Home » Early ‘Manumatic’ Transmissions Were Even Weirder Than You Remember

Early ‘Manumatic’ Transmissions Were Even Weirder Than You Remember

Manumatic Modes Topshot 2

It’s no secret that automatic transmissions have just become better and better over the past few decades. It wasn’t that long ago when long-ratio torque-converter autos gained the unfortunate “slushbox” nickname, but through electronic controls, mechatronic advancements, additional ratios, and better tuning, today’s automatics have done a serious number on manual transmissions’ market share. One thing we appreciate is being able to change our own gears even on an automatic — something that some call “manumatic control” — but let’s not forget that such a feature used to be a very strange and inconsistent thing indeed.

Save for General Motors and Ford, automakers have typically settled on one of two ways to control the manual mode in an automatic transmission. Pretty much everything made in the past decade uses a fore-aft rock of the shifter and/or paddles on the steering wheel or column to facilitate manumatic driving, and we’ve all just taken that for granted. However, go back fifteen, twenty, even 25 years, and the mix of manumatic modes was a whole lot weirder.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

First, a quick pre-amble: The origin of the term “Manumatic” is far weirder than you’d think. Back in the 1950s, a British company called Automotive Products Company Ltd. came up with a way to turn manual transmissions into semi-automatic ones using a centrifugal clutch, vacuum, hydraulic pressure, and some electrical wizardry. The name, as per registered trademark, was Manumatic.

Manumatic Ad 1

How did it work? When changing gear, a switch inside the gear lever would send a signal to a vacuum control unit, which would then use vacuum to disengage the clutch and close the throttle. When the gearchange was completed, a synchronizer switch on the clutch disengagement mechanism would send a different signal to the vacuum control unit, which would then slowly engage the clutch while the throttle was being opened via vacuum.


Mg Magnette Service Manual

As such, the original Manumatic was a semi-automated transmission with no true automatic mode, and reliability was reportedly lacking. According to the MG Magnette registry, “The basic trouble with the system was its complexity; it incorporated a large number of components of unique design, which had an almost infinite capacity for failing.” Sure, the first manumatic was a flop, but the name, if not the concept, stuck around well enough to eventually become common parlance for a conventional torque converter automatic transmission with some way of letting the driver cycle through all forward gear ratios individually. Now that’s a great example of how language changes over time. My best theory is that the Manumatic was familiar to the UK press, then semi-automatics died out, then Porsche’s Tiptronic came along in 1991, pipping Ferrari’s use of the Valeo automated manual in the 1992 Mondial T. From there, shiftable automatics grew in popularity, while automated manual transmissions didn’t quite become a buzzword until the launch of the 355 F1. Basically, it’s likely the manumatic term was applied to shiftable automatics because new semi-automatics didn’t really exist in a widespread manner at the time.

Anyway, enough about automated manuals and vacuum operation — let’s talk about manumatics as we now know the term today, specifically the weirdest ones.

Alfa Romeo Q-System

Alfa Romeo Q System

Alfa Q System H Auto


Around the turn of the millennium, Alfa Romeo decided that everyone else was doing it wrong. If that previous sentence strikes absolute terror into your heart, you’d heard a thing or two about Italian cars. Mercifully, Alfa’s solution involved working with the Japanese. Still, the end result was wacky: An H-pattern automatic transmission. Huh?

Park through Drive worked as you’d expect in an automatic shifter, but then manumatic gears one through four were arranged in a traditional manual H-pattern to the left of Drive. No clutch, no fifth gear, no problem! This is absolute insanity, and I wholeheartedly love it. Who comes up with an idea like this? Who approves it? What’s it like to drive? I have so many questions and I’d absolutely love to experience an Alfa 156 with the Q-System automatic. If you live near Toronto, own one, and are willing to let me take one around the block, please drop me an email or a DM.

Jaguar J-Gate

Jaguar J Gate

Of course, many years before Alfa Romeo’s H-patterned automatic wackiness came Jaguar’s infamous J-Gate, one of the most disappointing attempts at a manumatic mode in the history of automatic transmissions. I’m going to catch some flak for that statement, but hang on, let me explain.


Why the hell does this manumatic mode only go down to two? That’s because J-Gate only limits the maximum gear ratio, not the exact gear ratio. Slot the lever into the “2” position, and your Jaguar may shift between first and second, but it won’t shift higher. If I want a gear, give me a gear, dammit, not a range of them. Secondly, the J-Gate takes up a ton of space that could’ve been used for far more useful stuff. Jaguar seems to have agreed, considering the J-Gate got dropped for an electronic rotary shifter in the original XF. However, this basic gear limiting can be useful in the snow or in spirited driving, so it’s a hell of a lot better than just sticking to drive. Remember, no matter how sub-optimal a better alternative is, it’s still a better alternative. Just take what you have and make the most of it.

