(first posted 5/2/2014) I’m a big believer in five speed manual transmissions, and have been for years. When I was a kid, my father introduced me to the advantages of five speed gear counts and overdrive gear ratios, and since then I’ve preferred five speed shift-your-own transmissions over those containing a torque converter and planetary gears. In fact, I’ve upgraded three separate cars to five speed transmissions, despite the fact that the effort expended far outweighs any increase in vehicle value. Still, that work provides solid proof of my five speed passion.
If I had been a child of the sixties and grew up surrounded by big torque V-8s mounted in front of Muncie and Borg Warner 4 speeds, these five speed boxes may never have seduced me. Up until 1972, five speed gear boxes only arrived in the US mounted in European exotics with peaky small displacement engines. But in 1972, Toyota offered a five speed transmission in a single model, looking to test the American waters. Based on history, they were clearly happy with the results. The rapid growth in five speed transmissions brought on by this pioneering model forms the basis of this article.
Because my father bought a five speed Toyota in 1973, I had a front row seat to this product line transformation. He had spent several months researching new car options, and through these efforts discovered a new and unique model, the Corolla five speed Sport Coupe. After a test drive, he decided it was the car to have, placed an order, and waited for delivery. This was the only time I remember Dad waiting to get the car he wanted, so I’m going to spend some time talking about this little Corolla Coupe.
In the Fall of 1970, a new generation Corolla arrived on the scene. The base car (shown here) came with a motor displacing 1,200 cc’s (the 3-KC) and a four-speed manual transmission. In September of 1971, a larger 1,600 cc engine became available (the 2-TC). This engine provided a big jump in power, giving the Corolla first rate performance. In fact, there were some who said a 2-TC equipped Corolla offered more bang for the buck than the BMW 2002.
In early 1972, without a lot of fanfare, Toyota started to offer a five speed transmission option behind the 2-TC. This upgrade was available in the two door coupes (but not the two door or four door sedans) and included radial tires and a small mini console. This transmission shared most components with the four-speed manual transmission, but included an additional gear set in the rear of the case that provided an overdrive fifth gear. The transmission provided quieter highway cruising, and decreased the larger engine’s fuel consumption.
For the 1973 model year, five speed coupes added the following features: a tape stripe running along the top of the front fender and door, wood grain finish on the steering wheel, dash face, and shift lever, and a tachometer. It now included wider tires compared to the base car (155 SR70-13), but the body did not have fender flares. Having driven one for a number of years, I can tell you it also came with a smooth shifting transmission with a gear set designed to maximize the power available from that little 2-TC four banger.
1973 also included a higher trim level model called the SR-5. This car included all the Sport Coupe features but added: wider wheels and larger tires (175 SR70-13), fender flares to cover the wider tires, upgraded suspension components, and red piping in the seat upholstery. This was the first appearance of the SR-5 in the Toyota lineup, and represented the Top Dog Corolla (in some other markets this Corolla received a DOHC engine, but this engine was not offered in the US).
All SR-5 models included badging on the front fenders, and as the top Corolla trim level, received the most attention from the automotive press. Because of this, most enthusiasts remember the Corolla SR-5, and think all five speed coupes came in this trim level. In reality, many of the cars came with the Sport Coupe package, without the fender flares and increased wheel width.
1974 was the final year of this generation, and the cars carried forward with few changes. The Sport Coupe gained a front fender badge reading “S-5,” and both cars received bigger bumpers and modified emission controls.
Sad tale: when it came time for my first car, I bought Dad’s ’73 Corolla Coupe. A few years later, I sold it for something bigger and louder, but far less interesting (see picture above…). Today, I’d love to find a replacement five speed Corolla Sport Coupe, but there just aren’t any unmolested examples available. Most of the Corolla Coupes of this generation now pack dual overhead engines, turbochargers and roll cage interiors. While there’s nothing wrong with these modifications, these street legal Go Karts are no longer the car I remember driving back in 1978.
Enough reminiscing, let’s get back to our five speed history. In 1974, Toyota also added five speed transmissions to two other models- The Celica GT and the Corona SR Coupe. Since these cars used the 22-R four cylinder, Toyota had to develop an entirely new five speed for these cars. Clearly, they thought the five speed transmission offered a lot of bang for the buck.
This bring us to 1975 and the next generation of the Corolla. The ’75 Corollas were longer and wider than the previous car, and with the gas crisis in full swing, Toyota relied on their five speed transmission to deliver superior fuel economy while maintaining good driving dynamics. The top of the line models remained the SR-5, but you could now get the five speed on other models by selecting the E-5 (Economy 5) option. In addition to broadening five speed availability in the Corolla line, customers could now buy a Toyota Pickup with a five speed transmission.
I don’t have sales figers for 1972 through ’74, but we can safely assume assume the numbers came in at less than 10% of total sales in the first two years. 1974 sales would be interesting to see, since Toyota offered the transmission in three models, but the data just isn’t out there.
However, I did find five speed sales data broken out seperately starting in 1975. That year, 21.9 % of the Corollas, 48.6 % of the Celicas and 19.6 % of the Coronas came with the five speed. Added all together, just over a quarter (27.5 %) of the Toyota cars included the five speed.
In comparison, here are the percentages of five speed manuals among Toyota’s import competition:
Datsun- 0% Mazda- 1% Colt- 1% Honda- 11.2% Subaru- 21%
Volkswagen/Audi- 0% British Leyland- 0% Volvo- 0% Saab- 0% BMW- 0%
Peugeot- 0% Fiat/Lancia- 39 % (all Lancia) Porsche- 98.4%
Clearly, Toyota had a jump on the other imports. They were no longer the only low price car with a five speed option, but their product line provided the most five speeds, and the public was clearly warming to the technology.
