacturers no longer offer a manual option because Americans are increasingly abandoning the shift-it-yourself option with autos. This is a sad fact, but there will undoubtedly be a few carmakers who continue to offer a column shifter for at least another decade.

One thing that the current generation of drivers has forgotten is how to shift a column-shifted manual, sometimes known as three-on-the-tree. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, this was the standard specification in local Holdens, Falcons, Valiants, and even the Leyland P76.

It was a true cake and eat-it scenario to be able to shift gears and have a six-passenger bench-seat interior. Shift linkages, on the other hand, were more bothersome than those located on the floor.

Shift levers were located on the steering columns of vehicles and trucks in the 1980s, as anyone who lived through the decade will recall. The column shifter was the most popular gearbox configuration in the postwar era, but major technological developments in the 1970s contributed to its demise.

We’ll take a look at the history of the column shifter and its cultural significance in this piece to determine if it still has a place in today’s fast-paced automotive industry.

Contents of this article entail;

Column Shifter: What Are They?

In 1938, a column shifter was brought to the US market for the first time. It all started with a three-speed manual shifter that allowed drivers to change ratios manually.

The three-speed column shift, often known as three-on-the-tree, was used in American cars throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Instead of bucket seats, these cars had larger cabins with wide benches. The shifter was deliberately situated behind the wheel on the steering column, freeing enough space in the front for another passenger. This drew the attention of drivers with large families.

This configuration has both pros and cons.


  • Design that is simple but effective.
  • In the front, there is more passenger space.
  • Mechanical feedback is excellent.


  • The positioning of shifters can be perplexing.
  • Extra seating capacity is exchanged for central consoles, parking brakes, storage compartments, and other helpful amenities.
  • Possibly slower than current shift sticks.

Column Shifter In Iconic Vehicles

What are the similarities between historic muscle cars and pickup trucks? The majority of them were equipped with three-speed manual transmissions. Listed below are a few examples:

1966 Chevy Impala SS

The 1966 Chevrolet Impala SS had a cult following that few cars could equal. The 1966 model features a broadened front and rear tire, distinct body lines, and sleek hood outlines, as well as Chevy’s “Wide Stance” style.

The six individual rear tail lamps that had been standard on Impalas since 1958 were replaced by horizontal rear tail lamp lenses. Strato bucket seats folded forward in the interior to allow passengers access to the rear compartment.

The standard V-8 engine was the 283-cubic-inch Turbo Fire, which produced 195 BHP at 4800 RPM and had a fully synchronized three-speed manual transmission with a column shifter. Chevy’s Super Sports models, which were available with V-6 or V-8 engines and manual or automatic gearboxes, were designed for performance.

The Impala’s 7.0-liter V8 engine helped it sell 38,000 units in 1966, making it the second-best-selling sedan in the United States.

1968 Torino GT

The 1968 Ford Torino GT was introduced as a more luxurious version of the Fairlane. This two-door muscle car was based on a redesigned 500XL GTA with lower body moldings and a fastback roofline that sloped to the trunk lid’s edge.

On the racetrack, the new look was favorable. Ford suddenly had a dazzling midsize car capable of competing with the Pontiac GTO. The GT offered optional V-8 engines, luxury wheel coverings, and extra lighting in the door panels, in addition to the base three-speed column-shift manual transmission.

The FE-series engine produced 265 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. The Torino dominated the market in its first year, selling roughly 500,000 units. The Torino was the best-selling intermediate in its sector by the end of 1972.

Ford XF Falcon

Despite the Falcon’s many American firsts, it was a philistine in several ways, preserving leaf springs, an umbrella handbrake, and a column manual long after Holden had abandoned those features, which added to its character.

Up to the conclusion of the XF Falcon Ute and Panel Van in 1993, the Borg-Warner three-speed column-shifter was available. They’re hard to come by these days, so if you come across one, grab it.