Front Of The Wheel

Porsche 993 Tiptronic Callout


Even Porsche got in on the experimental manumatic weirdness after setting the benchmark for manumatic modes with its Tiptronic S automatic transmission. First installed in the 1995 993-model 911, it had a manumatic mode you could manipulate from the shifter and steering wheel, albeit the latter in a rather weird way. In the 986 Boxster, 996 911, 997 911, and 987 Boxster and Cayman, manumatic shifting from the shifter was lost entirely, in favor of controls on the wheel. Unfortunately, these were effectively rocker switches on the front of the steering wheel — press up to upshift, press down to downshift. It was an ergonomic clusterfuck, and as a result, Tiptronic S Boxsters , 996 Porsche 911s, and 997 Porsche 911s are worth less than their manual counterparts.


Now, here’s what the internet won’t tell you about Tiptronic S. If you can get around the weirdness of the rocker switches, the five-speed automatic is a perfectly fine automatic transmission. It’s not lightning fast, but it’s fast enough, and it obeys your commands fairly well. If an automatic suits your needs and you’ve always fancied a Porsche 911 but can’t stretch to a PDK-equipped 997.2, take a Tiptronic S car for a whirl. The results might pleasantly surprise you.

Push-Pull Paddles

Bmw E90 Push Pull Paddles

Speaking of controls that multitask, several automakers played around with push-pull paddles, before many of them switched over to having the left paddle downshift and the right paddle upshift. McLaren does these right, in that the left paddle shifter and the right paddle shifter operate inversely. You pull the left paddle shifter to downshift and push it towards the dashboard to upshift, and that order is reversed with the right paddle shifter. However, in the mid-aughts, many automakers from BMW to Mazda adopted push-pull paddles that both operated identically, meaning both paddles either push-to-downshift and pull-to-upshift or push-to-upshift and pull-to-upshift.


As many of these setups came paired with perfectly logical manumatic gates on the shifter itself, it often made more sense to just use the damn gearstick. Look, the mid-noughties were a weird time. Weirdly enough, the E90 BMW 3 Series used both these push-pull paddles and normal paddles in the same generation, with the switch happening in 2011.


Mercedes-Benz Autostick

We’re all familiar with the most popular method of manumatic control, a longitudinal gate on a shifter rocked back-and-forth to upshift and downshift, yes? Well, here’s a weird variation on that. Many Chrysler vehicles and Mercedes-Benz models in the 2000s took the standard Tiptronic gate, turned it sideways, and moved it to the bottom of the shifter pattern to create AutoStick. Simply push right to upshift, or push left to downshift, and the gearbox would usually do your bidding.

While still weird compared to where things stand now, AutoStick made a reasonable amount of sense, as it used a natural wrist motion and somewhat followed the logic of a traditional H-pattern manual transmission. In a non-dogleg ‘box, the 2-3 shift is up and to the right, while the 3-2 shift is down and to the left. What’s more, it was agnostic on hand-of-drive — left-hand-drive and right-hand-drive cars featured the same ergonomics from the same shifter. While this setup eventually died out, it really makes you wonder why more models didn’t stick with it for longer.


The Future Of The Manumatic Mode

Of course, with the dawn of the electric age, manumatic modes are becoming less and less relevant, seeing as most EVs don’t have anything more than a single fixed gear ratio. You can’t stall an electric motor, they make great power over a massive RPM range, and with peak torque from zero RPM, you don’t have to worry that much about torque multiplication. These days, paddle shifters in EVs are used primarily for adjusting the amount of desired regenerative braking, although that’s starting to change. The Hyundai Ioniq 5 N features simulated gears for the sake of engagement, and more performance EVs could pick up on this. Just because the controls for manumatic modes are more standardized than other doesn’t mean the process itself isn’t about to get a whole lot more weird.

(Photo credits: Anglia Car Auctions/YouTube, eBay/BMC, BMC, Goo-Net Exchange, Bring A Trailer)

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Doug Schaefer
Doug Schaefer
3 months ago

This article existing without mention of the Hurst Dual Gate or especially the Lightning Rods is a rather serious miss.

James Carson
James Carson
3 months ago

My third car was a 70 442 W30 Olds with a hurst dual gate automatic shifter. Not strictly a manumatic imo, but it worked quite well. Being a young 20 something I of course modified
the poor car with various engine, transmission, drive train and suspension until the thing was undrieavle on the street. It was great! The dual get worked fine through all the abuse.

Dr. Asteroid
Dr. Asteroid
3 months ago
Reply to  James Carson

One can’t forget the mid-80s Hurst 442 with it’s faux-Lenco style automatic gear shifters.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
3 months ago

> first manumatic was a flop, but the name, if not the concept, stuck around well enough to eventually become common parlance

Is that a Canada thing? This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone use the word outside of the original trademarked implementation.

3 months ago

That Manumatic diagram smokes smooth Chesterfield brand cigarettes after a steak dinner and three fingers of scotch on a rock.

The World of Vee
The World of Vee
3 months ago

How did you go through this entire thing without posting the Saab Sensonic Top Gear video?!

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