Automatics: how many pedals?


I grew up in a household where adding the prefix ‘Persil’ was the only way to turn ‘automatic’ into a less than dirty word. We didn’t simply not care for two pedal cars, we raged against them when, of course, we weren’t laughing at the people who drove them.

I can remember quite clearly thinking the world would never be quite the same when Ferrari fitted a three speed GM automatic gearbox to the 400, which tells you all you need to know about the state of my sad, obsessive 10 year old mind at the time.

Image courtesy of Darz Mol

But even when I started writing for car magazines I still loathed these wretched devices. To be fair they were passable in cars so laden with torque their paucity of gears mattered little and even I could see why Jaguar soon dropped the manual XJS and how a Bentley Turbo R with a clutch pedal would have been an absurdity. But if you showed me a smaller, more nimble car to which an automatic had been fitted, I’d show you a car spoiled to the point of ruination. I still don’t understand why Porsche got so much credit for its apparently revolutionary ‘tiptronic’ gearbox introduced into the 964 series of 911s at the start of the 1990s. It was better than a conventional automatic, but that was like saying a poke in the eye was better than a kick in the privates. And then there was the Honda NSX. I cannot think of another car more comprehensively undone by a single tick in an options box than this. The gearbox was ghastly and, just in case that didn’t spoil things enough, the car came with a detuned engine and a reduced redline because the auto wasn’t strong enough to handle the power of the real thing. One of the finest supercars ever made was reduced to a slow, stumbling, emasculated mess.

But now I’m not so sure. I can remember driving Ferrari’s first paddle shift car (an F355) and being far less offended by it than I’d expected. More interestingly the first car to be given a double clutch gearbox was the original Audi TT 3.2, which had hitherto done such a poor impression of a sports car its clearly revolutionary new transmission actually gave me something nice to say about it.

Even so, it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve even allowed myself to consider the question: could two pedals actually be better than three? Ferrari and McLaren – perhaps the two most blue-blooded supercar constructors of all – clearly think they are, for neither will sell you a car that will work your left foot. Even Porsche’s next 911 GT3 will break with 14 years of tradition and give customers the opportunity to trade a pedal for some paddles.

You might say it’s horses for courses and that certain cars are much better suited to automatic gears and I’d not disagree: the Audi in which I ply the M4 has eight of them and I’d not have it any other way. But I still haven’t driven a purebred sports car with paddles and thought it would have been less fun with a manual gearbox. There remains so much to enjoy in the feel of each shift, each correctly blipped downchange and every upshift executed without the knowledge of your passenger.

I spent this afternoon flinging an Ariel Atom 3.5 around the West Country for an article to be published in the next issue of Motor Sport. It would have been even quicker, smoother and possibly safer with paddles because I could have kept both hands on the wheel of what turned out to be an extremely lively car driven on cold, damp roads. But more fun? That would not have been possible.

I no longer hate automatic transmissions for few components have advanced further over the last 40 years. But will I ever prefer even the best to a conventional three pedal layout in a sporting car? If that was going to happen, it would have done by now. How about you?

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