I spent the first 68 years of my life treating sports cars with automatic transmissions disdainfully. At any club meet or cars and coffee, the first thing I looked at when I walked down a row of cars were the center consoles.

If I saw a gear-shift lever and a shifter boot, I knew I was looking at a “real sports car.” If, to my horror, there was an automatic shifter, I put my nose in the air and walked on.

My thoughts have changed over the past two years. The newly acquired automatics in my collection have taught me that much of the joy in driving a classic sports car is connecting to the driving itself and the company you are with. It’s not all about the number of pedals.

Without question, small-displacement sports cars (such as our 1800cc 1965 Volvo 122S) mated to primitive three-speed automatics (Borg Warner Type 35) don’t make for a sporty combination. I have learned that the larger the displacement of the engine, the less efficient the autobox needs to be.

I have also learned that unless on fast tour, most driving is cruising, not replicating the Targa Florio on the slopes of Mt. Hood. In fact, when I owned a 996 Turbo with the oft-maligned Tiptronic transmission, I doubt if I shifted it manually more than a dozen times. Leaving it in Drive worked just fine.

This was brought home by my taking our 1971 Jag on a one-hundred-mile cruise through the Oregon wine country last week. Expertly piloted by good friend Chris Bright (who also owns an Alfa 1300 Super Nuevo and a Ferrari 348), we were able to exceed the posted limits the entire time, on straightaways and through the corners.

Never once did Chris have to manually downshift the car. We could just focus on the driving and our invigorating conversation. We did manage to solve most of the world’s problems that afternoon. However we both pined for the coming post-pandemic era where we could have stopped into the winery of our choice (Penner Ash for him, Stoller for me) for a flight of Oregon Pinot Noir.

As Matt Crandall of the Avant-Garde Collection said to me, “If you buy a modern 997.2 with a PDK, the first week you have it you will get all silly making lightning-quick up-and-down paddle shifts. After you get over that, you’ll just leave it in drive.”

Think about C2 Corvettes with their two-speed automatics. When I have driven them, they have been most pleasant for around-town driving. A four-speed in those cars is a distraction that causes you to build your left-calf muscle and not much else.

Matt is going to be putting our 122S on Bring A Trailer in the near future (you can find him by looking up 911r as a seller). It has taught me everything it can, and I’m ready to move on. My three remaining front-line cars are all automatics, the 928 S4 (316 hp), AMG SL 55 (500 hp)  and Jaguar V12 2+2 (272 hp).

Their engines have plenty of power, and it really doesn’t matter if the gearboxes have three, four, five or more speeds. In fact, of all my automatics, the Volvo with its limited 86 hp output could benefit the most from a modern 7-speed autobox. (In a passing fit of insanity I looked into what it would cost to put a modern multi-speed auto gearbox into the 122. Not surprisingly, it would be cheaper just to buy a three-year-old XC90).

Extra horsepower also allows for creature comforts like a/c, without the compressor robbing half the output of the engine when it kicks in. (Yes, I’m talking about 1975-79 Alfettas here.)

So no longer am I snotty and disdainful when I see a classic car with a selector instead of a stick shift.

I have learned that in today’s world, a smooth shifting automatic combined with plenty of horsepower is a winning combination.

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I had been a 4speed ( mostly Corvettes but Alfa and Jags thrown in) my entire driving life until my left sided sciatic nerve went bonkers. It made me appreciate automatics. My current indiscretions (C6 and XK8) are perfectly lovely without a clutch, and that long nerve in my leg doesn’t say a word!

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    keith all good points. I owned a Lotus Evora and enjoyed the car but as you point out most of the time behind wheel it’s was unusual to ever get to 5th gear. Lots of time in 2nd and 3rd but there was always another traffic light glowing red.

    I too own a E-Type a much under appreciated 2+2 . It has an automatic which was not my 1st choice . But it is a great Grand Tourer and enjoyable to drive. If i need ( and i do) to shift I take my MGB for a drive and get it out of my system!!

