How Manual Transmissions Work

Introduction to How Manual Transmissions Work
Today's car transmissions come in standard, manual, CVT and even automated manual. 00ONE/ISTOCK

If you drive a stick-shift car, then you may have several questions floating in your head.

How does the funny "H" pattern that I am moving this shift knob through have any relation to the gears inside the transmission? What is moving inside the transmission when I move the shifter?

When I mess up and hear that horrible grinding sound, what is actually grinding? What would happen if I were to accidentally shift into reverse while I am speeding down the freeway? Would the entire transmission explode?

In this article, we'll answer all of these questions and more as we explore the interior of a manual transmission.

Cars need transmissions because of the physics of the gasoline engine. First, any engine has a redline — a maximum rpm value above which the engine cannot go without exploding. Second, if you have read How Horsepower Works, then you know that engines have narrow rpm ranges where horsepower and torque are at their maximum. For example, an engine might produce its maximum horsepower at 5,500 rpm. The transmission allows the gear ratio between the engine and the drive wheels to change as the car speeds up and slows down. You shift gears so the engine can stay below the redline and near the rpm band of its best performance.

Ideally, the transmission would be so flexible in its ratios that the engine could always run at its single, best-performance rpm value. That is the idea behind the continuously variable transmission (CVT). We'll talk about that next.

Continuously Variable Transmissions


A continuously variable transmission (CVT) has a nearly infinite range of gear ratios. In the past, CVTs could not compete with four-speed and five-speed transmissions in terms of cost, size and reliability, so you didn't see them in production automobiles. These days, improvements in design have made CVTs more common.

The transmission is connected to the engine through the clutch. The input shaft of the transmission therefore turns at the same rpm as the engine, which improves both power output and fuel economy. CVTs became common in hybrid cars because they are considerably more efficient than both manual and traditional automatic transmissions, and their popularity skyrocketed from there as automakers competed for the best possible fuel economy ratings. As of late 2016, one out of every four cars sold in the United States was equipped with a CVT.

The CVT does have its downsides; most notably, it can be sluggish to drive, since it's engineered for efficiency rather than fun. However, as many drivers choose to move away from the manual transmission, which results in fewer manuals being offered, the CVT continues to increase its presence. The CVT also works best in small cars with small engines, which is why most trucks and large SUVs continue to use traditional automatics.

You can read How CVTs Work for even more information on how continuously variable transmissions work. Now let's look at a simple transmission.

A Very Simple Transmission


To understand the basic idea behind a standard transmission, the diagram to the left shows a very simple two-speed transmission in neutral. Let's look at each of the parts in this diagram to understand how they fit together:

  • The green shaft comes from the engine through the clutch. The green shaft and green gear are connected as a single unit. (The clutch is a device that lets you connect and disconnect the engine and the transmission.) When you push in the clutch pedal, the engine and the transmission are disconnected so the engine can run even if the car is standing still. When you release the clutch pedal, the engine and the green shaft are directly connected to one another. The green shaft and gear turn at the same rpm as the engine.
  • The red shaft and gears are called the layshaft. These are also connected as a single piece, so all of the gears on the layshaft and the layshaft itself spin as one unit. The green shaft and the red shaft are directly connected through their meshed gears so that if the green shaft is spinning, so is the red shaft. In this way, the layshaft receives its power directly from the engine whenever the clutch is engaged.
  • The yellow shaft is a splined shaft that connects directly to the drive shaft through the differential to the drive wheels of the car. If the wheels are spinning, the yellow shaft is spinning.
  • The blue gears ride on bearings, so they spin on the yellow shaft. If the engine is off but the car is coasting, the yellow shaft can turn inside the blue gears while the blue gears and the layshaft are motionless.
  • The purpose of the collar is to connect one of the two blue gears to the yellow drive shaft. The collar is connected, through the splines, directly to the yellow shaft and spins with the yellow shaft. However, the collar can slide left or right along the yellow shaft to engage either of the blue gears. Teeth on the collar, called dog teeth, fit into holes on the sides of the blue gears to engage them.

Now, let's see what happens when you shift into first gear.

Shifting Into First Gear

Follow the step-by-step process of shifting gears.
Follow the step-by-step process of shifting gears.

The picture to the left shows how, when shifted into first gear, the purple collar engages the blue gear to its right. As the graphic demonstrates, the green shaft from the engine turns the layshaft, which turns the blue gear to its right. This gear transmits its energy through the collar to drive the yellow drive shaft. Meanwhile, the blue gear on the left is turning, but it is freewheeling on its bearing so it has no effect on the yellow shaft.

When the collar is between the two gears (as shown in the figure on the previous page), the transmission is in neutral. Both of the blue gears freewheel on the yellow shaft at the different rates controlled by their ratios to the layshaft.

