Make the Conversion?

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The manual transmission is being pushed off the market by the pushing of electric vehicles, which don’t generally have transmissions at all (the motors typically connect directly to the drive wheels) so I’m thinking of bringing it back.

All it takes is a conversion.

My ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am has an automatic transmission – unlike the ’76 Trans-Am I owned previously, which had a four speed manual. I no longer have the manual-equipped ’76, which departed this world back in the early ’90s when a red light runner sent it to the afterlife. I often miss it, chiefly because it did have a manual – which adds intangible fun and emotional appeal to driving any car but especially an old muscle car.

The Super T-10 four speed in my other Trans-Am sounded almost as good as the Pontiac V8 that rumbled and shook under the hood. As you accelerated through the gears, a pleasant mechanical aria of gear whine (similar to the sounds of supercharger gear whine) could be heard, the pitch getting higher as you went faster. And of course you felt the transmission’s connection to the engine through the chrome Hurst shifter lever you rowed with your right hand.

You can program an automatic to chirp the tires on the 1-2 (and even the 2-3) upshift – assuming the engine is strong enough to make it happen. But it’s not the same as chirping the tires on the 1-2 yourself.

Anyone who can move the selector from Park to Drive can drive a car with an automatic. It takes a bit more skill to drive an old muscle car equipped with a manual that goes beyond just shifting. The clutches in classic muscle cars were not hydraulically assisted – as they are in modern cars that have manuals (the few of them remaining) that makes it much easier to push the clutch in. It took more legwork to do it back then. And there was no help for you on hills.

Manuals also have the virtue of being simpler, purely mechanical things. Automatics are hydraulic and mechanical things. They have planetary gearsets and torque converters and pressurized fluid circuits that transmit the engine’s power.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But I miss the purely mechanical interface.

Which brings me to the real point of this article. Which is that it’s possible – it’s easy – to make the conversion from automatic to manual. If you want to do it. And if you have a car like mine. Not the same make or model. Just a car like mine. That is to say, a car made before electronic kudzu made it effectively impossible to do.

All you require – as the Toothless Man once said – are the necessary parts to make the conversion, such as the pedals, levers and brackets. That and the transmission, of course. Plus the manual flywheel and bellhousing, clutch and pressure plate, etc. It is an entirely physical conversion as there are no electronics involved. And that is why the conversion is possible – and why it isn’t with anything that’s been made since the electronic kudzu’ing reached a certain degree of interconnectedness, which was probably roughly about 20 years ago.

Each car is now a bundled package of electronically connected components, including its mechanical components. My ’76 has no consciousness of the kind of transmission it came with nor does it care whether I convert it to a different one. I have in fact already done just that – about ten years back. I swapped out the three speed automatic it came with when it was new because I wanted a transmission with overdrive, in order to lower the engine’s revs at cruising speeds. All modern automatics have overdrive gearing to do just that. It was easy to bolt in a more modern automatic with an overdrive gear because all that was involved was bolting it in. My Trans-Am does not have an ECU that remembers what transmission type was bolted to the engine originally and there is no interconnectivity beyond the physical connections.

If it bolts up, you can literally bolt it up.

This is only part of the process with an electronically controlled car. The ECU that runs not just the engine will know something’s been changed and may not accept it. If it’s anything made within the past decade or so, it won’t accept it.

It has gotten so panopticon-ish that you can’t even replace a headlight assembly or battery in some cases without the computer’s approval. If you don’t get it, you won’t be goin’ any damn where (again, per the Toothless Man).

It is essentially impossible to convert a modern muscle car such as the Dodge Challenger Hellcat I was lucky enough to test drive last summer from automatic to manual. You’d have to replace not just the transmission but most of the electronics. You’d probably have to swap an entire/complete drivetrain (engine and transmission) plus all of the latter’s computers (plural) and sensors, etc. to get it done – and make it work. And that would more expensive than just buying a Challenger that was factory built with a manual.

No such worries with a pre-electronic car like my ’76 Trans-Am, which I can make much more like my other ’76 Trans-Am.

