Market Report

Shifting Gears: Is a Manual Gearbox Valuable?

What is a Modern Stick Shift Worth?

Posted: December 16, 2016 9:00 am
by Shaun Tolson
Photo courtesy of RM Sotheby's.

There’s nothing quite like the exhilaration that comes from punching the throttle of a high-performance sports car, perfectly timing your step on the clutch with a shift into higher gear, and jumping back on the throttle for more power and acceleration.

The syncopated rhythm and fluidity of driving a traditional manual transmission is not lost on those who have mastered the skill, but as luxury sports and supercar manufacturers limit—or cease altogether—the production of their high-powered vehicles with manual gearboxes, tracking one down has become the greater challenge.

Motoring purists may seek out contemporary sports and supercars with old-school gearboxes, but do most car collectors subscribe to that same philosophy? We asked that question to a handful of auction house specialists. What they revealed and—more important—what impact a manual gearbox can have on the value of a contemporary sports car may surprise you.

2011 Porsche 911 GTS RS

Porsche Premiums

Alexander Weaver has logged time behind the wheel of every new Porsche and Ferrari over the past 30 years, and the RM Sotheby’s specialist cannot think of a single disparaging thing to say about their F1-modeled, paddle-shifting transmissions.

“They’re phenomenal transmissions that do everything so fast,” he says. “These cars are too good.”

Even so, those transmissions—despite all of their ability—are not what Weaver prefers to drive, which is part of the reason why he commutes in his 1982 Porsche 911 SC.

“A car loses so much personality without a stick shift,” he opines. “From traffic light to traffic light, or in the canyons, or on the track, it’s just more fun [to drive a manual transmission]. You get the sense of being one with the car.”

Porsche is a unique player in the European sports car market, since the German automaker still builds a handful of models with an optional manual gearbox. But that doesn’t mean that the presence of a manual gearbox in some of its older models is any less valuable.

Take the GT3 RS, for example. Porsche last offered that model with a manual gearbox in 2011, and some of those examples, according to Weaver, are selling for more than current model year GT3 RSs that are sitting on Porsche showroom floors.

“Those 2011 models with 10,000 miles are bringing in US $200,000, and you can go buy a brand new one with good options for US $195,000,” he says. “The performance, the suspension, everything is a little better in the newer model, but it doesn’t give you the visceral experience [that you get] driving the 2011 version.”

RM Sotheby’s will next offer a 2011 Porsche GT2 RS with a manual transmission as part of its Arizona auction Jan. 19-20, 2017. The car, according to Weaver, carries a presale estimate of US $225,000 to US $275,000.

2007 Ferrari 599 GTB

Ferrari’s Domain

Porsche may earn accolades and praise from car enthusiasts for its continued commitment to building new cars with manual transmissions (at least in some of its models); however, according to Weaver, Ferrari is king when it comes to the premiums buyers are paying for the presence of a third pedal and a center-console stick shift.

“It doesn’t look like Ferrari is going to put another manual transmission in a car,” he says. “As fewer and fewer of these are made, the last ones are always going to be more desirable.”

According to Weaver, the last Ferrari to be equipped with a manual gearbox was the 599, and—over the course of a four-year period (from 2007 to 2010)—fewer than three dozen of those were built with a six-speed manual transmission. In 2015, RM Sotheby’s offered one, a 2007 GTB, for sale as part of its Amelia Island auction. It was, as Weaver describes it, “a good honest car,” one that was a desirable color with low mileage and a manual gearbox. RM Sotheby’s anticipated the car would bring between US $200,000 and US $275,000. It sold for US $682,000.

“That was the one that got people’s attention,” he says.

2002 Ferrari 575 Maranello coupe

Eric Minhoff, a motorcars specialist with Bonhams, agrees Ferrari is the marque that is most affected (in value) by the presence of a manual gearbox, and he says it stems from the limited number of cars the Italian automaker built with manual transmissions after it unveiled its F1-style transmissions in the 355.As proof, he points to the Ferrari 575M Maranello coupe Bonhams sold during its Greenwich sale in June 2016.

