If you have a choice, I can’t think of any situation where misogyny beats ridiculousness. Misogyny is inexcusable shittiness, but being ridiculous can often be a pretty good time, if you do it right. With that in mind, I think that Hurst, the shifter-making company, did the right kind of growing up and evolving, as they transformed a concept that started steeped in the worst sort of midcentury misogynistic bullshit, and turned it into something much better: the most ridiculous shifter setup on pretty much any car, ever. This shifter is essentially like a lot of automatic transmission shifters today, ones that give the option to manually pick what gear the car is in. Sometimes this is done via paddles, sometimes by side-to-side motions of the gearshift or a secondary gate, or some combination. What’s almost never done is to have three separate shift levers, all sprouting out of the console like some kind of perverse licorice lollipop bouquet. And yet, that’s exactly what Hurst did. Meet the Hurst Lightning Rods Shifter.
The idea an the automatic transmission that still lets you shift manually is sort of a strange one, and it’s a concept that can be approached from two different directions. There’s the direction of trying to adapt a manual transmission into a sort of half-assed automatic, where you’re basically just automating a clutch on a manual transmission, as was the case for the Volkswagen Automatic Stickshift or the Saxomat automatic clutch system that showed up on a number of European makes. That’s the path for carmakers who don’t have full automatic solutions, and the manual shifting of gears is an unwanted but necessary trait.
Then there’s the other side, where a carmaker already has a full automatic transmission, but for marketing or just its-more-fun reasons they want to let drivers decide when they want to shift between gears. It’s still an automatic with a torque converter like any automatic (and, keep in mind, these are automatics from the ’60s to the ’80s, so they’re still power-sucking, slow-shifting slushboxes) but you at least have an option for what gear you want to be in and how long you want to stay in it. One way is an attempt to make a manual feel more like an automatic, the other is a way to make an automatic feel more like a manual.
The very existence of these is a good reminder of one of the worst parts of the human condition: we always seemed doomed to want what we don’t have.
But we’re here to talk about the second kind, the automatic that can feel a bit more like a manual, and Hurst built some aftermarket shifters to do just that. It appears they started off just as a “dual-gate” type of shifter, where you could pop the lever out of the usual PRNDL prison and switch between first, second, third, and if you were a big shot, overdrive, like you were some manner of god.
Now, you’d think this would be fine on it’s own and plenty marketable, but for whatever reason, possibly due to all the lead in the gasoline and all the chauvanism floride in the water, this was the approach Hurst took to selling these shifters when they came out in 1963:
Yes, His and Hers! Finally, you can have a car that your special, delicate lady could drive by sliding that lever to D and then not having to worry her pretty little head about a thing, while you, a man, absolutely leaking testosterone from every meatus and pore on your body, could unlock the little lock, flick that shifter to the right about an inch, and jam it forward and back as you drove, which I think we’d all agree is pretty much the midcentury equivalent of slaughtering a mammoth and butchering it right there on the veldt in order to provide for your village.
Also, you can make race car sounds with your mouth while doing it!
Of course, this is all deeply stupid. Sure, you could bang through the gears and hold the revs a bit longer, but come on, it’s still not a manual! And if that’s what your 1963 masculinity hinged on, then you’re not going to be happy to know how much shifting he little old lady in that Renault Dauphine or VW Beetle is doing as she buzzes alongside you. Also, what if you’re feeling lazy and drive in “her” mode? Would you be cringing the whole time knowing you’re using a woman’s shift pattern?
It’s so bad. It’s so embarrassing. Well, the marketing at least. Technically, it’s not a bad thing, being able to pick your own gears, even if it’s not going to be the same as a real manual, it’s not the worst thing. Happily, Hurst made a version that didn’t demean half the human population, and called it the Dual Gate:
It’s the same damn thing, just with 100% of the misogyny removed via a complex process known as “not being shitty,” and this effort was rewarded by the Dual Gate becoming a factory option for the 1968 Pontiac GTO:
Okay, pretty cool, right? An automatic with a way to row your own gears without making women feel like garbage, you’d think we could close the story here, happily! But we’re not going to. Because the story of this shifter gets so much weirder and better.
Things in Hurst automatic-with-manual-gearchange-optionland remained pretty static until the 1980s came along, and with this bold new era came the craving for a bold new kind of shifter. I guess. The car that was used to move this bold new shifter, now called Hurst Lightning Rods, around from place to place was the 1983-1984 Limited Edition Hurst/Olds:
This was the hottest Oldsmobile you could get at the time, and even though the body was still basically a Cutlass Supreme like your school principal drove, this one had a 5-liter V8 making a (ho-hum by modern standards) 180 horsepower, with a decent 245 foot-pounds of torque. There were dual mufflers and lots of stripes but really there was one standout feature of the car, hinted at in that ad above.
See the hand and the shifter up there? You might think the multiple shifters pictured were to suggest the motion of the shift lever, but you’d be wrong, because that picture is literal. There were three fucking shift levers. Yes, yes, three levers! I know I said so in the first paragraph, but still! Look what this was like:
See the instructions there in the upper right? All that text, explaining what you need to do with that trio of levers to just, you know, drive the damn thing? Here, maybe this will make it easier to understand:
Okay, so, once you get in the car and spend a good 15 seconds just staring at that bouquet of levers mumbling “the fuck am I looking at?” here’s all you need to do to drive it: first, make sure all the levers are um, huh. I guess, okay, to go in first, the leftmost lever is in D, the middle lever is down, and the rightmost lever is down – that’s first gear. So you start off, then shift the rightmost lever up, which shifts from first to second. To go from second to drive, move the middle lever up. Then, to go from third (or drive) to fourth (overdrive), move the leftest lever to the OD gear. Is that right? I think so. Let’s watch a video:
I guess you get used to it, and seeing it in action doesn’t seem so bad, but still who the hell wanted this? I can’t possibly see how this would make for quicker shifts than a regular sequential-type shifter, like the earlier Dual Gate. I mean, the three rods are certainly a fun novelty, but I just have yet to meet someone who desperately wishes their car was more like a pipe organ in terms of complexity of levers. In fact, in case you are one of those people, there was even a specialized four lever setup that was used for track driving, somehow. I think the extra lever allowed for reverse?
I love this thing so much, because it’s so gleefully, deliriously absurd. Can you imagine drag racing with this setup? There’s no way you’d be faster than, oh, literally anything else, if only because you have to move your hands across three separate levers and the idea of trying to do that all quickly in the high-pressure environment of a drag race makes my brain hurt and a lone trickle of blood creep out of my nose. It’s like if Oldsmobile said hey, instead of just shifting normally in our superfast car, what if you solved a Rubik’s cube side every time you want to shift gears? How cool is that?
I think having a setup like this in your car has to be worth it just for the blank, confused stares you’d get from anyone who opened your door. Imagine the fun you could have watching a valet choke back a sob as they take your keys and sit down in this thing. I mean, sure, I think you can also just drive it in normal, fully-automatic D, which I’m pretty certain every Hurst/Olds owner did 90% of the time after the first month of ownership, but that’s not the point.
Also, wild ridiculousness still beats misogyny, every time. Feel free to use this as an example if ever challenged.