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

What Was the Last Three-on-the-Tree 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.

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.

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.

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 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).

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.

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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