“That had an F1 transmission and sold for $123,200,” he says. “If it had a stick, it could’ve sold for double that amount.” A similar comparison can be made to Lamborghinis.

“In March, we had a Murcielago that sold for 10 or 20 percent more than it would have if it had an automatic transmission,” says Minhoff. That car, a 2005 Lamborghini Murcielago roadster, exchanged hands for US $210,000 during Bonham’s Amelia Island auction.

The Shift Away from Shifting

What triggered the decline and eventual downfall of the manual gearbox? According to numerous specialists, the answer is a combination of factors.

“The lack of manual transmissions [in these contemporary sports cars] stems from manufacturers pushing their modern technology on buyers through marketing at the time that the cars were built,” says Hans Wurl, a specialist with Gooding & Co. “It was only the true enthusiasts of manual transmissions that special ordered their cars that way.”

Performance stats, which include shifting times that now take only a fraction of a second, are at the core of many manufacturers’ motivations to feature that modern technology.

“For a lot of these manufacturers it’s all about the performance charts and showing how well they can manufacture something,” Weaver explains. “With new technology being so great, going back to a six-speed could be seen as a little archaic.”

“For a lot of these manufacturers it’s all about the performance charts and showing how well they can manufacture something,” Weaver explains. “With new technology being so great, going back to a six-speed could be seen as a little archaic.”

According to Minhoff, those marketing initiatives have worked.

“Whenever a manufacturer has introduced a transmission in a sports car that shifts for itself, about 70 or 80 percent of the production [of that model] has featured that transmission,” he says. Minoff adds that because most of the vehicles were ordered with daily driving in mind (rather than racing or track driving), people didn’t want to bother shifting while motoring around town.

1999 Lamborghini Diablo VT

The Buyer’s Motivation

On the topic of what has led to premiums being paid for manual gearboxes in modern cars, the specialists we consulted had slightly differing views.

“There are a ton of people into that driving experience,” says Brian Rose, consignment relations manager at Barrett-Jackson Auctions. “The paddle shifters are sweet, and they sound nice, but you’ll never replace that third pedal and moving the gear shifter yourself.”

Wurl has a different theory.

“I don’t think that many people who are paying a stark premium for a manual gearbox Ferrari are doing so for the driving pleasure or enjoyment,” he explains. “In a general sense, the car’s escalation in value is because of its relative rarity.”

The most probable motivation, as Minhoff suggests, is a combination of the two: “A manual transmission is the most desirable thing to have, because it’s the rarest version and the more exciting and involved thing to drive.”

Depending on the age of the vehicle, reliability and cost of maintenance may also factor into the equation. According to Minhoff, early F1 transmissions needed to be replaced every 5,000 to 20,000 miles.

“Those early F1 transmissions in the Ferrari 355 ate clutches,” he says. “Anytime a driver did any hill holding, by the time they let go of the brake and put their foot on the gas, the clutch would slip. That’s essentially vacuuming money out of your wallet.”

2005 Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster

The Future of the Stick

Will modern sports and supercars with manual transmissions continue to escalate in value? That’s tough to say. Rose certainly thinks so.

“In the coming years, we will see supercars and sports cars with manual transmissions commanding higher prices because it comes down to rarity,” he says.

Barrett-Jackson will offer at least a few modern sports cars with manual gearboxes for sale during its upcoming auction in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Jan. 14-22). Early consignments in that category include a 1999 Lamborghini Diablo VT and a 1989 Lamborghini Countach 25th anniversary edition. Incidentally, Countachs were only offered with manual transmissions, but Rose believes that has had some impact on the cars’ growing values.

Wurl takes a more conservative view, albeit one that still suggests these cars will be of great value in the future.

“It’s safe to say that they will continue to be more valuable than their automatic transmission counterparts,” he says. “The premium that is being paid today is likely one that will remain.”

Photos courtesy of Barrett-Jackson, Bonhams and RM Sotheby's.

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