1986 Ford F100

Big, hefty pickup trucks are America’s backbone, and they show no signs of slowing down. With an aluminum body, color screens, and plenty of chrome, the current F150 is a long cry from the practical classics.

The F-Series was available with a 4.9-liter straight-six and a three-on-the-tree Borgy in the 1980s. The last time this happened was in 1986 when the next generation was released without the choice. Dodge and Chevrolet had dropped the option a year or two before.

Mercedes-Benz W124 E-Class Taxi

Unlike arch-rival BMW, which still provides manual transmissions as a special order option on its automobiles, no new Mercedes-Benz passenger car has a clutch pedal. This is why learning that the W124 E-Class was available with a column-shift manual from 1984 to 1996 is such an odd bit of information.

The reason for this was because Mercedes-Benz cars were frequently utilized as taxis in continental Europe due to their sturdy construction. A four-speed column-shift manual gearbox with a dog-biscuit-shaped shifter was available as option ‘626’ (a variant for Finland).

The column-shifted Benz is back with the last two S-Classes using a small tab for the (auto) gear selector. No word on why this was only available in Finland.

Toyota Hiace

In some countries, the second-generation Hiace was produced until 1995, with a convenient column-shifter for the five-speed manual transmission. Many of these Hiace models are still running in good condition in Australia, usually, as camper vans or backpacker expresses. Following Hiaces includes floor shift, resulting in some uncomfortable bodily contact for bench seaters.

Japanese Taxis–Nissan Cedric, Toyota Crown

Japanese taxis are quiet, unassuming vehicles, mainly Toyota Crown Comfort or Nissan Cedrics with LPG-powered 2.0-liter engines.

Both of these big sedans were available with column-shift four-speed manual transmissions until 1999, but it wasn’t a very glamorous affair. The Comfort is still available, presumably the same car but with a four-speed floor automatic transmission.

Fiat Ducato

The first 1981 Ducato (not sold in the United States) was badge-engineered as a Peugeot, Citroen, and even an Alfa Romeo. It was available with a column-shift manual transmission until 1993 when the next model replaced it with a standard gear lever situated on the dashboard.

Peugeot 504

The robust Pininfarina-styled Peugeot 504 had a long run, with Australian manufacture lasting three decades until the early 1980s, but the Nigerian assembly lasting until 2006.

This was a classic Peugeot with a great ride and dependability that secured its reputation before it went out of style in the 1990s. There was also a beautiful column-shift manual available, which was said to be a tactile delight to use.

Citroen 2cv

The tin snail, France’s people car, has an interesting shifter mechanism situated on the dash. The ball is mounted close to the steering column on an umbrella-handle-style telescoping rod with an unusual technique of moving.

Saab 96

The eccentric Swedish automaker SAAB is no longer with us, but it will never be forgotten. The 96 was the brand’s last two-stroke car, as well as one of the last European cars with a column-shift manual transmission.


Before the fall of communist East Germany’s iron curtain in 1989, the proletariat had just one mode of transportation: the Trabant 601. It was a two-stroke, front-drive vehicle manufactured of Duroplast, a recycled cotton composite.

It also had an unusual column-shift system for its four-speed gearbox, which included moving an umbrella-shaped rod into strange positions. The car was produced until 1991 when West Germany’s more modern automobiles began to flourish.

Why Did Carmakers Stop Using Column Shifter?

The three-speed manual transmission and column-mounted gearshift lever went out of favor with buyers and carmakers alike for a variety of reasons.

1. A Shift In Priorities And Customer Preferences

The introduction of console and floor shifters signaled a shift in consumer perceptions. As safety concerns grew, customers switched from bench seats to bucket seats.

The gearshift, storage compartments, and infotainment systems were all situated in the vehicle’s center console, which was located in the middle seat.

With the column shifter removed, there was plenty of room for features like cruise control, intermittent wipers, fog lights, and gearshift paddles around and on the steering wheel.

