More on Gear Shifts
After reading my good friend Bob Vitrikas’ article about gear shifts I finally find that I may know something that Bob was not aware of.
In 1968 (yes I bought my first new car when I was 2 years old) I purchased my first car, a brand new shiny, baby blue VW Beetle. It was a truly unique car. No power, no heater fan, the faster you drove, the more heat and defroster action (more about that later), Windscreen washer operated from extra pressure in the spare tire, and a myriad of other luxuries standard to the beetle. Remembering back, I think of the grief I got from my dad about buying a high performance vehicle because it had dual exhausts – no way I could make up that story.
Anyway, back then, VW availability was somewhat limited so I bought this baby blue car from their 1 car inventory at the remarkable price of $1,865. My car payments were $21 a month.
The car was equipped with VWs new Automatic Stick Shift. Automatic stick shift was an invention that VW released in 1968 that they thought would revolutionize the automotive world. It didn't. In fact it died out quickly. It used the standard H pattern, floor mounted shifter. There was no clutch pedal, but unlike earlier Chrysler fluid drives where you just kind of lifted your foot from the accelerator to allow a gear change, the automatic stick shift used a vacuum operated clutch with a micro switch mounted in the gearshift handle. The “transmission” had 3 forward gears plus reverse. VWs idea was you could leave the car in second gear and drive forever, yes with some excessive RPMs at high speeds, or you could shift into 3rd once you actually got moving.
The alternate was you could manually shift the car, starting at what they called first, and continue to shift thru the gears up to 3rd gear. Remember, no clutch pedal, but, as soon as the engine felt pressure on the gear shifter, the clutch would automatically engage and you could change gears.
Conceptually, it was a novel idea. Now, think back to when you first learned to drive a manual transmission. Remember the jerking, the jumping, the hiccups when you tried to gently take your foot off the clutch? Now apply that idea with a switch that was basically yes clutch or no clutch. Let that sink in for a moment.
Time’s up. Now, think about sitting behind the wheel, comfortably positioned in the driver’s seat, left elbow resting on the door, left hand on the steering wheel and right hand – WHERE???? On the gearshift of course. But hey, if your hand is on the gear shift, you are engaging the clutch. Transmission disengages, engine over-revs because your foot is on the accelerator, you lift your hand, transmission engages, car jerks, your hand falls back on the gearshift and you repeat the process several times until you remember oops, automatic stick shift. It was almost laughable.
Oh yeah, remember my reference to the heater and defroster? Well, since I started at such a young age, the Air Force sent me and my new VW to limestone Maine , average January temperatures 19 high, low about 0. Average snowfall about 100 inches but when it’s that cold, the snow stayed on the ground ‘til early June. About the heater and defroster? I had to scrape ice off the inside of the windows. What does that have to do with transmissions? Who knows but it was just an aside. HOWEVER, after a brief year in Maine , the Air Force was kind enough to ship me to Puerto Rico and, yes, I paid to ship my beetle. Oh yeah, about the transmission. To make this long story a little shorter, at some point, the clutch just stopped working. I could jam the car into second gear or reverse but that was it. Me and my bug in Puerto Rico. Do they sell VWs, here? Is there a warranty program they would honor. Have they ever seen an Automatic Stick Shift? YAY!! I found a dealer, they would honor the warranty and, the service manager spoke English. Got the car to the dealer, service writer had no idea what I was talking about and told me that since it was an unheard of problem to him, he thought the repair might be a problem. Was I ready to rent a car?
Anyway, when the car went into the service bay I kind of snuck in with it (actually their service area was outdoors). I watched the tech get out of the car, lift the gearshift boot, resolder the switch ground wire, replace the boot and I was back on the road with my car occasionally jumping when I touched that damn gearshift.
End result? I believe VWs miracle transmission made it thru the 1969 model year. Yes I kept the car throughout my Puerto Rico tour and, not surprisingly, when I shipped the car back to Charleston SC, someplace between there and Home I traded that little puppy for American Steel.