It’s just a matter of acquiring the parts and bolting them in.

. . .

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  1. Why not just seller yours and buy one with a stick? So much easier and less hassle. But those had very heavy clutches, I hear, so daily driving will be better with the auto.

    • Hi Bryan,

      Because my TA has wu! History, that is. No other TA is my TA. I know, it sounds kooky. And I know I am! As far as the heavy clutch: Yes, I know. I used to own a different ’76 that had the manual and the heavy clutch. I loved it!

      • Buy a ’75 or ’76 914 2.0. They are a joy to drive and a very easy clutch. I like the look of those years because in this case, the bumpers actually made the car look better by making it less squared off and it looked longer and sleeker. I had one in college, and in ’10, I inherited my dad’s ’87 911 Cabriolet and drove that for 9 years before selling it. It cost me $29k to maintain it in that 9 years and after I sold it the new owner had to rebuild the engine at a cost of almost the same amount of money about 6 months later. I knew it was a time bomb in terms of cost and I had to penny pinch to keep it down to $29 grand in those 9 years. But neither one of us knew that the engine was going with a cracked head. We’ve stayed in touch and I think he’d like to sell it back to me. But as much as I respect my dad, it’s too much hassle. But the 914 was frankly, better to drive, less unstable, less likely to want to drive you into a ditch or throw you into a tree like the 911. And it’s a VW motor so less expensive to maintain.

  2. I’m preferential to a Centerforce Dual Friction clutch as a stock replacement upgrade if you’re going to “DO ETT”. Will slip and burn if you ask too much of it, but adds serious grab with little to no increase in pedal effort from a stock clutch. Was on my second before I crashed my 91 z28 convertible for unrelated reasons, but at low speed I could break the tires loose pretty much whenever I wanted, with a very easy pedal effort. We’re in the 2020’s make use of the new tech designs

  3. Do it Eric…Back in early 80s my best bud had a black 76 T/A 455 4speed I had a black 72 240Z far from stock lowered, fender flares front air dam ect…Some weekends we would trade cars.In the back of my cluttered mind I can still hear the wail of that quadrajet and super T10.I always wanted me one…..

  4. Eric, think this one through a LOT before diving in. I’ve done it several times, it’s always the little crap that makes it miserable. It feels so good to bolt up the flywheel clutch and pressure plate, then slide that bell housing and trans in. Then be stuck for months waiting on the right speedo gear/cable, or finding out your wiring harness has to be changed because the backup light switch is different, or finding out that the factory tunnel is different and you have to hack a hole to get the shifter to fit. None of it hard, but on a clean collector car kind of a drag.

    Though I did personally just bag a manual, an 88 F150 with a 300 and M5ODR2. 300 bucks and drove it home (sans brakes…)

    • Hi Ernie,

      Yup. Indeed. But I know ’70-81 Firebirds like (per El Guapo) I know my own smell! The speedo gear is easy; parts readily available. I probably have the gear in my pile of parts (I used to own a manual TA). The tunnel’s the same except for the opening for the shifter; easily cut. And I plan to get an upper section of the tunnel from a parts car – with the correct (shaped) opening and weld it in place, so everything looks factory. The wiring in a car like mine is hilariously basic. The main obstacle for me is the cost of a properly rebuilt Super T-10. That gets into money. Everything else is pretty inexpensive (e.g., about $260 for the pedals, linkages, small parts). I’m not going to do this right away. I’m just in the parts-accumulating bidness for now!

      • Hi Eric, it goes with out saying to save what you cutout and to use as thin a blade/ cutting disk you can find to do it. Bag and tag it in the event you ever need to go back to an automatic.

  5. If you want to go that route, go for it! I’m currently planning to convert my automatic 2wd 1988 Ranger to 4wd 5 speed stick. I have all the parts, just need the front axle (twin I-beams), which I haven’t found anywhere yet, but I can let the transfer case freewheel untill I find one. I’m going with the Mazda M5OD which was found in mid-late 90s Rangers, Explorers, and V6 F-150s because the spec for 1988 was the Mitsubishi FM146, and that has very weak bearings.

