After steadily losing the battle against automatics for the past 70 years, manual transmission sales are on the rise. Well, sort of. Before driving enthusiasts rejoice, consider that the recovery is very trivial — about a percentage point — the victory is small, by all definitions.
The world’s first car, the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, had an automatic transmission — a continuously variable automatic transmission. It was celebrated for its innovation, but it was slow and unreliable. In 1894, Emile Levassor and Louis-Rene Panhardare developed the first manual gearbox. Although the workload on the operator was much more significant, the “stick shift” was smoother, faster, more efficient, and, for driving enthusiasts, more fun. It wasn’t long before the manual gearbox was commonplace.
Yet humans are lazy, so automakers diligently worked to develop a smooth, reliable, and efficient automatic transmission that would shift without operator input. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that automatic transmissions were refined enough that consumers began to choose them over manuals — even paying a premium for the convenience of the ‘automatic.’ The sales of traditional ‘stick-shift’ gearboxes have fallen ever since.
A new report from CarMax, a popular used vehicle retailer based in the United States (the company sold 1,630,550 combined units in 2021), shows that after falling to 2.4% of sales in 2020, manual transmission sales at CarMax increased to 2.8% in 2021 and 2.9% in 2022. Those are impressive numbers, considering that the sales of electric vehicles are on the rise and few automakers offer new vehicles with the traditional gearbox (automotive experts say that fewer than 20% of American drivers can operate a manual transmission).
The vehicle retailer reports that the stick shift audience skews younger and male, with the typical manual car buyer four years younger than its average customer. During its study, the company noted that the Honda Civic, a popular compact car, was the top-selling manual vehicle. While manual gearboxes have traditionally been the no-cost option — making them popular with price-sensitive shoppers — CarMax reports that price is likely no longer the primary reason consumers select a stick shift.
“At CarMax, we’re committed to helping customers find the vehicle that best supports their lifestyle. Customers have expressed interest in manual transmission vehicles due to a variety of factors, including nostalgia and throwback culture, and we often see those in the market to buy a sports car are looking for a manual transmission. We’ve also heard from parents car-shopping for their teens that they find stick shifts appealing because it requires the use of both hands, which may serve as a deterrent for texting while driving.”
Are stick-shift transmissions going to replace automatics? Very unlikely. The reality is that most consumers seek to maximize convenience with their new cars, trucks, and crossovers. A traditional standard transmission requires work — the use of both arms and both legs — and increasing the workload on the operator does not appeal to most consumers.
That said, there will continue to be a market for the manual gearbox with driving enthusiasts who crave the visceral interaction with their vehicle. And automakers will continue to serve this small niche with new vehicles as long as federal regulators and legal emission requirements allow.