Transmission History: The Last Three Speed Manuals With Non-Synchronized First Gear – Grinding Gears Until 1976

American car makers really dragged their feet with the development of fully-synchronized manual transmissions. VW got its first gear synchronized in 1961, and most other Europeans did too by around this time. But Americans were still grinding gears on some new cars through 1972 and light trucks all the way through 1976 if they tried to shift down into first without coming to a complete stop, unless they had mastered the intricacies of double clutching. But even that technique didn’t always guarantee a silent shift into first.

Let’s see who the leaders and laggards of first gear synchromesh were:

Ford was the leader, at least with big cars and trucks. In 1964, their new “toploader” 3.03 three-speed was fully synchronized, a companion to the new four-speed version of the same basic unit. It was long overdue, as driving conditions and expectations had changed significantly from the 1930s and ’40s, when traffic was slower, less crowded, and stopping fully to shift down was just part of the routine. As this ad shows, Ford made a bit of hay out their new three speed box, although I don’t really get the “3½-speed” thing.

My ’66 F100 originally had a 3.03 three-speed, and it shifted quite nicely, including into first while on the move. It died a couple of years after I bought it in 1987, and since I really wanted an overdrive, I had to install a B/W T-85, as that’s what was used for those that wanted that option. It has a non-synchromesh first gear, which initially was a let-down. But I came to find out that it shifts quite easily into first when O/D is enabled, but not engaged, as the freewheeling feature separates the output shaft from the driveshaft. In fact, it’s very easy to make perfectly clash-less downshifts into first at low speed using no clutch at all. Seriously.

This video I made a few years back shows how the free-wheeling aspect of overdrive allows easy clutch-free shifting (it’s not “float-shifting”), but I failed to shoot me making some perfectly silent clutch-free shifts into first while still rolling. Another time…

But as the ad further up makes clear, the 3.03 three-speed was only used on the large Ford six and eight, and the V8 versions of the Fairlane, Falcon and Mustang.

That made the Mustang six with its standard three-speed, a quite common combination, anything but genuinely sporty. In 1967, the Mustang six finally got the fully-synchronized three speed, along with the Falcon and Fairlane sixes.

In reality, it should have been the other way around, with the sixes getting a fully synchronized box first, ideally starting right in 1960 with the Falcon and its new smaller three-speed transmission, as the little Ford sixes were always meager on torque and power. But the Big Three really pinched the pennies with their new 1960 compacts, and none of them got a synchronized first gear.

Synchronized first gears came to GM cars in 1966, and apparently completely across the board. Everything from the Corvair to Buick to Corvette. But GM light trucks had to wait until 1968, at least some of them. Like the Falcon and Mustang, the base Corvair with its non-synchro three-speed was far from genuinely sporty. But there was an optional fully-synchronized four speed available starting in late 1960. Very recommendable; I had one in my ’63 Monza.

Now we come to the laggard. As progressive as Chrysler often was in their engineering, there was no first gear synchromesh on their all-new 1960 Valiant and its new A903 three speed manual, also used on the big six cylinder cars. And not only that, but the shifter was on the floor, from where it had migrated on essentially all American cars since the 1930s. Why? Since the optional push-button automatic didn’t require a column shifter, Chrysler saved money by not having a column with any shift capability.

This was also the case with the big C-Body Chrysler Corp. cars form 1961-1964, as in this ’61 Newport. The big cars with V8s used the New Process A745 from 1961 through 1970, also with a non-synchronized first gear.

Of course, the 1960 Corvair had a floor shifter too, but that was a bit more obvious with its rear engine and more overt sportiness. Keep in mind that the Corvair was originally intended to come standard with Powerglide, but that was going to be too expensive. So a three-speed manual was added late in its development. A Road and Track test showed that the Powerglide equipped ’60 Corvair was actually slightly quicker 0-60 than the three-speed version. That’s actually not surprising, as the two-speed PG had better torque multiplication and was very efficient.

The Corvair’s three-speed was essentially the same “Synchro-Mesh” (non first gear syncro) as used in other Chevys. But the Chevy engineers were able to cobble up a fully-synchronized four speed out of the three-speed for 1961. Its gear ratios weren’t perfect, but it was a big improvement.

The Dart and Valiant did get column shifters for 1962, but unfortunately no synchromesh on first. And that went on for way too long, all the way through 1972. No wonder Dodge was offering a free automatic by then, as part of a package of other high-margin options.

I’m all too familiar with this transmission, as my father’s ’68 stripper Dart had that balky column-shifted A903 behind the little 170 inch slant six. I plumbed the very depths of what was possible from it on the back roads of Baltimore County. The transmission was that car’s weakest link: the 170 six was quite willing to rev, and the handling was essentially neutral, but that car really cried for a four speed. Well, that’s the case for all of the smaller sixes, at a bare minimum. The gap between second and third was way too large, something we covered here in more depth.

1973 finally brought a fully-synchronized three-speed to the passenger cars, but the Dodge pickups and vans extended the misery through 1976, no less, with the A250. Grinding gears in your cruising van was not at all groovy.

Not surprisingly, AMC was a bit late to the fully-synchronized ball too. The Borg Warner T15 and T16 were fully-synchronized three speeds, and adopted starting in 1968. But the old non-synchro first gear T96 was still used in the Gremlin and Hornet with the sixes. It would make a VW driver pretty unhappy to have to deal with that, but then I doubt there were many (any?) that switched to Gremlins. More likely a Toyota, with a slick-shifting 4 or 5 speed.

PS: If I’ve made a mistake or missed a shift or ground some gears or something, please do let me know. These kind of articles are inevitably works in progress, as were Detroit’s three-speed transmissions.