    About later electronic cars, I converted a 1996 Nissan Maxima years ago, and it was a real pain, but doable. I had to find a computer that didn’t need the “Serial Bus” to an automatic transmission computer, & that one complained about the cat o2s because the computer was from 1998 model, so I had to change the entire exhaust system too.

  6. Do you have to go with a four-speed manual? What about a modern 6-speed? It looks like various options are available for a ’76 TA. You could make it better than it ever was originally, or do you prefer to keep it like-stock?

    • Yes, a 5 or 6 speed has high enuf overdrive to hear music or valentine.

      I didnt like 75 mph with pontiac 400 screaming in mine. I dreamed of 3.08 rear end with at least .65 OD.

  7. Biden admin is quadrupling tariffs on Chinese EVs to 100%! LOL! Basically completely barring them from entry into the domestic market. This is how you know this is all fake & gay. If they -really- cared about the environment and not the grift of ‘clean energy’ they would let people buy 25K cheap little Chinese EVs. But, nope! 50K+ is your price of entry into the EV market so all the grifters can keep on robbing us blind. Again, it is all so sinister it is like a dark comedy movie, but we are the stars of the show…

  8. Do it Eric, not just for the gear pounding joy, but the additional thrill of spiting the foolish OEM’s and the Feds will put this info in your dossier, putting you in league with the likes of Donald Trump!
    When the men in black show up, tach the poncho up to 6 grand side step the clutch, leave those bastards in a trail of burned rubber and smoke. You may not escape them, but you’d be going out in a blaze of glory… What better way to go?

  9. Make the Conversion? ‘Joe Biden’ is pushing a different conversion on auto makers — from ICE to EeeVee by 2032. Orange Man says ‘hard no’ to that noise:

    ‘Donald Trump told oil industry executives he would dismantle Joe Biden’s pro-electric vehicle agenda as he asked for $1 billion to help return him to the White House, it has been claimed.

    ‘The Republican presidential candidate pledged to roll back the Biden administration’s environmental rules at a meeting with fossil fuel bosses last month, according to the Washington Post, and called recently introduced EV rules “ridiculous”.

    ‘Mr Trump reportedly described the proposed billion-dollar donation as a “deal” given how much oil and gas companies would save as a result of his policies. The dinner at Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida was reportedly attended by the bosses of gas companies Venture Global and Cheniere Energy as well as companies including Chevron and ExxonMobil.’

    I want to see “Biden’s” entire legacy buried at the crossroads with a stake through its heart. Death to EeeVees!

    • I’ll second that Jim,
      As useranon99 mentioned above the Biden thing just raised tariffs on the EV’s from China to make them just as unaffordable as domestic EVs. How much more obvious can it be that the push for these appliances doesn’t have squat to do with the “climate” and everything to do with controlling the serfs.

  10. I remember when I was a teen (late 70’s early 80’s) the super hot set up was converting the 4 speeds to Doug Nash 5 speed trannys (his shop was just a few miles from where I grew up). Man talk about being the talk of the town if you had one. Let alone the psych out factor for street racing! lol I’d look into that , in this internet swap meet world locating one may provide for “having your cake and eating it too”!

  11. I’m jealous Eric. It will be a vast improvement with a four on the floor. You’ll end up driving it much more often. Wish I could do this with my T-Bird. I’d have a one of a kind, worth a small fortune. Unfortunately it would take a large fortune to get it done. Reminds me of my friend who owned a vineyard when asked how to make a fortune producing wine. His answer, ‘start with a much larger fortune’

    • Haha, reminds me of Michael Jordan’s quote. He was telling someone how to become a millionaire. He said first become a billionaire, then get divorced.

      • I’d probably end up divorced if I tried making it into a manual. I bought the T-Bird for her, as a surprise, yet I end up driving it 80% of the time. Years ago I taught her to drive a stick, yet she doesn’t really like it.

