Thursday Trivia

Thirsday Trivia
Welcome to Thursday Trivia where we offer up a historical automotive trivia question and you try and solve it before seeing the answer after the jump. It’s like a history test, with cars!
This week’s question: What was the last Big-Three vehicle sold with “Three on the Tree?”
If you think you know the answer make the jump and see if you’re right.
Last week we asked you for your opinion about how many gears were too many, a query driven by the advent of Honda patenting an 11-speed automatic. When a car or truck shifts for itself, it pretty much doesn’t matter how many gears there are, but when it’s a row your own affair, you might come up with an effusive “you gotta’ be kidding me” at anything more than five or six.
A major factor in the number of gears desired is the spacing of their ratios, and how that affects performance. Another is how you actually make with all that shifting. The most common form today for manual transmission actuation is the console-mounted shifter. That falls readily to hand and looks boss in pretty much anything. Of course having a shifter between the seats means that those seats need to be separated and that means you can’t have three-abreast unless you want to become awkwardly intimate with your center passenger.
019Back when three-across seating was the norm as were manual gearboxes, the solution was to place the shifter on the steering column. This led to the common parlance of “three on the tree” as way of describing the mechanism, in contrast to what would later be known as “four on the floor.” The mechanical connection between shifter and transmission on the column-mounted mechanisms was always more complicated than the more direct floor-shifter, but it still generally subscribed to the same H pattern with reverse down to the left below first and the other two gears on the right-side.
Having just three gears simplified the mechanism and in an era of large motors with wide torque bands it seemed a sufficient number. Of course in a world where too much is never enough three-speeds have fallen out of favor. The need to increase fuel economy and power delivery by having a greater selection or gears for the right ratio at the right time has made both the three-speed and its column-mounted manual shifter an anachronism in present time. You might be surprised in fact, to learn just how long “three on the tree” hung on.
From Murilee Martin at AutoWeek:

The “three-on-the-tree” column-mounted manual transmission shifter was, for a very long time, the most common setup in American motor vehicles. My 1941 Plymouth Special Deluxe came with one, and most non-luxury American cars and light-trucks had the three-on-the-tree manual as the base transmission specification from the 1930s through the 1960s (by that decade, however, most car buyers opted for an optional automatic or floor-shifted manual transmission). You’ll see the occasional three-on-the-tree-equipped Detroit truck from the 1970s, as many truck shoppers opted for the cheapest possible vehicle (and column shifters work well with bench seats), but it turns out that GM, Ford, and Chrysler sold brand-new trucks with this type of shifter through the middle 1980s.
It seems that Chevrolet and GMC pickups and vans could be had with a 3-on-the-tree setup through the 1987 model year, while the final 3-on-the-tree Ford F-series pickups were sold in 1986; as for Dodge, the last year for this hallowed American tradition may have been 1985.

Today it seems that even the column-mounted shifter for automatics is headed for extinction, along with the bench seat in front. It would be interesting to find out just how many “three on the tree” cars and trucks are out there in regular use today. It would be even more interesting to see if anyone unfamiliar with their use could drive one.
Image: 2040Cars

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  1. Alff Avatar

    Close but no cigar. I guessed F-Series.

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      Same here. My brother-in-law had an ’84 Ford with a three-in-the-tree, which is the newest I’ve personally encountered.

      1. Alff Avatar

        The latest I’ve driven was a powder blue 1983 F-100, the last year for that model designation.

    2. Batshitbox Avatar

      Closer than me, I was going with Econoline Van since the doghouse engine cover means no floor shifters.

      1. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

        Surprisingly, you are wrong, there, for a while in the late 70s/early 80s Ford made Econolines with floor shifters, or at least had pictures in the brochure. The short doghouse meant there was actually room in a Ford, but not a Dodge or Chevy.

        1. Batshitbox Avatar

          That’s some articulation on that tower shifter. Looks like they used the one from the pickups and turned it 180. That must make working in the doghouse even more fun that ever!

    3. CraigSu Avatar

      My guess as well. I learned to drive a 3-on-the-tree with my brother’s F-series back in the late 70s. He replaced the 302 Windsor with a 351 Cleveland and added extra heavy duty leaf springs. Boy, that thing was a handful.

  2. Tomsk Avatar

    I’d say the front bench seat has already reached extinction in passenger cars, with the exception of a few kei cars and other JDM curiosities.

  3. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    This leads to an obvious extension, what was the last big 3 car with 3 on the tree? I’m guessing this would have been an rwd platform circa 1980 since the last one I saw, and rode in was a late 70s Nova.

    1. dukeisduke Avatar

      I believe it might be the ’77 Chevy Malibu with 250 I-6. I know that when they downsized for ’78, they switched to floor shifted three-speed and four-speed options.

  4. outback_ute Avatar

    The Ford Falcon ute could be had with a 3 on the tree until early 1991. After that you could still have a bench seat with an auto trans, and a 2+1 with a floor shift manual for a few years (94-99)

  5. mdharrell Avatar

    I’ll have to give Ms. Martin a hard time about stating in the linked article that “Four-on-the-tree cars are not unheard of in the series [24 Hours of LeMons], though all of those have been French.”
    My 96 and I respectfully disagree.

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