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.