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    After almost 60 years as a driver, almost all with manual transmissions, I agree with Keith’s post. I recently bought a 2020 Lotus Evora GT with a 6-speed automatic. As I anticipated, it was more pleasant to drive in urban traffic, but I have been astounded by how well it works when driven “purposefully” on public roads in the country. It knows what gear I want even before I do, with no loss in performance or enjoyment to drive. I don’t mind not having a manual at all.

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    Hello Keith…glad to see you took my (and other’s) advice and went with the 928. When I’m not in the mood for shifting my 5 speed 928S, I just hop in the 40th Anniversary Vette, or the 2000 XKR convertible.Both automatics, with center consoles and the ability to shift when and if you want.

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    Agree that automatics in older vehicles are preferable for a lot of cruising situations, especially with a domestic car or truck. I love cruising in my 76 Valiant with torqueflite and super-light PS. However, I still prefer manuals for the smaller European cars and the Japanese cars from the 80s.

    Having said that, a manual in a NEW car is a wonderful thing. The level of sophistication is so great now, that other than a horrible interstate back-up, they can be a joy every day. I own a 2016 1.0L Ecoboost Fiesta (5-spd) and a 2012 VW GTI (6-spd) and both have super slick shifters, and are very easy to drive. The Fiesta has impressive low-end torque that means it requires almost no thought process to launch. But it is still a wonderful thing to pick your gear for each road situation. So maybe an old automatic and a new manual is the way to go?

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    Keith, I am truly glad you are enjoying your automatic cars. That said, I’m quite sure I’ll be sticking with manuals as long as I possibly can (and I live in the NY Metro area, so no shortage of traffic). Simply put, I enjoy the involvement, and I greatly miss it when I drive a car with an automatic. Matt commented that people use the paddles only for the first week, and then just leave it in D. I bought a new Alfa Romeo Giulia in 2018. I waited a year to buy it, hoping in vain that they would offer it with a manual. The transmission works extremely well in D. I don’t care — I find it impressive, but utterly boring. My car has the beautifully-done aluminum paddles, and I use them — always. But I still really wish it had three pedals and a gear lever.

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    Glad to see you are enjoying your E Type Keith. I’ve owned enough of them to have done 400 thousand plus reliable fast miles in them over the last 50 years. I think I can correctly argue that they were, all around, the greatest GT cars coming out of the 60’s and early 70’s. Torque is King! Grace Space and Pace indeed.

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    Just want to second your opinion of automatic equipped cars.. I am fond of a series of V8 E class Mercedes, most recently a 2016 E63 s AMG wagon. The different shift and suspension modes and the paddle shifters provide plenty of entertainment when I’m in the mood. Long distance trips are blissful.
    Great all around vehicle.

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    And now you can start practicing left-foot braking to enhance your driving experience!

  10. Avatar
    John Kuhn Bleimaier

    “If it doesn’t have 3 pedals it might as well be autonomous.” (copyright J.K. Bleimaier)

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    Well….when I am old….really old…..gray…..really gray, or bald….nah…and I have to be shoehorned, planted and anchored into the driver’s seat with blocks on the pedals or worse, hand controls, I will still grab and stab for the hand shaker and 3rd pedal……sisishifter…no can do! Although I get it, it works for some.

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    I will grant myself one automatic in the fleet – There are times when age and discomfort sometimes make the auto the vehicle of choice, or my wife seeks the comfort of a more modern vehicle .. Along with increased economy and faster speeds that were once the practical side of a manual, with paddle shifters even an auto can and does provide joy while driving
    However
    The connection isn’t there, the bond is a substitute .. Driving is a full body affair, with both feet and two hands And Music …. 1st gear .. You go faster, faster
    2nd gear .. You get it

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    Wow Keith…you are finally figuring some basic things out in life. Not too long ago you discovered rain/water weren’t a classic car’s friend…now you’ve figured out that “race cars” aren’t the only car to drive when you are just out for a great cruise. Maybe the next thing you will learn is that you have too many cars to really enjoy and appreciate them all.