  12. “Plus the manual flywheel and bellhousing, clutch and pressure plate, etc. It is an entirely physical conversion as there are no electronics involved. And that is why the conversion is possible – and why it isn’t with anything that’s been made since the electronic kudzu’ing reached a certain degree of interconnectedness, which was probably roughly about 20 years ago.”

    It can be done, provided you have a team of engineers. I remember back in the day watching this build on TV. They said they had to trick the car into thinking it still had an automatic trans in it. Pretty badass car! Too bad Lexus didn’t produce it.

  13. My friend Joe worked as a mechanic at a dealership in Chicago. He rebuilt hundreds of transmissions that were in Chevrolet trucks. Every transmission goes bad, more or less what happens/ed.

    Beer trucks need to go and must be fixed if they don’t. You have to keep on trucking, ain’t no other way.

    Al Capone had a distributorship in Chicago. Supply and demand, how it works, there is a market for booze. If you can make 100.000.000 dollars in a year, go for it. The first US businessman to accumulate 100,000,000 USD in one year was Al Capone. He could afford the first armored car built by Cadillac.

    Get those bootleggers on the move, Canada is distilling all of the Canadian whiskey it can, it sells, no problem.

    By the time Prohibition ended, everybody and his uncle, brother, sister, mother was imbibing. Prohibition had to end. There is a published story in an old newspaper about a country musician traveling to Washington, DC to thump his guitar. He also had a trunk full of moonshine to help pay his way.

    Leave it to Mrs. O’Leary to have a cow that burns down the whole city.

    Not everything goes as planned. Teslas are cows that Elon milks dry.

  14. Eric: Didnt you not swap out the 3spd automatic for a more modern 4spd already? I totally agree with the electronic crap in cars. I work in the aerospace industry, building satellites. In the industry, the lingo is “space vehicle” – so, a vehicle for space! BTW, NASA calls them “spacecraft”, a term (for manned or unmanned) coined in the Right Stuff days. Anyway the NUMBER ONE source of failure in space vehicles are electronically controlled mechanical actuators. So, power door locks, power windows, electronically controlled automatic transmissions: the parallels in the automotive world abound.

    • Hi MDP,

      I swapped out the original THM350 (three speed, no OD) for a 2004R (four speed, OD) a few years back. It’s a great transmission; vastly stretches the car’s highway legs. But I reminisce about my old ’76 that was a factory four speed (manual) car. No OD – but great fun!

  15. I considered this for my M1009 K5 blazer after I burned the auto trans on a mountain. Comes stock with a TH400 and a 3.73 rear end. Really wanted a SM465 in there for the fun, but ultimately chose to rebuild the auto tranny. There is no speed advantage but there are real world advantages (specifically for me) to city driving in Chicago with the auto trans, plus on long road trips it makes shift driving possible since none of the ladies know how to use a manual and sometimes, I need sleep! Then there is the issue that the M1009s never had manuals anyway, so it wouldn’t be original. I really want a manual vehicle at some point though, right now I only get to drive like that overseas.
    As a side note- I would not recommend eastern or southern Europe as a place to test your rusty manual skills if you don’t drive like that normally. You will have much stress and possible regret-small bumpy roads, hills, many curves, crazy drivers. Iceland is a great place to drive manual if you’re not good at it. Wide often empty roads and friendly drivers.

  16. ‘As you accelerated through the gears, a pleasant mechanical aria of gear whine (similar to the sounds of supercharger gear whine) could be heard, the pitch getting higher as you went faster.’ — eric

    This rising-pitch whine was very prominent in our 1958 Chevy station wagon with a small-block V8 and three-on-the-tree — especially in second gear. My musical mom called them the ‘singing gears’ — a feature, not a bug.

    Everyone knew how to drive manuals then, because they were ubiquitous. Not only were automatics an extra cost option, but also they sucked. GM made a ludicrous two-speed Powerglide transmission which we had in a later station wagon: gear ratios of 1.78:1 and 1:1 — that’s all, folks! Like starting in second gear with a three-speed manual, but with a slush box in place of a clutch.