2. Difficulty Downshifting

Some people find the position of the column shifter to be inconvenient. Downshifting necessitates a high level of precision. This could influence your timing in circumstances where you need to shift gears quickly, such as in an emergency.

3. Push-Button Transmissions

Automobile manufacturers experimented with the idea of electronically controlled gearboxes in passenger vehicles as push-button gadgets grew increasingly common in the twentieth century. Drivers could switch gears with the push of a button thanks to this thought experiment, which was first used in the Vulcan System in 1914.

Even though it was far from ideal, carmakers continued to develop the technology. The Magic Touch was the name given to Chrysler Corporation’s version, which was released in 1956. With their Keyboard Control, Ford’s Mercury subsidiary elaborated on push-button technology.

Customers preferred the confidence-giving control of a traditional selector over the possibilities of electronically controlled transmissions, thus this fad didn’t endure long.

4. Automatics Became Cheaper And More Convenient

During the 1960s and 1970s, the development of low-cost automatic vehicles put an end to the three-on-the-tree system. Even though three-speed column-shift automobiles were being produced far into the 1980s, four-speed manual and automatic transmissions were unmistakably popular.

Many automatic gearboxes now include eight or ten gears, outperforming the slower and less fuel-efficient manual transmissions. It’s no surprise that automatic transmissions continue to outsell manual transmissions in the United States. According to Edmunds, only 41 of the 327 new automobile models produced in the United States in 2020 will have manual gearboxes. In the same year, Nissan announced the discontinuance of stick shifters on the Frontier.

How To Fix A Loose Column Shifter

A car’s gear shifter is one of the most important components. This will allow you to shift from one gear to another, as the name implies. As a result, if it is damaged, your safety could be jeopardized. You’ll have a hard time managing your vehicle’s movement. That being stated, any problem should be handled as soon as possible to prevent it from worsening.

One of the most typical issues with the column shifter is that it is loose, among other things. This is a regular occurrence, especially if your vehicle is older. The column shifter loosens with time as a result of too much strain and movement. Most of the time, a simple tightening of the bolts will suffice to solve the problem.

If you’re looking for instructions on how to fix a loose column shifter, keep reading. In addition, we will give you some pointers on how to keep your column shifter in top shape and work at its best so that you may drive with confidence.


What You Will Need

Before you can start, make sure that you already have the following materials:

Step-By-Step Guide On How To Fix Loose Column Shifter

Below are the easy steps that you have to follow to fix a loose column shifter.

1. Diagnose The Source Of The Column Shifter Problem

You already know the column shifter is loose at this stage. It’s no longer as responsive to your controls, and it can even make a strange noise. You may be aware of the issue, but you are unaware of the root of the problem. The first step is to determine the cause of the problem, after which you may devise a strategy for resolving it.

You must first open the hood. To make things easier, have someone adjust the column shifter for you while you observe the engine. Look for the moving component. If everything appears to be in order, which means no parts appear to be loose, go on to the next area to inspect.

Examine the area beneath the steering wheel. In most cases, this is where the issue can be found. You do not need to remove any parts. All you have to do now is inspect to ensure that this is the source of the problem. Find the brake pedal and press it down, landing your hand on the steering column. You can see how this section moves as you adjust the steering wheel.

Examine the parts that come into contact with the gear lever, particularly the bolts. They are most likely strewn about. If they are, you know you’ve found the cause of the problem, and all you have to do now is tighten it for a quick and painless cure.

2. Remove The Bolts

All you have to do if they’re loose and wiggling is remove the bolts that hold them in place. You’ll need a torque screwdriver for this, the size of which will vary depending on the car. Remove the bolts one at a time, then move on to the next step to align them.

3. Apply Thread Locker

Apply the thread locker once you’ve removed the bolts. Despite the vibrations that may occur, this will maintain the bolt tight and secure. The bolts will go loose again if this is not done.

