In keeping with this series’ overarching theme of giving you the experience of being cornered at a party by some wild-eyed loon who won’t shut up about some bullshit, I think we have a good episode for you today. It’s about a piece of automotive history, something that’s occasionally mentioned but I suspect rarely understood: the semi-automatic transmission.
In this era of near-ubiquitous (at least here in America) automatic transmissions and desperate defenders of the glorious manual experience, the semi-automatic seems to exist in a strange, uncertain middle ground. While we have plenty of automatics that let you use little flappy paddles to switch gears on your own, those are still fully capable automatics. What I’m talking about is a genuine half-ass measure.
I’m specifically talking about the Volkswagen semi-automatic transmission, known as the Automatic Stick Shift, introduced in 1968. The Beetle was never offered with a full automatic, so this was VW’s only attempt to win over all the American drivers who were unwilling or unable to deal with clutches and shifting and all that sort of weird-ass foreign-feeling stuff.
My dad was one of these drivers, and were it not for VW deciding to reach out to such people, he would never have gotten a Beetle, and my life would likely have been a bit different.
VW advertised these mostly in terms of what they wouldn’t be: hard to drive, or appreciably worse on gas. They also attempted to sell them with a good bit of mid-century misogyny:
Paleolithic attitudes towards women aside, the semi-automatic system was actually pretty clever. You still shifted, but there was an automatic clutch, though the system was more than just an auto-clutch, since it had a torque converter to let the car be able to start in any gear, and could be driven in just one gear, almost like a normal automatic.
I mean, it would have been painfully slow, but you could do it.
I know all this because my own Beetle was originally a semi-auto until I converted it to a full manual. But I did drive it with the original transmission for a few years, and grew to appreciate its quirky charms.
Look, just watch the video. I explain it all in there, anyway, in painful detail, and even show you the actual pedals my own feet once used.
That’s right. Drink it in, friends.