    Once I drove an old fossil 1946 Oldsmobile with a 2-speed automatic. ‘Ponderous’ would be an apt word to describe it. Incredibly heavy, sluggish, six turns lock-to-lock on the steering. You pressed on the gas pedal, heard some muffled noise up front. By and by, after a few seconds, the lumbering beast commenced a tentative forward motion. Kind of like driving a severely underpowered houseboat with a square bow — any movement other than a stately, straight-line snail’s pace was barely thinkable.

    EeeVees have no transmissions, manual or automatic. No gears, no sale! Yesterday Ford CEO Jim ‘Lightning’ Farley said semi-solid state batteries are “looking very promising for production,” as the automaker emphasizes the need for breakthroughs in electric vehicle technology to improve affordability. YEAH, RIGHT! Fool me twice, shame on … well, we won’t get fooled again.

    • The Powerglide you are deriding is “the transmission” in sportsman drag racing and has been since the early 80’s. Of course they are far from stock and shift as hard if not harder than a power shifted manual.

  17. Hi Eric,

    Good luck with the install! If I was closer, I’d offer my assistance. It’ll make the car that much more fun to drive and you may find yourself driving it a lot more. I’ve had my 79 for a couple of years now and I can’t get enough of it. Now when the wife says she forgot something at the store, I’m the first to volunteer. LOL

    I’m planning to tackle the body work myself (first time) this summer. Then I’m going to turn it into a clone of the Trans Am seen in Sleepwalkers. Shaker hood, Martinique Blue, no bird on the hood, cool pinstripes. Everything but the t-tops… Don’t care about originality, this car was a 301 automatic from the factory, and both the 301 an the trans is long gone.

    • Thanks, Philo!

      The swap looks very straightforward. A little more work than a clutch job – but not much more. The main thing that will entail a little work is welding in the “correct” square hole for the shifter in the driveline hump. One could just cut a hole and no one would ever know because the carpet (and console) would cover it up. But I want it to be right. So I’ll be buying a section of driveline floorpan – the hump part – from a manual car and welding that in my car. The end result will be what appears to be a stock 455/manual car – just like my old car!

  18. Perhaps a secondary benefit of having a manual transmission, I suspect, is that most car thieves cannot operate one.

    I think of stick shifts as anti-theft devices.

    • I remember taking my old WRX in to get the snow tires swapped over for the Summer. I saw a young kid go out and get in the car. It took him a while to put the car in reverse and had to laugh to myself as I pondered whether he knew how to operate a manual. Well, enough to get it into the garage stall and that was about it.

  19. Tremec makes replace overdrive manual trannys so you can have your 4 series gear set and enough fuel efficiency so you can afford to drive it regularly. Modern kits let you install a manual without having to cut up your existing drive shaft and what have you so you can save all the original parts if you need to go back to an automatic.

    • Hi Landru,

      I thought about the Tremec but have ruled it out for several reasons: One, I want the car to be (and feel) as close to it was and felt when it was new, almost 50 years ago. Two, the factory four speed/parts literally just bolt in. Three, no need for aftermarket parts! Plus, the T10 sounds righteous!

      • Go with the new TKX. I installed one in my ’65 Corvette and it is outstanding. So much easier to shift and stronger than the M21 that I replaced. I wish I had installed a TKX in my ’69 SS396 Camaro instead of rebuilding the M22 “Rockcrusher”, the TKX is that good.

        • Hi Steve,

          I’m sure it is (the TKX). But I want to bring the car back to “stock” – even though it was not originally a four speed car. After I get around to doing this, the car will be like my other ’76 – the one that was a factory four speed car. I love the Super T-10, especially the sound. It’s also correct for the car and I want to be able to drive the past, so to speak. It’s also why I won’t replace my stock 15×7 Honeycombs with those 17×9 Honeycombs available now. They don’t look right (to me) and I just like what Pontiac did back then better!

          Similarly, I’ll never replace the Quadrajet with a TBI or put a digital dash in it or LED headlights in place of the sealed beam units it came with.

