It may seem difficult to believe, but some American full-size cars were available with a manual transmission as late as 1973. After the decline of full-sized muscle cars in the mid-60s (in favor of pony cars and mid-sized muscle cars), the take rate on full-sized cars with the shift-yourself option dropped precipitously to three, two, or in some cases even a single digit of sales per year, achieving unicorn levels of rarity.
It should come as no surprise that these exceedingly rare late-stage full-sized cars equipped with a three-on-the-three are a popular topic around here. Jason first wrote about this topic all the way back in 2014, and there are probably even older posts about the subject as well.
Most of these discussions tend to revolve around looking at brochures and production numbers. But what if I were to use my ability to endlessly go down Google rabbit holes (arguably my one true superpower) to see if I can actually locate any surviving examples of these mythical three-on-the-tree full-sized cars?
Good news – unlike every one of my previous unicorn hunts, for this expedition I actually succeeded in bagging some rainbow-emitting single-horned equestrians. Because I can only post two or three images for each car, I’m including links back to the original source so that you can check out these unicorns in their full glory.
Chevrolet offered a three-speed on the Chevrolet Bel Air sedan (albeit only with the six-cylinder engine), until 1973, making them the last manufacturer to offer a full-sized car with a manual transmission. I started my quest with Chevrolet, figuring that I would have the easiest time finding examples with a three-on-the-tree, and it turned out I was correct.
For the 1970 model year, I found this fabulously original 1970 Bel Air with a Turbo Thrift 250, manual transmission, and just 22,000 miles.
The clutch pedal and blanked-out PRNDL are both clearly visible in this shot, confirming the 3-speeded-ness of this survivor.
Lots of room in the engine bay. You could almost stand in there while working on the engine.
For the 1971 model year, I managed to locate just a single photo of this 1971 Bel Air with a six-cylinder engine and a three-speed, so at least one of the roughly 2,000 produced survived. As an added plus, the hood is raised, showing the 250 CID six in all its glory.
By 1973, Chevrolet was alone in offering a manual transmission on their full-sized car, of which an estimated 1,400 were produced. I was able to find the above example at Picture Cars, a Brooklyn-based company that rents out vehicles for film and TV productions, where it was misidentified as being a 1972 model. You could theoretically call them up and rent it for your “film production” if you want to experience the thrill of driving Chevrolet’s biggest car for 1973 with its smallest available engine.
While you can’t quite make out the third pedal in this picture, the blanked-out PRNDL and shift lever sticking out at the three o’clock position (first gear) are dead giveaways of the 3-speed transmission. It was listed as being suitable for a period detective or undercover movie car, but good luck finding a 21st-century actor actually able to operate a 3-on-the-tree.
I did a quick search for this car at IMCDB to see if it has any film credits, and I actually managed to find a few. It appeared briefly as a background in an episode of Gotham, shown above.
Here’s a better shot, from the 2013 movie Blood Ties. The combination of bumper guards and whitewall tires (both unusual for a Bel Air) make this car easy to spot and identify.
As you would expect, moving up the Sloanian ladder makes it more difficult to find models equipped with a three-speed, but not, as we shall see, impossible.
I was able to find this green 1970 Pontiac Catalina wagon packing a 400 V8 in front of its 3-speed transmission.
You can just make out the clutch pedal and blanked-out PRNDL in the image above, as well as being parked in first gear (shifter at three o’clock). Despite the lowly three-on-the-tree, this Catalina is not a complete stripper: The original buyer optioned it fairly well, including A/C and a power seat.
Just what mom needs to get the kids to school quickly!
Alas, sometime in 2020 this wagon was hit by a drunk driver and heavily damaged. The car was unoccupied and no one was hurt, but no word on whether this car will be back on the road anytime soon or not. Click through to the original post to see all the damage, if you dare.
For 1970 and 1971, The Delta 88 could be had with either a 350 or 455 and a three-speed manual transmission (the 455 and THM-400 were standard on the 98 and Toronado). for ’72, the THM was standard across the board for all full-sized Oldsmobiles.
Unfortunately, trying to actually locate one apparently exceeded my internet-fu. I did find various forum posts alluding to various 1970-71 3-speed Delta 88’s that people have supposedly seen over the years, so some were almost certainly built. Unfortunately, I was unable to bag any actual photographic evidence or surviving examples to support this.
For 1970, the 3-speed manual was the standard transmission on all full-sized Buicks except for the Electra and Riviera. This meant that the LeSabre, Wildcat, and even the Estate Wagon could have been purchased with a third pedal. There were apparently no engine restrictions on the 3-speed, meaning you could get it on any engine up to the 4-barrel 455 V8.
By 1971, only the LeSabre, was available with a manual transmission, and by 1972 the automatic was standard across the full-size lineup.
But just because the three-speed was available doesn’t necessarily mean that any were sold.
Well, Buick sold at least one. I found this racy red 1970 Wildcat on the AACA forums, packing both the standard high-compression Stage I 455 V8 and a three on the tree. This must be quite the burnout machine.
No stripper this three-speed Buick is: Not only did the original buyer opt for a Wildcat model (with its standard 455-4 V8 engine), they also sprung for expensive options like A/C, power steering, and an AM radio (but curiously not power brakes).
And here’s the money shot. You can clearly see the clutch pedal, and if you enlarge the image, you can see the knockout under the speedometer where the shift quadrant would normally be.
Cars are both a reflection of the time they were made and a window into the original buyer. That’s the central thesis of this site, that every car has a story. The story behind this Wildcat must be particularly interesting, and likely unknowable 50 years post facto, but that won’t stop us from speculating.
One thing is for sure: In this price range, a 3-speed is a choice and not a necessity. The base price of the 1970 Bel Air sedan at the beginning of this piece was $2,887 (about $22,500 in 2023). This Wildcat, by comparison, started out at $4,155. Adding in the few other options (A/C, power steering, radio) would have brought the total to $4,780, about $37,000 in 2023, representing a 66% increase over the Bel Air.
In other words, someone really wanted a three-speed manual in their Buick enough to force their dealer to special order one (no dealer would have ordered such a car for stock). Perhaps a Buick lover who wanted the space and comfort of a full-sized car, but wanted the driving experience of driving a 455 and shifting their own gears. Or perhaps a member of the “Greatest Generation” who grew up in the depression, fought in WWII and didn’t trust automatic transmissions – members of this cohort would have been hitting their peak earning years around 1970.
The buyer even specified an arrest-me red exterior color to make the Buick seem a little less stodgy. I can understand this – I actually made the same choice when purchasing my own Buick back in 2011.
This likely wasn’t even the only three-pedal big Buick produced in 1970: Members on this forum posted a link to a Craigslist post for a 1970 Wildcat convertible sporting a 3-speed, but alas the CL link had long since expired, and I was unable to find it on any of my Google searches.