4. Put The Bolts Back

Position the bolt in place and tighten it. Using the torque screwdriver, tighten it up. Test the column shifter; it should no longer be unstable at this stage. Make sure the bolts are sufficiently tight to prevent any more wiggling.

Pro Tips Concerning Column Shifter: The Most Important Things To Keep In Mind

  • When shifting gears, use caution. Many of us are probably guilty of shifting with too much force as if we are always agitated. If you do this frequently, you are more likely to wind up with a sloppy column shifter.
  • Do not dismiss the issue the first time it appears. The longer you wait to act, the looser it becomes. In the worst-case scenario, this will compromise your vehicle’s safety and performance.
  • Do not overtighten the bolts. Make sure it’s securely fastened so it doesn’t wobble. On the other hand, if it’s too tight, it won’t move, and shifting from one gear to another will be more difficult.
  • If you’re having trouble removing the bolt because it’s too tight, you can spray it with oil or lubricant to make it easier to spin.
  • In some cases, simply tightening the bolt isn’t enough. This is especially true if the issue has progressed further in seriousness. The issue may be with the column shifter itself. You may need to acquire a new column shifter in this situation. Because the installation can be difficult, it is preferable to seek professional assistance.
  • You may also need to replace the shift tube in some circumstances. Because of the poor quality of the materials utilized, the tube may crack or break. Some materials may not be able to endure prolonged exposure to the elements. Make sure the tube, as well as the other components of the shifter, are in good working order.

How To Turn Column Shifter Into Automatic Floor Shifters

Your car’s column shifter is normally found on the right side of the steering column. It’s as simple as altering a few levers if you’re upgrading your automobile and want to go from a column shifter to a floor shifter.

Depending on your degree of tool and mechanics knowledge, you can replace your column shifter with a floor shifter in less than eight hours. This project, however, can be completed by a do-it-yourselfer with little or no experience.

Step 1

Using a flathead screwdriver, remove the steering wheel center cap. Using a 9/16-inch socket and a fitting ratchet, loosen the center nut. A steering wheel puller, which can be obtained at most auto parts stores, is used to remove the steering wheel from the column shaft. Attach the puller according to the directions on the puller container.

Step 2

With needle-nose pliers, remove the shaft clip. The clip fits into a groove on the shaft and prevents the gear sleeve from being removed. Remove the gear sleeve and replace it with a sleeve cap that does not have a gear slot. Return the shaft clip to its original position on the shaft. Tighten the center bolt and replace the center cap after pounding the steering wheel with a rubber mallet.

Step 3

Under the car, look for the shifter linkage that connects to the transmission. With needle-nose pliers, remove the carter pins from the linkage, then pull the linkage away from the transmission.

Step 4

Drill a 1/2-inch hole through the hump in your floor directly above your transmission’s linkage point. Place the floor shifter template on the floor, with the template’s center aligned with the predrilled hole. With a sharpie marker, trace around the outside of the template.


Step 5

Attach the 1/2-inch metal screws into the floor to secure the new floor shifter in place. To disguise the shifter parts, slide the rubber boot over the shifter.

Step 6

Connect the transmission’s linkage shaft to the floor shifter linkage below the automobile. With needle-nose pliers, slide the linkage pins into the shaft holes. To keep filth from permeating the linkage parts, spray white oil on them.

Use the new floor shifter in the same way that you would the column shifter. “Park” is first, “reverse” is second, “neutral” is third, “drive” is fourth, and so on.

Final Thoughts On Column Shifter

Throughout the early to mid-20th century, a column shifter was an essential component of manual gearbox vehicles. The original shifter was pushed into oblivion as transmission technology advanced.

On the internet, there is a small but fervent fan club of drivers who adore the three-on-the-tree setup, although the majority of drivers disagree.

Because fewer manual transmission vehicles are being made these days, a ten-speed column-shift vehicle is unlikely to appear very soon. The elimination of the column shifter is a foregone conclusion with the arrival of engineless electric vehicles.

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