For further proof, let’s jump forward two years. In 1977, 48 % of the Corollas, 70 % of the Celicas and 42 % of the Coronas came with the five speed. For the first time, over half (54.7 %) of all Toyota cars came with this option. The next year, buyers could not get a 1978 Celica with a four-speed manual–the five speed was the only manual option.
But the five speed transmission was not only a Toyota phenomenon. Looking at the competition, The Japanese manufacturers (and a few European brands) also found a way to increase the percentages of 5 speed transmissions sold in their lineups.
Datsun- 25 % Mazda- 41.8 % Colt- 19.8 % Honda- 34.4 % Subaru- 15.9%
Volkswagen/Audi- 0% British Leyland- 23.8% Volvo- 0% Saab- 0% BMW- 0%
Peugeot- 0% Fiat- 38.4 % Lancia-100% Porsche- 28.8 %
It’s pretty clear the Japanese were on board with the program, but the Europeans were still holding back. In fact, Porsche went from an extremely high percentage of five speeds in 1975 (98.4 %) to a mere 28.8 % in ’77. Why? Because the new 911 Turbo and 924 both used a 4 speed manual transmission. I’m not the guy to break down the whys and wherefores of the European cars, but I invite you to share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section.
So there’s the story of the first five speed overdrive transmission offered in a low price car. Toyota really nailed it in the Corolla- A sweet shifting transmission with a perfect shift pattern. But the story would not be complete without discussing how the US manufacturers responded to this new technology.
While GM, Ford, and Chrysler must have observed the growth of five speeds on the import side, their response was very tepid. Until 1980, neither Ford or (domestic built) Chryslers offered a five speed transmission. However, in an attempt to cash in on the fuel economy advantage of an overdrive, both manufacturers revised the ratios in their existing four-speed transmissions to include an overdrive final gear set.
The problem with this approach? Gear spacing. Driver’s accustomed to the flexibility of a four-speed transmission found themselves back in the bad old days of the three-speed. Since fourth gear was now relegated to highway duty, drivers often found themselves jumping back and forth between second and third, looking for a gear to suit their needs. In some cases, it felt as if the engineers left out a gear, thanks to the uneven spacing between gear ratios. These four speed overdrive transmissions may have been an expedient and inexpensive option, but they did not deliver the goods as nicely as Toyota’s five speed.
GM did deliver a five speed transmission in 1976, reflecting the fact they had the deepest pockets of any automotive manufacturer at the time. It’s interesting that GM stepped up to the five speed plate, since a huge percentage of their vehicles came equipped with an automatic transmission (the percentage of GM cars with an automatic from ’77 to ’80: 92.6, 95.7, 94.3, and 93.2). In fact, GMs reliance on automatic transmissions makes comparing them to Toyota rather pointless. In the seventies, a majority of Toyotas still came with manual transmissions. Still, it does reflect GM’s attitude toward small car sales, often described as arrogant indifference.
For example, their five speed placed first gear down and to the left of the standard “H” pattern, creating an unnatural shift pattern for city driving. The pattern did reflect the pattern used on some high-end European cars, but it was a racing pattern, designed to allow the driver to use the H portion of the pattern at speed and only drop into first gear while entering and exiting the pits.
Driving in the city, this GM shift pattern was the pits. To prove that point, the transmission made an initial splash in 1976, when 1.3 % of GM’s cars came with the five speed option, but the numbers quickly crashed. In the following three years, the totals were 0.3, 0.2 and 0.2 percent respectively.
In 1980, GM dropped their five speed entirely. At the same time that Ford offered a new one as an option in the Mustang and Capri. Once again, a domestic five speed transmission came with an oddball shift pattern. This time, Ford placed fifth gear alongside fourth gear in the pattern, requiring the driver to move the shift lever forward, sidewise, and then back again. I’ve driven one of these Mustangs, and found myself skip shifting from third to fifth. While bogging the engine down a bit, choosing to skip shift provided the most natural motion. Once again, strange did not catch on and Ford only equipped 0.2 % of their 1980 cars with a five speed.
Oddly enough, in 1982 our friends at AMC finally cracked the five speed code. The first American manufacturer to offer Borg Warner’s T-5 transmission, 11.0 % of their cars came a five speed that year. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that America’s small car expert led the way in five speed market penetration.
Finally, in 1983 the domestics got it right. Ford and GM equipped their pony cars with the T-5, and both manufacturers offered five speed transmissions in their front wheel drive compacts. AMC continued to grow their five speed business (placing them in 33.9 % of their cars), and even Chrysler offered five speeds in their domestic products (the Omni/Horizon twins and the K-cars). A breakthrough year, 1983 marked the first time the domestics sold more five speed than four speed manual transmissions, finally recognizing the value of this transmission.
So 1983 wraps up our tale and leaves the door open to another significant event: the success of the T-5 transmission. This transmission went on to have the longest production run of any domestic manual transmission, and was used by all four domestic brands (if we count Jeep as a Chrysler brand). But I’ve already covered more territory than I initially set out to tour, so let’s save that tale for another day.
Edit- I meant to incorporate this reference into the article, but during development it just slipped my mind. If you enjoyed this article, check out Paul’s take on the joys of overdrive, linked here: The Joys of Overdrive. D/S