From this discussion, you can answer several questions:

  • When you make a mistake while shifting and hear a horrible grinding sound, you are not hearing the sound of gear teeth mis-meshing. As you can see in these diagrams, all gear teeth are all fully meshed at all times. The grinding is the sound of the dog teeth trying unsuccessfully to engage the holes in the side of a blue gear.
  • The transmission shown here does not have "synchros" (discussed later in the article), so if you were using this transmission you would have to double-clutch it. Double-clutching was common in older cars and is still common in some modern race cars. In double-clutching, you first push the clutch pedal in once to disengage the engine from the transmission. This takes the pressure off the dog teeth so you can move the collar into neutral. Then you release the clutch pedal and rev the engine to the "right speed." The right speed is the rpm value at which the engine should be running in the next gear. The idea is to get the blue gear of the next gear and the collar rotating at the same speed so that the dog teeth can engage. Then you push the clutch pedal in again and lock the collar into the new gear. At every gear change you have to press and release the clutch twice, hence the name "double-clutching."
  • You can also see how a small linear motion in the gear shift knob allows you to change gears. The gear shift knob moves a rod connected to the fork. The fork slides the collar on the yellow shaft to engage one of two gears.

In the next section, we'll take a look at a real transmission.

A Real Transmission

Most transmissions today has at least five speeds.
Most transmissions today has at least five speeds.

Four-speed manual transmissions are largely outdated, with five- and six-speed transmissions taking their place as the more common options. Some performance cars may offer even more gears. However, they all work more or less the same, regardless of the number of gears. Internally, it looks something like this:

There are three forks controlled by three rods that are engaged by the shift lever. Looking at the shift rods from the top, they look like this in reverse, first and second gear:


Keep in mind that the shift lever has a rotation point in the middle. When you push the knob forward to engage first gear, you are actually pulling the rod and fork for first gear back.

You can see that as you move the shifter left and right you are engaging different forks (and therefore different collars). Moving the knob forward and backward moves the collar to engage one of the gears.


Reverse gear is handled by a small idler gear (purple). At all times, the blue reverse gear in this diagram above is turning in a direction opposite to all of the other blue gears. Therefore, it would be impossible to throw the transmission into reverse while the car is moving forward; the dog teeth would never engage. However, they will make a lot of noise.


Manual transmissions in modern passenger cars use synchronizers, or synchros, to eliminate the need for double-clutching. A synchro's purpose is to allow the collar and the gear to make frictional contact before the dog teeth make contact. This lets the collar and the gear synchronize their speeds before the teeth need to engage, like this:


The cone on the blue gear fits into the cone-shaped area in the collar, and friction between the cone and the collar synchronize the collar and the gear. The outer portion of the collar then slides so that the dog teeth can engage the gear.

Every manufacturer implements transmissions and synchros in different ways, but this is the general idea.

What About the Automated Manual?

What About the Automated Manual?
Audi's seven-speed S tronic transmission allows drivers to use its D (Drive) or S (Sport) modes. Drivers can use the selector lever or shift paddles on the steering wheel to shift themselves. Audi

The automated manual transmission is perhaps better known and more accurately described as the dual-clutch automatic, and it is an increasingly popular option. Though the dual-clutch automatic transmission became popular on high-end performance cars, such as Porsches and Audis, it is increasingly available on more mainstream models.

The dual-clutch automatic operates via two clutches, which are controlled by the car's computer network and require no input from the driver. As we discussed, when the clutch in a manual transmission is engaged, it disconnects the engine from the transmission to enable the shift. The dual-clutch automatic operates two different gears at once, which completes the shift while bypassing the power-disconnect stage. That allows a dual-clutch transmission to complete shifts much more quickly, since there isn't a "pause" while the engine and transmission try to match back up.

The car is faster since there is no interruption in power, the ride is smoother since it's all but impossible to pinpoint the moment of the gear change, and fuel economy is better because there is no power lost to inefficient shifts. You can read about dual-clutch transmissions in more detail here.

It's worth noting that some cars with dual-clutch automatics offer a manual shifting mode, usually via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but the experience is not the same. Some performance enthusiasts may bemoan the loss of the "row-it-yourself" experience, since manually shifting is an enjoyable skill to practice and perfect, but if speed is the ultimate goal, it's hard to argue with the results of an automated manual transmission.

Where Have the Manuals Gone?

Where Have the Manuals Gone?
Manual transmissions, also known as 5-speeds, have declined in popularity in the United States and in 2016 accounted for just 5 percent of cars sold. Vladdeep/Thinkstock

As of late 2016, only 5 percent of new vehicles were sold with manual transmissions, according to U.S. News & World Report. That's down from a peak of about 25 percent in 1987.

Even if you're among the rare car buyer who prefers to drive a manual, you'll have a hard time finding one the next time you go to a dealership. Some manufacturers keep the manual around as an excuse to charge more for an automatic or CVT, but the flip side of that is it's difficult to get a well-equipped car with a manual transmission. If you want options such as engine upgrades or all-wheel drive, those features often come only on models or trim levels that do not offer manual transmissions. Sports cars, which used to be surefire ways to get manual transmissions, are also turning toward faster and more efficient automatic options.

Automakers say that automatic transmissions are simply better in every way, especially the CVT and dual-clutch options we covered on previous pages. Actual interest in owning a car with a manual transmission is on the decline, as well, especially as American drivers spend more time sitting in heavy traffic, where constantly feathering a clutch pedal can get tiresome. As U.S. News reported, "as drivers encounter more of these excellent modern automatics, fewer are interested in learning to drive a manual."

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