Automotive History: The Mysterious Appearance of Floor Shifters for 1961-1964 Chrysler Three-Speed Manual Transmissions

1961 Chrysler Newport with standard 3-speed floor shift

(first posted 12/9/2017)       As a rather curious corollary to Chrysler’s very space-age push-button automatic, whose demise was covered here by Jim Cavanaugh, Chrysler saw fit to provide only a retrograde 1930s-style floor shifter for the standard three-speed manual transmission on their cars from 1961 through 1964. And we’re talking Chrysler-brand cars, not the low-end big Plymouths and Dodges (except the Chrysler-based Dodge Custom 880). Chrysler was working hard these years to cultivate their odd-ball image.

I came to this shocking revelation as a tender lad of eleven when some friends of ours in Iowa City bought a big new 1964 Dodge Custom 880 wagon. It was black; a stripper with dog dish hubcaps and blackwall tires.

1962 Custom 880 missing its shifter ball

The first time Mrs. Way picked some of us up after school to take us to orchestra practice, the passenger side door was open when I walked up to it. Holy Highland Park! I was shocked to see a curved floor shifter with a black ball right close to the seat cushion. I was blown away, as that was the last thing I had expected. In fact, I was quite confused. I hadn’t seen a 3-speed floor shifter in a big American car ever, except maybe some ancient relics from the 30s I might have seen somewhere. And this, from the company that made a big thing out of their push-button automatic transmission shifters?

Speaking of, this is how the push-button shifter looked when blanked out, when the TorqueFlite was not installed.

Realistically, that did not happen often, but starting in 1961, Chrysler moved downmarket with their Newport. And one of the ways they lowered the price was to make the Torqueflite optional. Actually, the Windsor for ’61 lost standard TF too, although its price didn’t really change from 1960.

It’s hard to find a picture of just the steering column, but this one and the one at the top of this post both show how the highly convex instrument cluster leaves no room on the column for a shifter. Of course, when this was designed, Chrysler had no intention of offering a manual. But then they decided to de-content and compete in a lower price segment.

So this was the rather highly crude solution. The shifter teamed with Chrysler’s new A745 three-speed manual transmission, which arrived in 1961, designed to be used behind the V8s.

For what it’s worth, the 1960 Valiant had a floor shifter for its new A903 three-speed. Undoubtedly Chrysler didn’t want to spend the money to design and build a steering wheel column that could accommodate any kind of shifter, so they kept it cheap and simple, and used a floor shifter. But that went away in 1962, because the Valiant and Lancer almost certainly could then share the same column as used in the new downsized ’62 Plymouth and Dodge, which did have a column-shifted three-speed standard.

The 1963-1964 Chryslers had a new dashboard design, but undoubtedly continued to use the previous steering column, hence the standard floor shifter in these too. Maybe they thought a column shifter would clash with the square wheel?

The Dodge Custom 880 used a dashboard mostly borrowed from the ’61 Dodge Polara and DeSoto. So why doesn’t it have a column shifter since both of those had column shifters? Good question. Presumably it wasn’t worth tooling up the old column again, so the Chrysler unit was used. 1960 and 1961 Plymouth, Dodges and DeSoto used a column that was essentially a carry-over from the ’57-’59s, in term of its column shifter mechanism.

Realistically, the three-speed floor shifter wasn’t probably installed in significant numbers; most likely in low end sedans and wagons like our friends’ 880 wagon, which was pretty spartan inside. And I have vivid memories of Mrs. Way shifting that 361-powered wagon, and no it wasn’t a four speed.

It could have been, though, as in 1964, Chrysler’s new A833 four speed manual was now optional on the 880, with the 383 V8.

And it was also available on the Chryslers too, with “high performance engines”. the fact that it emerges on the floor to the left of the console is a bit odd.

This page in the same brochure rather contradicts the other one, as it says the four speed is only available on the FirePower 305 (383 4 barrel) and 360 (413 single four barrel) engines. Hmm; maybe it wasn’t strong enough yet for the ram-intake 413?

All of this ended in 1965, with the new big C-Body cars, which had a new steering column lever for the automatic transmission. But there’s no mention of a standard three-speed in the ’65 Chrysler brochure? Was it still available? If so, on the tree, undoubtedly. Chrysler was done being weird.