We’re now hip-deep into the car show season when nearly every weekend there’s some kind of car show or event where you can do the full immersion thing in car-guy activities. For a long time I used to think that all car people are knowledgeable about their cars, but as I get older I have come to realize that some are not quite as yet up to speed. A good friend of mine and high school classmate Ben Guenther posted a photo of his ’57 Thunderbird with a caption that claimed “After vacation, coming back to work is like driving our Thunderbird with no synchros in First gear. Once you get going, it’s fun.”
With that statement it dawned on me that there is at least one and possibly multiple generations that may not even know what he’s talking about. For the betterment of current and future generations, let’s take a quick cruise down memory lane. In the dinosaur days of the 1950’s – cars were still pretty crude and manual transmissions were only partially modern – meaning that at least in First gear – those old three-speeds had no synchronizers. A synchronizer is a brass ring in the transmission that slows one gear down to allow smooth shifting into the next gear. So if you endeavor to drive a non-syncho First gear three speed, there is a technique that will announce to the cognoscenti that “yes, I do know how to drive.”
To start out, all might appear to be normal. You start the engine, push in the clutch and put the shifter in First gear, right? Not if you want to be cool. With a non-synchro First gear trans if you want the world to think you know how to drive, you put the clutch in and put the trans into a synchronized gear like Second or Third. This stops the cluster gear from spinning and allows moving the shifter into First gear with no gear clash. Otherwise, just pulling into Low gear will grind the gears slightly. It’s not a terrible thing – but it does sound bad and announces to the world that you don’t quite know as much as your grandfather did at your age.
Next, slip the clutch and accelerate and now it’s time to shift. No problem – shift into Second and Third gears with the synchros doing their job and everything is fine. Now it’s time to decelerate the car and come to a stop. Since we now have learned there is no synchronizer for First gear, how to we downshift into First gear with the car still rolling? That might come in handy on a hill where you need to be in First gear. Don’t panic – there’s a way. It’s called the double-clutch downshift. It’s a sure bet that Phil Hill knew how to do this.
With the car in Second gear for example, press the clutch pedal down, and shift into Neutral. Now bring the clutch pedal back out and lightly touch the throttle to increase rpm to match roughly what the engine speed would be in First gear at this speed. Then quickly put the clutch in, drop the shifter into First gear and release the clutch. You need to do this quickly. When done properly, the engine input shaft rpm will match the speed of the First gear on the cluster and the gear will fall into place without drama or metal machinations. This will require some practice if you want to become proficient. The match-rpm downshifting that many new performance cars offer accomplishes this same technique using computer controls at lightning speeds.
I know what you’re probably thinking right now – “Who cares about ancient non-synchro transmissions?” Well, you might care if you knew that the same technique applies when parking your ‘60s muscle car equipped with a Sputnik-era four-speed. Let’s paint the scene. You’ve just finished a spectacular restoration on your Marina Blue ’66 375hp, four-speed SS396 Chevelle. The car is truly a work of art and everybody is wishing they were you as you pull up next to the premiere parking space. You stop and pull the shifter into neutral as you size up steering input before you back into the spot. You push the clutch pedal in, and jam the shifter into Reverse. That’s when the assembled throngs are treated to a loud “crunch” as the reverse gear crashes mightily into the cluster gear that’s spinning at 1,000 rpm. And you’ve just announced to everyone how little you know (or care) about this pristine Chevelle.
So how do you avoid an embarrassment far worse than ring-around-the-collar and the heartbreak of psoriasis? Learning about ancient, non-synchro transmissions is a great place to start. We’ll save you the shame and clue you in. First – never put the trans into Reverse directly from Neutral. With the engine idling and the clutch pedal released – push the clutch pedal in, shift into any forward gear with a synchro (even Ben’s T-Bird has a Second gear synchro) and then shift (with the appropriate flourish) into Reverse. No metal-munching sounds will ever be emitted from your wonderful muscle car and young women will swoon.
Lest this recital smells like some kind of elitist diatribe, we encourage you to pass along this information – please. My biggest pet peeve (besides 9:1 idle air-fuel ratios) is drivers who blindly go about clashing gears with every feeble attempt at Reverse. It’s beyond embarrassing. Yes, I know that more modern manual transmission now come equipped with Reverse synchros. That’s because engineers know it’s easier to add synchros than to teach everyone how to drive correctly. So do your fellow car guys a favor and pay this forward. The Manual Transmission gods will lay wreathes at your feet.