Hear us out, enthusiasts: a case for the automatic transmission

Nov 10, 2021

Automatic? No third pedal? Blasphemy — we can already hear the boos from the enthusiast section. But before you rage quit this tab on your browser, we think there’s a case to be made for the automatic transmission, so indulge us momentarily as we explain. Yes, there is no substitute for the irreplaceable connective tissue between man and machine. And yes, there is nothing more romantic than the mechanical feedback of the perfect downshift. The truth of the matter, however, is that not all enthusiasts, and not all cars, deliver the driving goods with a manual box.

As the market continues its pricing frenzy and dream enthusiast specs increase in value, this may be the opportune moment to pause and revisit the dismissal of ‘autotragic’ cars. In the ‘automatic adjacent’ category of early paddle shift cars and automated manuals there’s also an argument to be made for enthusiast pleasure. We’ve put together a few talking points to get the conversation going.

You don’t need to learn stick to be an enthusiast

While it’s highly encouraged to learn, and enjoy, the 3-pedal tango, the reality is not everyone interested in cars knows how to drive manual — and this is perfectly okay. Driving stick can be an unnecessary barrier to entry for first-time collectors trying to dabble in the car world. Getting into your first enthusiast car with an automatic gearbox is a great first step in experiencing enthusiast driving at your own pace. In our view, the more enthusiasts the merrier.

And what you’ll find is...

Some enthusiast cars are just better off with an automatic, especially cruising convertibles

Mercedes SLs are a great case study here. For the past 50 years Mercedes' SL range has set the standard for cabrio cruisers. If you go back the Pagoda-era W113s you'll find that enthusiasts who have driven both the automatic and manual gearboxes will tell you that it's not a car in which driving stick is an order of magnitude better. In fact, they'll tell you that given its docile motor and cruising nature the automatic box 'leans into' the car's strengths. The '90s R129 SLs are a choice selection here and still relatively affordable with plenty of examples under $20,000. Spirited sedans — also good.

This dichotomy is an interesting template to source other cars that may also fall into the 'potentially better in auto' category. Convertibles, and further, cars that aren't renown performance machines are great starting points. Speaking of starting points...

Automatics can be the least expensive entry points in the market

In today’s market, almost every enthusiast car imaginable is priced less (sometimes significantly) for examples trimmed with an automatic gearbox. This rule doesn't always hold true, but generally speaking there is an economic 'rebate' for two-pedal enthusiast cars. For example, as manual Porsche 993 prices start to approach six figures for prime examples, automatic trimmed versions are still trading in the $40-60,000 range depending on mileage and condition. Pair this with a Cabriolet and you're looking at the lower end of that spectrum. Remember, 'lean in'.

The next consideration in the 993 study is it's tiptronic functionality which was just getting going in the '90s. It was early technology back then, but that brings us to our next point.

Early automated manuals and tiptronics have their own pleasures

Early paddleshift and tiptronic cars really have a bad reputation — and deservedly so. Shifts were either too slow and sloppy, or too fast and neck-breaking. In period, the technology wasn't quite ready to impress. Today, however, where enthusiasts cars are largely relegated to weekend drives these quirks can be perceived as charming. Worse automotive sins have been forgotten and simply described as 'of the times'.

There's also some to be said about experiencing these shifts in technology. The automated manual F1 gearboxes in Ferraris of the '90s and 2000s, for example, still require a certain finesse to shift right — finesse only an enthusiast would really be open to handling. And hey, if you find yourself in an automated manual (pre-dual clutch), there are a bunch of little companies popping up to creating conversion kits as the core gearbox is largely the same.

Driving enthusiast cars > Self-driving anything

We need all the enthusiasts we can get. The world and culture of driving is changing and being open minded about how to create next generation enthusiasts may require destigmatizing some of the fringes of car culture — and the automatic gearbox may just be the place to start.

Header image via © Mercedes-Benz

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