The three-speed manual is a rare beast indeed, particularly in the modern era. There's nothing particularly wrong with three-speeds -- they saw a lot of use from the 1950s through the 1970s -- they just fell into obsolescence after the standardization of the four-speed and automatic. Three-speeds are fairly rare these days, particularly since hot-rodders and enthusiasts will generally pull them out in favor of something stronger and better performing.
Pros and Cons
The three-speed is simpler and cheaper to produce than a four-speed, and it offers a little more versatility than a two-speed. Simplicity is the key concept here, since fewer parts involved means fewer things to break. If the three-speed has any real drawbacks, it's only that it lacks a fourth gear; the extra gear makes keeping the engine in its ideal rpm range a less taxing affair.
Three on the Tree
You might have heard this term bandied about amongst grandpa and his friends, and they probably got a good chuckle when they saw you had no clue what they were talking about. A "three-OT" is a three-speed manual controlled with a column shifter instead of a floor shifter. Generally, you'll pull the shift lever back-and-up for first gear, back-and-down for second, push forward-and-up for third and forward-and-down for reverse.
- "New Complete Book of Collectible Cars - 1930-80"; R.M. Langworth; 1988
- "A History of the World's Racing Cars"; Hough and Frostick; 1965
- Edmunds: Manual Transmission Basics
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