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According to data released by the consulting firm IHS Automotive, just ten percent of cars offered in North America are available with a manual transmission. Contrast that with 1980, when almost a third of all cars on sale in North America could be had with a clutch. And when Ferrari – whose alloy gated shifters were about the sexiest thing ever to happen to a transmission – no longer offers a manual, the end is clearly in sight.
As we start the long farewell to the manual transmission, it’s interesting to look into the obscure corners of the clutch pedal’s illustrious history to find cars that most people assume were never available with a manual transmission. Here are some rare, but interesting, three-pedal finds:
- R107 Mercedes SL– The R107 SL, better known in the U.S. as the 350/450/380/560SL, was never offered in the U.S. with a manual transmission. It was however, sold throughout the rest of the world with a manual box. Given the Deutsche Mark’s sorry state in the early to mid-1980s, a huge number of gray market European SLs were privately imported to the U.S. Most often, the R 107 280SL (not to be confused with the earlier 1968-71 Pagoda-roof cars of the same name), of the late 1970s through the 1980s, came with a 2.8-L DOHC straight six. It was a decent performer and those cars that were not fully federalized (blessedly left with small bumpers and Euro-spec square headlights) look fantastic.
- Jaguar XJS– Jaguar pretty much gave up on the manual transmission after the E-type (although the new six-cylinder F-type manual is an amusing anachronism). But briefly, during the early 1990s, you could get a Getrag five-speed with the 3.6-L six-cylinder XJS. Very few of these cars were sold in the U.S. (almost all were coupes) and they make an interesting alternative to an E24 BMW six-series.
- Land Rover Discovery – A Disco with an R380 five-speed manual box is truly a unicorn in the U.S. Nevertheless, they do turn up from time-to-time. Most seem to date from 1996-97, early in the Discovery’s run. Thereafter, Land Rover undoubtedly discovered that almost nobody was taking their Discover off-road, and suburban Dallas and LA traffic was no place for a manual transmission.
- Dodge Caravan Turbo Minivan – We’re not making this up. From 1989-90, you could actually get a turbocharged minivan with a manual transmission that wasn’t a gray market Renault Espace, thanks to the Mopar folks who inexplicably offered Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers with a turbo-four and a five-speed. They actually show up on Craigslist from time-to-time. It would be a massive stretch saying that this powertrain lent a cool factor to Chrysler’s family hauler, but a five-speed turbo van would be a fine addition to any Bizarre Mopar collection.
- Cadillac Cimmaron – Cadillac’s barely disguised Cavalier initially carried over the Chevy’s powertrain options, one of which was a four-speed manual transmission, paired with an 88 hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder, making the Cimarron the first three-pedal Cadillac in several decades. The take-rate was minuscule as few Cadillac buyers had any interest in shifting for themselves and the number of Saab, Audi or BMW conquests was likely countable on one hand.