What Was the Last Column-Shift Manual Car Americans Could Buy?

After a great deal of painstaking research last month, I was able to determine that the very last three-speed automatic available in a new car in North America came in the 2002 Toyota Corolla/Geo Prizm. After that, I hunted down the identity of the last new car available here with a four-speed manual transmission (the 1996 Toyota Tercel). It turned out to be much tougher to determine the very last new car North Americans could buy with the good old three-on-the-tree column-shift manual transmission, but now I know.

1939 plymouth brochure

Plymouth Division, Chrysler Corporation

Chrysler put the three-speed column-shift manual on the map back in the 1939 model year, with the “Remote Control” shifter setup in the ’39 Plymouths. This rig allowed the use of a big, cushy bench seat and three-abreast seating, without a floor shifter banging into anyone’s knees.

1940 plymouth brochure

Plymouth Division, Chrysler Corporation

Other manufacturers followed suit, and most Detroit cars of the immediate postwar era came off the assembly line with three-on-the-tree manual transmissions. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, most affordable American cars used this setup, and the three-on-the-tree remained commonplace well into the 1960s. I came of driving age in the early 1980s, and three-on-the-trees were still semi-mainstream at that point… but they disappeared quickly after that.

If you ask a bunch of nitpicky car-history freaks to name the very last car you could buy new in North America with a three-on-the-tree, you’ll get a wide range of answers, delivered with varying levels of vehemence. The main candidates will boil down to the Chevy Nova, the Dodge Aspen, and the Ford Fairmont (and the badge-engineered siblings of those cars). The final new truck you could buy with a three-on-the-tree is another subject, but we’ll cut to the chase by letting you know it was a 1987 GM product.

1979 chevrolet nova sales brochure

Chevrolet Division, General Motors

I purchased sales brochures and owner’s manuals for numerous models, consulted with an incredibly knowledgeable Chrysler restorer with a complete set of dealership reference books from the 1970s, and dove down far too many online-forum rabbit holes populated by very angry old dudes to determine that the absolute last three-on-the-tree car available here was the 1979 Chevrolet Nova (and its Oldsmobile and Pontiac twins).

1979 chevrolet nova sales brochure

Chevrolet Division, General Motors

1979 was the final year for the rear-wheel-drive GM X-Body, and the three-on-the-tree died with the platform (the Citation and its siblings were based on an unrelated front-wheel-drive X platform).

1979 chevrolet nova sales brochure

Chevrolet Division, General Motors

You could buy three-on-the-floor manual transmissions in Detroit cars after 1979, but that’s a tale we’ll tell a bit later. The very last year for a Chrysler-built, American-market new car with a three-on-the-tree manual was 1978, when the Dodge Aspen, Plymouth Volaré, Dodge Monaco and Plymouth Fury could be purchased with a 1939 Plymouth-style shifter (your enraged uncle who swears he bought a new ’80 Volaré with a three-on-the-tree is wrong, sorry). American Motors ditched the three-on-the-tree earlier, with the 1976 Pacer and Hornet being the last Kenosha machines so equipped.

1979 chevrolet nova dealer sheet

Chevrolet Division, General Motors

In theory, the first-year Ford Fairmont could be purchased with a three-on-the-tree manual, which makes 1978 the last year for a Ford car with such a shifting rig, but I am extremely skeptical that anyone in Dearborn actually signed off on spending vast sums of money to build a one-year-only bespoke steering column for a desperately obsolete shifter configuration on the brand-new Fox platform. Most likely, the 1977 Ford Maverick/Mercury Comet was the final real-world three-on-the-tree Ford car here. If it turns out that three-on-the-tree Fairmonts really made it off the assembly line, then someone needs to build a three-on-the-tree 1990s Fox Mustang using that special steering column.

Since the 1979 Oldsmobile Omega and Pontiac Phoenix were mechanically identical to the Nova, the three-on-the-tree was the base transmission hardware available on the entry-level versions of those cars. However, anyone willing to buy the Pontiac- or Olds-badged Nova probably felt able to spring for the automatic or at least the three- or four-speed floor-shifted manual transmission in those cars, and I’ll bet close to zero three-on-the-tree Omegas or Phoenixes made it out of the showrooms in 1979. When the new Oldsmobiles were in early for 1980, the three-on-the-tree was history.

So, next time you’re talking about the racing prowess of the three-on-the-tree and someone claims the ’80 Aspen could be purchased with that most American of transmission hardware, set them straight with the truth: the 1979 Nova, Omega and Phoenix were the final three-on-the-tree cars sold new here.

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