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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