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I am reading The Great Gatsby, and encountered these sentences:

"Shall we all go in my car?" suggested Gatsby. He felt the hot, green leather of the seat. "I ought to have left it in the shade."
"Is it standard shift?" demanded Tom.
"Yes."
"Well, you take my coupe and let me drive your car to town."

In this part, Daisy and her husband Tom invited her relative Nick and her friend Jordan and her lover Gatsby to their house for a luncheon. But it was such a stifling day, and Daisy was confused to see the visible tension between her husband and her lover. So she ended up insisting that they all should go to town in this heat, and that was why Gatsby suggested that they start in his car.

But I could not understand what was a standard shift car in the 1920's.
Was there the automatic transmission in the 1920's, and the standard shift was a concept opposed to it?
I would very much appreciate your help.

  • The passage seems to imply that the alternative to standard shift (whatever it was) is harder to drive than the standard shift. So presumably, it's not automatic shift. – Peter Shor Mar 25 '18 at 10:28
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Most likely this refers to the number of gears.

The phrase "standard shift" nowadays refers to the type of transmission: manual transmission or automatic transmission according to which is considered "standard" in a given context (e.g. manual is generally more common in Europe, automatic in the United States). However, automatic transmission was only developed in 1921, one year before the setting of The Great Gatsby, and didn't start being used in cars until the 1930s. From Wikipedia:

The automatic transmission was invented in 1921 by Alfred Horner Munro of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada [...]. Being a steam engineer, Munro designed his device to use compressed air rather than hydraulic fluid, and so it lacked power and never found commercial application.[1] The first automatic transmission using hydraulic fluid may have been developed in 1932 by two Brazilian engineers, José Braz Araripe and Fernando Lehly Lemos; subsequently the prototype and plans were sold to General Motors who introduced it in the 1940 Oldsmobile as the "Hydra-Matic" transmission.[2]

Clearly this phrase in The Great Gatsby doesn't refer to manual vs automatic transmission, because automatic transmission in cars simply wasn't a thing back then. So what does it mean?

Well, one thing which was changing in car gear systems even before the introduction of manual transmission was the number of different gears. From Wikipedia:

Until the mid-1950s (earlier in Europe and later in the US, on average) vehicles were generally equipped with 3-speed transmissions as standard equipment. 4-speed units began to appear on volume-production models in the 1930s (Europe) and 1950s (USA) and gained popularity in the 1960s; some exotics had 5-speeds.

What this paragraph doesn't mention is that 4-speed transmission was already a thing even in the 1920s on some very high-end luxury cars. In particular, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, said to be "the best car in the world", was manufactured as a 4-speed transmission from 1913 to 1926, while almost all other cars were still 3-speed transmissions. (This is comparable to the modern Porsche 991 starting with 7-speed transmission which most of us have never seen.)

Gatsby's car, although its make isn't specified in the novel, is certainly high-end luxury and quite possibly a Rolls-Royce. Hence the question of whether the car's gearstick is standard shift (3-speed transmission) or the new alternative (4-speed transmission). This fits with Peter Shor's observation in a comment that, in context, the alternative to standard shift seemed to be harder than standard shift.

  • I would have thought drivers would convert pretty readily to a four-speed transmission, and it wouldn't require the question. There are a few other oddities in shifters, though I don't know what would exist in the 20s. Un-synchronized transmission? Sequential shifters? Those might be available-but-unfamiliar. – Joshua Engel Mar 26 '18 at 16:47
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    @Joshua: Looking in Google books, in the "standard shift", the gearshift moved in an X with R in the top left and 3 in the lower right. (There were also non-standard three-speeds.) It's tough to add a fourth position to an X, so in four-speed cars, the first three gears were substantially rearranged. If you were used to a standard three-speed, anything else would have required some concentration. – Peter Shor Mar 28 '18 at 12:53
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    @Joshua: So cars without standard shifts weren't actually any harder to drive, but they would have required some getting used to (like if somebody gave you a Dvorak keyboard rather than a QUERTY one). – Peter Shor Mar 28 '18 at 13:03
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    @PeterShor QUERTY? Now there's a layout I haven't heard of before :-) – Rand al'Thor Mar 28 '18 at 13:55
  • Ah, that makes sense. Even today there are slight differences between makes of cars (like the location of reverse), and that does take a few minutes to get used to. – Joshua Engel Mar 28 '18 at 15:24

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