  20. My son was looking into putting a manual in his 2001 cummins. It is going to be a fair bit of work. For now he has an edge tuner in it.

    • Hi Swamp,

      Yeah, thought about that. But – per our conversation – I haven’t had the TA out on the highway in years. I don’t think it really matters anymore.

      • Hi Eric,

        What’s the gearing in the rear? If it helps, my 79 has the T10 and a 2.73 rear gear and does great on the highway. Maybe around 2500 RPM at 65 mph. I don’t put it on the highway often, but when I have, it’s been a smooth ride.

        • Hi Philo,

          My car has 3.90 in the rear – which works really well with the 2004R OD automatic (which has a deep .067 OD). But I’ll probably need to step down to 3.23s to work with the 4 speed!

  21. Then there’s the issue of emissions testing, which is the claim as to why the parts have to match what came out of the factory. I had dinner with a couple last summer, she was a lawyer for one of the big three, so of course I made her talk shop for a few minutes. One thing she pointed out is that there’s plenty of case law to support that changing tires form whatever rubber the manufacturer slapped on at the factory was a sufficient change of the vehicle to free the manufacturer from liability in a crash. Makes sense, tires play a very important part in how the vehicle handles and moves, but imagine rear ending someone because the ABS wouldn’t actually stop the vehicle… and then the manufacturer getting off the hook because you installed Blizzaks instead of the stock “all season” slicks. Yea, I know Capt. Dunsel should have kept a proper distance, but still…

    • Hit send too quickly. Was going to point out that aftermarket exhaust and “cat back” systems aren’t permitted in most areas with testing. And that tuners often keep their stock pipes for the once a year trip to the testing center. Of course the manufacturers don’t like this because they sell a complete product. Right down to the tires.

    • Hi ReadyKilowatt,

      quote: but imagine rear ending someone because the ABS wouldn’t actually stop the vehicle… and then the manufacturer getting off the hook because you installed Blizzaks instead of the stock “all season” slicks.

      Thats why I claim legal system is a joke. The absurdity illogicality and arbitrary nature of it would make any engineer or a plain old common sense person go mad. Lawyers are a special guild of people that like the legal system being overly complex pile of garbage that it is.
      I hope house collapses on these lawyers and builder gets off free because they put 2 nails to hang pictures on a wall and thus “modified the structural integrity of a house”.

      • Lawyers are like the coach who plays the time clock and referees instead of the other team. JoPa Paterno was famous for this. If Penn State was loosing, he’d run out the clock to throw off the rhythm of the other team and then start drawing penalties to gain yardage. Then somehow miraculously kick a field goal in the last second.

      • changed tires on car…made car worse…so manufacturer off the hook…

        inversely….manufacturer put crappy, cheap, inferior tires on car causing crash….sue them…probably wouldn’t work though….

        crappy, cheap, inferior tires…see video

  22. A second order effect of manual transmissions is forcing the driver to pay attention. i.e. pay attention to driving rather than messing around with the iPhone on four wheels.

  23. Yes, Eric, it’s “simple” but, there are dozens of little challenges along the way. If you deviate from what came from the factory on a manual Firebird you’ll soon be overcoming a lot of fitment issues. After a quick search I found that there are at least 3 different tooth count gears for the speedo…who knew? If I wasn’t so busy I’d love to help with a project like that.

    I know you’ll keep us posted. Good luck.

    • I’ve heard about GPS based spedos being available for use with newer trannys without speedometer gears. Don’t know what they cost though. On my Camaro I’ll be using my ancient Garmin as speedometer. I replaced the 700R4 with a M20 Muncie and I figure that will be the easiest route until I figure out either a correction ratio or get the correct gears..

    • Hi Mark,

      And that’s why – if I do this – it’ll be a “stock” type conversion! There’s very little difference between a ’76 TA that came with an auto and one that came with a manual other than the hole in the driveshaft tunnel/floorpan (easily modded). GM even drilled the holes for the spring return bracket on the frames of cars that came with autos!


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