Back in the 1930s, America began to develop and apply a unique manual transmission called the “three on the tree.” This column shifter was massively popular in many of America’s production cars from the 1930s to the late 1970s. But beginning in the 1980s, this transmission became obsolete as America began to use the more common 4-speed floor-mounted shifter. And as time goes by, the ancient column shifter went into obscurity.
But what exactly is the “three on the tree?”
The term “three on the tree” refers to two things: 1) The number of speed transmission, and 2) The transmission layout. In a sense, the drivetrain is applied at the steering column and not on the floor, unlike most vehicles. You change gear by pulling the gear lever while steering the vehicle with the same hand.
Because of the placement, the shifter is located farther from the transmission compared to the floor-mounted shifter. And as a result, the linkage is more complicated to design and maintain. That is why the popularity of three on the tree began to fade away in the 1980s. And, the 4-speed mounted shifter became the standard for future improvement globally, including in America.
Why was three on the tree popular in the US?
The unique transmission does have some advantages over the floor-mounted shifter, and the reasons are:
1. It saves space
The floor-mounted shifter is commonly placed between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat. It causes the space to be very tight, particularly when the front bench seat was popular.
But since three on the tree applies the transmission on the steering column, it doesn’t take space on the seating area. As a result, it saves a lot of space, and it became popular among cars that used a front bench seat.
2. It makes shifting higher speed easier
Paddle shift is a life-saving invention that makes gear shifting easier by placing the shifter very close to the steering wheel. But that idea is rooted in the now obsolete three on the tree. This column shifter has the gear lever placed very close to the steering wheel, which makes shifting easier. It was extremely helpful when there was the only 3-speed transmission, and that the second and third gears were commonly used.
How does it fare in the modern era?
Due to its vintage status, cars with three on the tree transmission become a valuable collector’s piece. Saab 96, 1961 Rambler American, 1941 Plymouth Special Deluxe, and 1962 Ford Ranchero are among the sought-after pre-1980s three on the tree vehicles. Even the most recent car with this column shifter, such as the 1987 Chevrolet C/K and Chevrolet Nova, are equally sought-after.
Additionally, the column shifter had several upgrades before its demise. There are 4-speed column shifter cars such as the 1990s Toyota Crown and Nissan Cedric. Heck, even 5-speed column shifter cars also exist, namely the second-gen Toyota HiAce, first-gen Fiat Decato, and third-gen Mitsubishi L400.
And finally, cars with three on the tree transmission recently appear in many American historic races. The 24 Hours of LeMons hosts some notable cars such as the sought-after models. That, adding to the nostalgic value, racks up the desire to own those cars with this unique transmission even further.
And if you plan to own a three on the tree vehicle…
Many of the 1980s three on the tree vehicles are still sold across America at a lower price than the vintage models. The most common models to date are the 1987 Ford F-series and several 1980s GMC and Chevrolet pickups, including the C/K. So, if you plan to own one for practicality and value-for-money reasons, pick these vehicles.