They’re not extinct yet, but the end for stick-shift cars is coming.
For the 1980 model year, 35% of cars produced for sale in the United States had manual transmissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, the share is about 1%. And just 18% of American drivers can drive a stick, according to U.S. News & World Report.
This relative scarcity has collectors and enthusiasts salivating. They are pushing up the values of late-model sports cars with a clutch pedal and, in the process, creating a new class of collectible cars.
At the rate the stick shift is disappearing, it might join the automotive fossil record even before the internal combustion engine. In fact, in 2019, sales of electric vehicles surpassed the sale of manual transmission cars. Because of the torque delivery of their motors, EVs have no need for heavy, complicated six- or seven-speed gearboxes, whether automatic or manual.
The tipping point, however, was actually the introduction of quick-shifting, hyper-efficient, dual-clutch automatic transmissions a little over a decade ago, causing trendsetting sports-car manufacturers to all but give up on the clutch pedal. Before that, a manual transmission was de rigueur in any serious performance car.
For Ferrari, the manual transmission had the significance of religious iconography. The company’s distinctive “gated” shifters — which lacked a cover to hide what slot or gear the lever was in — were both tricky to master and beautiful to look at.
The businesslike shifter design was used in Ferrari competition cars starting in the late 1940s. By the 1990s, paddle shifters mounted to steering wheels, which worked without a clutch pedal, supplanted the gated shifter in most racing cars. Road cars (and video games) quickly followed — a 2012 Ferrari California was the last three-pedal Ferrari to leave the factory in Maranello, Italy, one of just two so equipped.
Lamborghini, McLaren, Maserati and Alfa Romeo haven’t offered manual transmissions in the United States for many years, either. Jaguar quietly stopped offering a manual option on the F-type sports car several years ago. Of the high-end European performance-car makers, only Porsche, BMW, Lotus and Aston Martin still give customers the option of shifting for themselves.
Car collectors, who tend to be contrarians, are notoriously attracted to the first and last of anything, so it was probably predictable that they would start to want the last, and arguably the best, of the manual-transmission cars.
“These cars tend to be perhaps newer than the cars that collectors typically pursue, but in some cases, the rarity factor offsets this,” said Alexander Weaver, a consignment specialist for RM Sotheby’s, a Canadian classic-car auction company.
Last month, that auction company sold a 2007 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano for $692,500. It was one of just 30 built with a manual transmission for that year, and it cost about $313,000 when new. To put the sale into perspective, the Ferrari brought three to four times what a comparable car with an automatic would have realized.
“The spike in values has been noticeable,” said David Gooding, founder of the California-based auction firm Gooding & Co. “These cars might not be for everyone, but for a certain collector or driver who wants a true, analog sports-car feel, but with good air conditioning and modern comforts, a late-model sports car with a manual transmission can be very attractive.”
Like RM Sotheby’s, Gooding’s auction house can point to numerous sales of manual Ferraris that fetched far more than a comparable automatic. It’s much the same in the Lamborghini world, said Weaver, who noted that “manual transmission examples of the Murciélago sell for up to three times the price of automatics.”
Even Porsche, which announced that its new 911 GT3 would be offered with a six-speed manual, has had prices spike for certain rare, late-model stick-shift cars, Gooding said.
The phenomenon repeats in the online-auction world and has spread to less expensive cars. Randy Nonnenberg, co-founder of the online-auction company Bring a Trailer, points to manual BMW M3s and M5s from the early and mid-2000s as particularly in demand.
“In addition to the rarity factor, manuals were often used differently,” Nonnenberg said. “Automatics were daily drivers, and manuals tended to be second cars. They usually have lower miles and were sometimes better cared for.”
Nonnenberg and Weaver also cited the somewhat bizarre trend of owners paying large sums to professionally convert their cars from automatics to manuals. In the case of BMW M3 conversions, owners are simply trying to redress the lack of supply.
Aston Martin Vanquish owners who convert their cars have the added cachet of creating a car that the factory never offered. In both situations, Weaver and Nonnenberg said, the owner can come out slightly ahead even after spending upward of $20,000 for a manual conversion.
A common joke among car enthusiasts is that the stick shift has a new and unintended feature — as an anti-theft device. But McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty, which offers classic-car insurance, valuations and rentals, said these cars could retain their allure for certain collectors.
“In a future where outcomes are ever more decided with an algorithm, people will seek the ability to make their own choices,” Hagerty said. “The rarity factor is certainly there,” he added, “and being able to drive a manual is a badge of being a true car person.”
While many drivers nowadays didn’t grow up using a stick, Hagerty doesn’t view that as a huge impediment. “The learning curve isn’t really that steep,” he said.